Sheila Wingfield (1906-1992)

LifeWorksCriticismCommentaryQuotationsReferencesNotes

Life
[née Sheila Claude Beddington; Viscountess of Powerscourt]; b. Hampshire, dg. Major Claude Beddington, whose father changed his surname from Moses, and Ethel [née Mulock], dg. of a Protestant landed family at Ballycumber and Bellair, Co. Offaly, where Sheila spent childhood summers; her father’s family, lineally Jewish, derived its wealth based on London tobacco trade; a beloved br. Guy died of TB at 23; suffered the separation of her parents, aetat. 19, being more attached to her father (who worried about her mother’s coldness re-emerging in her);
 
showed early literary bent, in conflict with her social role; began taking opiates during debutante days; briefly attended art school in Paris; m. Pat Wingfield, Viscount Powerscourt, then serving in Jerusalem, 1932; with whom children, Grania, Mervyn and Guy; Associate with the Imagist Movement and especially H.D.; warned off associating with ‘that literary scum’ (in her own hardly credible account) by Pat on bringing him to Lady Ottoline Morrell’s, whom they met at Oxford; submitted poems to Dublin Magazine (1937), her “Odysseus Dying” appearing there alongside Patrick Kavanagh’s debut poem, “Shancoduff”;
 
issued Poems (1938), unwisely using comments in a private letter from W. B. Yeats as cover-blurp and leading Yeats to respond in harshest terms (‘Mrs Wingfield, that you who have not the excuse of ignorance or poverty should do this vulgar thing fills me with regret ... If I could keep you out of it, I would bring the matter to the Society of Authors’); suffered first breakdown on eve of publication; increasing psychosomatic illness and reclusiveness; Pat Wingfield captured by Germans in Italy; Sheila travelled to Bermuda with the children; Powerscourt used for filming of Lawrence Olivier’s production of Henry V;
 
wrote Beat Drum, Beat Heart (1946), a longer poem, being her response to war and considered her best work and called by Herbert Read ‘the most sustained meditation on war that has been written in our time)’; marriage foundered when Pat returned shell-shocked, toothless and weighing 8 stone (he nevertheless travelled to Bermuda to meet her); Pat inherited Powerscourt in 1947; Sheila unsuccessfully attempted to establish Powerscourt as centre for Irish literati; her lack of maternal feeling and cruelty to her yngr. son Guy, who suffered a speech impediment, became more pronounced; issued A Cloud Across the Sun (1949); A Kite’s Dinner (1954), Poetry Society Choice;
 
accepted leadership of Irish Girl Guides and helped catalogue Chester Beatty Library; opened Powerscourt for filming of Captain Lightfoot, with Rock Hudson; sep. from Wingfield, taking her money; sale of Powerscourt to the Slazengers, 1963; issued The Leaves Darken (1964), and afterwards some collections published by Liam Miller’s Dolmen Press, viz., Admissions (1977) and Her Storms (1977), a selection; lived variously in hotels in Bermuda, London, Dublin and Switzerland; issued Collected Poems (1983), and Ladder to the Loft (1987), a late collection; also issued Real People (1952), and autobiography, and Sun Too Fast (1974), a memoir treating of the difficulty of self-education;
 
finally settled in Swiss penthouse at Ticino, Lake Maggiore; she was the subject of an RTÉ documentary by Anne Roper, coinciding with the publication of Penny Perrick’s biography (2007); there is a port. by Sir John Lavery (1931); visited by Eavan Boland in the Shelbourne Hotel in the 1960s; Anne Roper visited her in Switzerland in 1987; Wingfield was omitted form the Womens’ volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (IV & V) but made the subject of a biography by Penny Perrick in 2007. NCBE DIW DIL OCIL
 

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Works
Collections
  • Poems (London: Cresset Press 1938), 61pp.;
  • Beat Drum, Beat Heart (London: Cresset Press 1946), 78pp.;
  • A Cloud Across the Sun (London: Cresset Press 1949), 35pp.;
  • A Kite’s Dinner: Poems 1938-54 (London: Cresset Press 1954), viii, 151pp.;
  • The Leaves Darken (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1964), 64pp.;
  • Admissions: Poems 1974-1977 (Dublin: Dolmen Press; London: John Calder 1977), 61pp.;
  • Her Storms: Selected Poems 1938-1977, with a preface by G. S. Fraser (Dublin: Dolmen Press 1977), 128pp.;
  • Collected Poems: 1938-1983, preface by G. S. Fraser (London: Enitharmon; NY: Hill & Wang 1983), xviii, 189pp.; Ladder to the Loft (London: Cygnet Press 1987), 38pp.
 
Autobiography & memoir
  • Real People, with a foreword by John Betjeman (London: Cresset Press 1952), 198pp.;
  • Sun Too Fast (London: Bles [1973], 1974), 283pp., ill. [8pp. pls.; music, ports.]

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Criticism
Studies, Penny Perrick, Something to Hide: The Life of Sheila Wingfield, Viscountess of Powerscourt (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2007), 246pp. [infra].

Reviews, James Simmons [review of Dolmen edns. of her poetry], in Books Ireland (Feb. 1978) [‘will always be a poet’s poet, wondered at and respected and returned to’]; Anne Roper, ‘Poor Little Literary Rich Girl’, in Irish Independent, “Living”, p.3 [with port.; see extract]; Robert O’Byrne, ‘The Travails of a Difficult Viscountess’, review of Something to Hide, in The Irish Times (3 March 2007), “Weekend”, p.10 [see extract], and Alan O’Riordan, review of Something to Hide, in Books Ireland, April 2007, p.73 [see extract].

Miscell., Alex Davis, ‘The Irish Modernists and Their Legacy’, in Matthew Campbell, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Contemporary Irish Poetry (Cambridge UP 2003), pp.76-93, p.82.

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Commentary
Penny Perrick, Something to Hide: The Life of Sheila Wingfield, Viscountess of Powerscourt (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2007): ‘Throughout her childhood, the ground was always shifting beneath her feet, denying her that rootedness which defines identity. Her sense of self was continually in crisis although she never acknowledged this, perhaps didn't even realise it, as, in her adult life, she stitched herself into a dazzling variety of patterns: sportswoman, celebrity, aristocratic chatelaine, and, almost surreptitiously, poet and woman of letters. A sense of apartness, of something disconnected, certainly gave her poetry its elliptical originality, but palyed havoc with her life.’ (Quoted in Alan O’Riordan, review, in Books Ireland, April 2007, p.74.)

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Anne Roper, dir., ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ [“Arts Lives” ser.] (RTÉ, Tues. 21 Feb. 2007), contains interview with Eavan Boland about her meeting with Sheila Wingfield: ‘The conversation I had with her that day has stayed with me all my life. She was the first woman poet I ever met. I saw somebody out of their life say to me: “I’m a poet and I’m a woman.” Nobody else had ever said it to me. Yet I had a sense of how vulnerable she was. She was quite open about how hard her life had been as a writer, and qite diaqppointed about not making her way in it. Here was this woman hiding in plain sight, yet she was still full of courage and determination. That impressed me.’ Further: ‘We don’t want the easy people whose backgrounds we approve iof, whose stories we recognised, to represent us as artists. We want the people who have a story to tell out of their humanity. We want to put aside our sense of race and class and history and listen to those people. And Sheila Wingfield is one of them.’ (See Roper, ‘Poor Little Literary Rich Girl’, in Irish Independent, “Living” [sect.], p.3 [with port.]

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Alan O’Riordan, review of Something to Hide, in Books Ireland, April 2007): ‘[...] Wingfield, with her objective, observing, outward-looking, wrought poems is no “poetess”. She has the sudden, almost casual, almost bathetic way with muth that Yeats displays.’ (p.73)

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Quotations

Winter

The tree still bends over the lake,
And I try to recall our love,
Our love which had a thousand leaves.

 
See Mary Baker’s Poetry Palace on Geocities [online; 07.08.2009]
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Odysseus Dying”: ‘I think Odysseys, as he dies, forgets / Which was Calypso, which Penelope, / Only remembering the wind that sets / Off Mimas, and how endlessly / His eyes were stung with brine; / Argos a puppy, leaping happily; / And his old father digging round a vine.’ (Quoted in Alan Riordan, review of Something to Hide, in in Books Ireland, April 2007, p.73; also quoted in Catriona MacKernan, review of Patricia Coughlan & Tina O’Toole, eds., Irish Literature: Feminst Perspectives, in Books Ireland, Feb. 2009, p.15.)

In a Dublin Museum”: ‘No clue / About the use or name / Of these few / Bronze Age things, / Rare / And in gold, / Too wide for finger-rings.’ (Quoted in Alan O’Riordan, op. cit., 2007.)

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References
TCD Library: A copy of Poems (London: Cresset Press 1938) which formerly belonged to James Stephens and donated by Iris Clare Wise is held in TCD Library [or Leeds or Oxford UL], [See COPAC].

Belfast Central Library holds The Leaves Darken; Her Storms, selected poems 1938-1977 (Dolmen 1977); Poems; Real People (1952), ded. John Betjeman; Sun too Fast (1974).

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Notes
Powerscourt House nr. Enniskerry was sold in 1963, with much of its contents, to the Slazenger tennis-equipment family and first opened to the public by them. The house was accidentally burnt in 1974. Though the interior remains substantially unreconstructed, the whole has been been redeveloped as a tourism centre, the gardens being the main attraction - with Avgoca Stores and Café occupying much of the ground floor.

The making of Seamus?: In 1983 [aetat. 77], when her Collected Poems appeared she wrote to the publisher asking if the Times Literary Supplement could be persudaded to give the book a full-page review: ‘I think they did it for Seamus Heaney and it made him at once.’ (Recounted in Robert O’Byrne, ‘The travails of a difficult viscountess’, review of Something to Hide, in The Irish Times, 3 March 2007, “Weekend”, p.10.)

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Powerscourt again: Lilah Wingfield, dg. of Mervyn, 7th Viscount Powerscourt, lived at Powerscourt House up to the age of 16, when her father died, and after which she lived in London with her mother; stifled by Edwardian society, she travelled to India and witnessed the coronation Durbar of George V in Delhi. Her photographs and memoirs are the substance of a book by Jessica Douglas-Home (Glimpse of Empire, Michael Russell, 2012), in which Lilah’s Indian diary, which turned up at a second-hand bookshop in Norfolk, is reunited with the photos. Powerscourt was sold to the American Slazenger family (associated with tennis-rackets, &c.), in 1947; Wendy Slazenger m. the 10th Viscount in 1962; Powerscourt burnt down accidentally in 1974. (See Books Ireland, April 2012, p.57.)

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