People Behind the Poetry: American Poets’ Martha Linsley Spencer and Edwin Arlington Robinson Reveal Their Prosaic Lives

By Jessica Sullivan (Simmons University, Intern at the Watkinson Library, Fall 2020).

Preserved among the numerous manuscript collections at the Watkinson Library, the Martha Linsley Spencer papers and Edwin Arlington Robinson papers offer a personal look into the lives of two 20th century American poets. Both sets of papers contain correspondence, proofs, and newspaper clippings collected throughout their respective careers as writers.

Martha Linsley Spencer (1875-1954), a resident of Hartford, Connecticut, had an active literary career serving as editor to The Hartford Times’ poetry column and chairperson of the Poetry Club of Hartford’s program committee.

In turn, her career as a poet also allowed her to correspond with other notable writers of the period, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and W.B. Yeats. Spencer’s only published book of poetry, Remembered Years, Collected Poems, was printed posthumously in 1954. In that same year, her sister—Mrs. Leon Hart—donated Spencer’s collection of 729 volumes, including many first editions of published books of poems which were rare or autographed by poets of the first half of the twentieth century.1 Three years later, Spencer’s collection of literary papers was donated to the Watkinson, also by her sister.

Left: Envelope addressed to Spencer, marked with the words “From poet, do not destroy at present” (possibly written by Spencer herself). Right: First page of letter (dated February 28, 1932) written by Roselle Montgomery, a Georgia-born poet who at the time lived most of the year in Riverside, Connecticut. Montgomery died the following year, in 1933.

The Spencer papers are special, as many of the files within contain periodicals or printed ephemera that were, in fact, collected or created by Spencer herself. When these kinds of materials are brought to archival institutions like the Watkinson, they are most commonly left as the creator intended, to allow for a better understanding of the collection as a whole. This archival practice is referred to as “original order”. In this case, the collection shows the variety of topics and the types of documents (letters, newspaper clippings, etc.) significant to Spencer’s life.2

Top: Front view of a Christmas card featuring a poem by Spencer addressed to Mr. and Mrs. E.B. Boatner.3
Bottom: Inside view of the card, with a personal greeting from Spencer to the Boatners.

Left: Portrait of Martha Linsley Spencer, from frontispiece of Spencer’s book Remembered Years, Collected Poems (1954). Caption reads “Martha Linsley Spencer: Chairman of the Program Committee of the Poetry Club when Edna St. Vincent Millay read her poems in Hartford, Wednesday evening, October 24, 1934.” Right: Portrait of Edwin Arlington Robinson, date unknown.

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), born in Lincoln County, Maine, self-published his first poetry collection, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), at the age of 27. His work went largely unrecognized until Kermit Roosevelt, son of Theodore Roosevelt, took interest in his second published poetry collection, The Children of the Night (1897). Continuing his relationship with Roosevelt after he became the U.S. President, Robinson was offered a job at the New York Customs Office, which he held until Roosevelt’s last days in office in 1909.

Front cover of The Children of the Night (edition pub. 1921).

E.A. Robinson (left), Seth Ellis Pope (middle), and Linville Robbins (right), Gardiner, Maine, 1897. The photographer was Arthur Howard Blair, who along with the three men who sat for the photograph, comprised the members of the Quadruped Club, a discussion group in Gardiner.4

During the 1920s, Robinson’s poetry career soared, resulting in three Pulitzer Prizes in 1922, 1925, and 1928. He continued writing until his death at the age of 65.

The Edwin Arlington Robinson papers were originally donated to the Watkinson as a gift from H. Bacon Collamore, a writer and friend of Robinson, and John William Pye, a Trinity alumnus of the class of 1970.5 In fact, series 1 of the Edwin Arlington Robinson papers is comprised of materials by or from Collamore and Pye, whose contributions offer important background on the collection and about Robinson himself.6

Despite the career differences between Spencer and Robinson, both collections can be viewed similarly, as windows onto the lives and musings of two 20th century American poets. Whether seeing corrections to a text made in the author’s hand, or analyzing intimate photographs of the authors, the literary collections at the Watkinson offer more to the public than simply ink on paper.

In turn, the manuscripts of Spencer and Robinson demonstrate the strength and depth of the Watkinson’s extensive collection of both first edition print and manuscript poetry. Within the holdings of the library are first edition works from other notable modern poets, such as Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and many more!7

Jessica Sullivan is a graduate student studying archival management at Simmons University who will graduate in 2022.

  1. The donation to the Watkinson Library of Spencer’s collection of poetry is traced in “Complete Poetry Collection,” Trinity College Bulletin 51:10 (December 1954), p. 3.
  2. For additional information on the life of Martha Spencer, see A Tribute to Martha Linsley Spencer, Connecticut Poet (1956), by Margaret Thompson Johnston, also located in the Watkinson Library.
  3. Dr. E.B. Boatner served as the head of the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, CT, and his wife, Maxine Tull Boatner, was an authoress and biographer, most known for her work on Edward Miner Gallaudet. The Watkinson Library has a small, semi-processed collection of Maxine Tull Boatner’s personal papers.
  4. A note on the back of the photograph identifies the photographer. See also “Site of the Quadruped Club,” EDWIN ARLINGTON ROBINSON: A Virtual Tour of Robinson’s Gardiner, Maine (digital exhibit), accessed on 2021-01-30.
  5. John William Pye, “Edwin Arlington Robinson, Otto Dalstrom, and the Nobel Prize,” Trinity Reporter (Magazine Issue) 7:2 (November 1976), p. 29-31.
  6. For additional material on E.A. Robinson, see Collected Poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson (1929), located within the rare books collections at the Watkinson Library.
  7. For an introductory guide to some of the poets and their work represented at the Watkinson, visit the 2009 brochure for “Modern American Poets and Their Printers: An Exhibition at the Watkinson Library.”

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