Henry W. Wells (1895 - I978): Correspondence with Carl F. Klinck: A Memoir

by Carl F. Klinck

Henry Wells was speaking to men and women of many nations at International House in New York when I first saw him. I was not aware that he had come from the South: I thought of him as a cultured New Yorker or New Englander. I discovered later that he was all of these. He was born in Sewanee, Tennessee, when his father, Benjamin W. Wells, a Ph.D. from Harvard, was teaching for a short period at the University of the South. When Henry was six years of age, the family moved to New York. Henry graduated from Amherst in 1917. His advanced study at Columbia was interrupted by military service in France (the Argonne, Auguat 1918). Then he spent a few months at Montpelier before he returned to Columbia; there he held a teaching assignment and won his Ph.D. in 1920 with a thesis entitled Poetic Imagery Illustrated from Elizabethan Literature (pub. 1924).

     He never became a narrow specialist. As a new interest captured his imagination he made it part of his expanding view of poetry and life. The Judgment of Literature appeared in 1928, and Elizabethan and Jacobean Playwrights in 1929. During the 1930s he became Director of Columbia University's Brander Matthews' Dramatic Museum, a position which would over the years keep him in touch with many American and foreign friends and their literatures. In 1935 he published a "metrical moderniza tion" of William Langland's Vision of Piers Plowman. Metrical translation would become Wells's favourite vehicle for critical expression.

     In 1940 he published New Poets From Old; in 1942, with Professor   Roger Loomis of Columbia; Representative Medieval and Tudor Plays in 1943; The American Way of Poetry; and in 1948 Where Poetry Stands Now (Ryerson Press, Toronto).

     My list of Wells' numerous works is incomplete. I shall confine my account to personal knowledge obtained partly through correspondence, which began in the late 1930's, when I had completed a first draft of Wilfred Campbell for submission to Columbia's Department of English and comparative Literature. There was saving grace in "Comparative" because Columbia had nothing resembling a "Chair" specifically for "Canadian." My tentative approaches to "American" through Professor Ralph Leslie Rusk during the 1930s had yielded nothing but frustration. Dr. Wells and Professor Henry Neff finally came to my rescue and took my "Campbell" under the wing of Late Victorian. They were also prepared to sponsor my thesis for the Ph.D. if and when I fulfilled the primary requirement-which I had neglected too long-that of passing the Gederal Oral examination.

     Dr. Wells, in a letter of April 5, 1941, advised me to extend my treatment of Toryism and to give a more comprehensive setting for Campbell's ideas on nature, Darwinism and religion. Encouraged by Wells and Neff I passed my Oral, revised my dissertation and, with the unsolicited support of Columbia's Canadian historian, Professor J.B. Brebner, passed my Defence, and published my book in 1942-43.

     I cannot claim that Wilfred Campbell or I sparked Henry Well's enthusiastic response to Canadian Literature. I shall put it down to co-incidence and to A.J.M. Smith's The Book of Canadian Poetry (1943). Ned Pratt's poems became the prize exhibit. Nor can I claim that it was Henry Wells who brought Smith's anthology to the attention of William Rose Benet in the summer of 1943 (as Benét reported in Knopf's American edition of Pratt's poems in 1945).

     Certainly Wells's new-found enthusiasm glowed in his articles, "The Awakening in Canadian Poetry" (The New England Quarterly, March 1945) and "Canada's Best-known Poet, E.J. Pratt" (College English, May 1946). By that time Henry (as I now called Wells) had used his influence in improving the selection of poems being made for the Knopf edition of Pratt's Collected Poems (1945). And in the same year Henry had travelled to Canada to visit Ned and Vi Pratt in Toronto and me in Waterloo. Henry came equipped with plans, soon to be consolidated, for a book on Pratt designed to contain critical chapters by himself along with biographical chapters by Klinck. In September of that year Henry joined Lorne Pierce at a luncheon in, Toronto. Pierce found his guest "highly stimulating and far from the bearded Nestor." He had read Henry's Emily Dickinson over the week-end.

     For Henry the best of Canadian literature was simply Literature. National boundaries did not offer the criteria for literary values. Coinciding with his interest in "Canadian" there had been an exciting experiment in "World Literature" with Arthur Christy in a book with that title in 1945. It was called a comparative literature anthology." I found it intriguing in its unusual scope, its emphasis on human experience, and its practicality as a textbook. Although World Literature was not available for Canadian sale, I managed to get enough copies to prepare a course in 1947 for a half-dozen of my best students at the University of Western Ontario. I still have a copy of the syllabus (for English 49) which states:

Discussion will be planned under various topics chosen to develop an "appreciative understanding of the common denominator of human experience in all parts of the world." Some of these topics are: love, hubris, family, change, honour, time, duty, virtue, wisdom, immortality. Such a list should not suggest a search for formulae of conduct or thought. Students will be encouraged to discriminate, and to recognize the bonds of "our common humanity."

     Until I had a meeting of minds with good students under these auspices, my education had been much too bookish. Under Henry's gundance, culture took on a richer meaning, and college teaching made greater demands upon social and personal involvement.

     With revised ideals about teaching there came to me a desire to do something about the teaching of literature which was also Canadian. In 1948 I sought Henry's interest in preparing a college anthology with my assistance. This proposal was swamped by Henry's own concerns; he thought that I should proceed alone. Yet he understood; on July 29, 1948, he wrote:

Scholarship tends to be lonely. I love collaboration-in that, and all other walks of life.

He suggested that such an anthology should have a section in the introductory material for each poet "relating the Canadian author to English, American-and Comparative Literature." As things turned out, proposals for an anthology of early Canadian works to be edited by Clara Thomas and Carl Klinck found no support from publishers, and Canadian Anthology began its highly successful career in co-operation between Reginald Watters and myself in 1949.

     Canadian Anthology was not conceived as a comparative literature collection, but it was a product directly traceable from the Dominions Committee appointed in 1948 by the Humanities Research Council of Canada. As a member of this Committee, I drew considerable attention to Australian Literature, and Reginald Watters was the appointee of this Committee to produce a Check List of Canadian Literature (which made possible the Literary History of Canada).

     Henry responded to news of this opportunity opened to me by making a contribution of his own. In a few years he sent me an excellent manuscript on New Poetry in the British Dominions. The Canadian section, and the other chapters on New Zealand and Australia, contained criticism of a high order. In 1951 he sent a "review essay" on the Collected Poems of Ursula Bethel, "generally accepted," he said, "as the chief poet of New Zealand." We were unable to interest Canadian publishers to accept these manuscripts became they felt the limitations of the Canadian market.

     The depth of Henry's commitment to comparative literature was revealed to me in several ways. In a letter of July 20, 1951 he said:

One matter comes to my mind rather strongly. All over the world the language and cultural divisions are the spots in man that ache. It is a tragically divided world. What we need now is more cement to hold the human building together, for it has some terrible cracks in it-for example, in India, France and Spain. ... A college book is not just something to sell or to perpetuate the errors on which humanity has been drifting for a few centuries. It should be a big step forward.

     A Canadian anthology, he thought, should contain some French or even have French and English on opposite pages. He also stressed translation as a way toward "united nations, united cultures, united literatures." His own plans evidently included the preparation of a sequel to World Literature, which he and Arthur Christy had published. Henry told me that this book with a "new idea" had not attracted "either the publisher or the public too warmly for a year or two," but "with the turn of human interests in the way that Christy and [he] had expected, there was a big change." By 1951 World Literature had become "one of the best sellers on the American Book Company list of college texts and [was] paying more than all of [Henry's] income tax for each year."

     In 1953 Henry published 1001 Poems of Mankind, "Memorable Short Poems from the World's Chief Literatures." The poems were very short, and were grouped, not by country of origin or language, but by thirty-four themes basic in human experience everywhere. All of the selections had been translated into English.

     The special nature and purpose of this second venture in compiling an anthology of world literature was clearly stated in Henry's Introduction to 1001 Poems of Mankind (published by Tupper and Love, Atlanta, 1953):

Some very short poems sustain universality precisely as they attain pure poetry.... The short poem is thus an atom of humanity, as near as words can come to a common denominator for the human heart.... The first aim is to give the keenest and most varied pleasure, to show in the most graphic manner possible the kinship of taste, imagination and human values between poems of widely separated origins dealing with similar themes . . . poems which mankind has tired of least, not because of their brevity or because they pose difficult or unanswerable questions but because of their artistic excellence, their human purport. (pp. xxi, xxv)

     Clifton Fadiman, who wrote the Foreword, counted the poems by country of origin and language:

The Japanese contribute more poems than any other country. Greece comes second, Great Britain and Spain are tired for third place, Italy and Germany for fourth, China is fifth, India sixth. The Orient provides a little over a third of Dr. Wells' choices. (p. xvii)

     Later Henry said more than this about translating, but he did not explain at this time his special theory about this important branch of literature.

     Translation from the Oriental poets must have provided special difficulties, shared, no doubt, in conversations with many friends whom Henry had among scholars, students, and visitors from Japan, China and India in his university and in the environment of drama in New York. At their home at 777 Kappock Street in Riverdale, Henry and Katharine entertained many people of other lands. The Dramatic Museum was constantly presenting exhibitions. In a letter of 15 January 1950, Henry told me that he was engaged in a large Microprint drama project (Readex).

     In his letters of the 1950s there is very marked evidence of his growing interest in Chinese poetry, particularly that of Tu Fu, "the supreme master of T'ang verse," in whom Henry found a kindred response. Among my treasures I have a typed manuscript by Henry entitled "An Ordinary Day by the Hudson with Tu Fu." The date appears to be 1975, and, of course, the place by the Hudson suggests Henry's own home in New York. Here Chinsese and Americans found rapport. Henry and Katharine had great gifts for friendship.

     At the University in London I was supporting my own experiment in comparative literature. Just as Canadian literature had been "comparative" at Columbia, so American literature was still largely "comparative" in Canada. Largely through my stubborness, joint courses in "American Canadian" were sponsored and upheld in the curriculum of the English Department at Western. I believe that in those years, and since, there were very wholesome results-and "Canadian" grew steadily in esteem among the students and faculty.

     Henry indicated his interest in my work with Reg. Watters on Canadian Anthology. There is a gap in my collection of letters until March 5, 1958, when he informed me of the plans for a British Commonwealth Conference to be organized at the meetings of the Modern Language Association in December of that year. I attended and gave a paper on Canadian Literature. Henry was there and gave support to the Association over many years.  In 1959 I supported his plan for an anthology of Modern Literature of the English-Speaking World by writing to the late Dr. W.R. Wees, President of W.J. Gage and Company, publisher of Canadian Anthology (1955). Henry wished me to be editor of this Commonwealth project and he was willing to assist. Gage dismissed the project because of the limitations of a Canadian market.

On a Unicef Christmas card in 1959, Henry wrote:

Since the project of bringing the far-away Dominions to us is rather languishing, I have travelled in spirit to India, where some prose and verse of mine has already appeared and a book on the Indian drama seen in its relations to dramatic art of the West is soon to come out.

     He was then arranging exhibits from India and he would soon have some from Sweden and Finland. But he had definitely turned toward the East. He was reading the available transcripts of Sanskrit drama, "the least known body of really great playwriting where we are generally concerned." As a half apology for drawing away from Canadian and Commonwealth studies, he wrote on February 26, 1959, "You will see how the British Commonwealths proliferate in my mind and to what strange uses I have put our more modest project."

     Henry's publications in the 1960s included Introduction to Wallace Stevens (1964), but Indian drama held most of his attention. In 1963 he published in London The Classical Drama of India-under the auspices of the Literary Half Yearly. The Literary Half-Yearly was a periodical Published in Mysore, India, under the editorship of Professor H.H. Anniah ~da, of the Department of Post-Graduate Studies in English of the University of Mysore. I do not know when Henry Wells first contributed to the Nalf-Yearly, but I know that he was named as a member of the Consulting Committee when the Seventh Volume, Number Two, appeared in July 1966. This Number was devoted to "Indian-American Literary Relations" and displayed on its title page a dedication "For Katharine and Henry W. Wells, Garlands from India." There were two contributions by Wells, "From the Rigveda" and "What Gandhi Said: A Note on Epic Thought." Professor Gowda wrote in the Foreword:

These are the days of Comparative Literature and Comparative Culture.
In the words of Professor Henry G. Wells, it is the study that, frankly examining the differences between nations, proclaims their common humanity. In today's world of shrinking [space] they have become the necessary angels. It is the endeavour of this number to invoke these necessary angels.

It is not surprising to find India linked with Commonwealth Literature. I was fascinated by the steady progress of Henry's studies from the literatures of England, the United States, Canada, the other Dominions, to India, broadening his vision and convincing him of "one World." Of his competence I have no doubt, and I believe that he was a pioneer, ahead of his time; he is still to be given his due.

     His books on India in the 1960s included, along with The Classical Drama (1963), two other publications, Six Sanskrit plays in English [translated], Asia Publication House, London (1964) and Asian Drama, Vermillion, South Dakota (1966).

     It was within the policy of the Literary Half-Yearly to publish literature of countries other than India. Volume Ten, Number One (January 1969) not only advertised forthcoming renderings of Indian drama by Henry Wells, but featured "Poems by Tu Fu" [rendered] into English by Henry Wells. Tu Fu had been one of Henrys favourites since the early 1950s, and, as the 1970s approached, signaled his ultimate, but inevitable, turn to Japanese and Chinese literature.

     There was nothing casual about this development. Henry's last anthology, Ancient Poetry from China, Japan and India . . . "rendered into English verse," (published by the University of South Carolina Press in 1968), was a monumental work, attractive in content and especially important for the essays by Henry with which it opens. In addition to articles "On Chinese Poetry," "On Japanese Poetry," and "On Sanskrit Poetry" there is "A New View of Translations" in which Henry enunciates his principles of rendering Far Eastern poetry into English verse (which are quoted here with the permission of the Director, Robert T. King):

Modern opinion . . . prefers a fair fidelity in translations, and with this requirement should I think, be no quarrel.... But what consitutes a fair degree of fidelity? . . . In the strategy of translation a question to be asked before a poem is translated is, simply, what English poet has come nearest to composing a work in a similar mood and form. This should not mean, of course, that any strict imitation of the style of an English poet is proper to use in rendering an Asian poet, but that through keeping such analogies in mind, and in some instances allowing the English master to modify the writing, the translation is likely to gain.1

     Henry's letters of the 1960s show that he had become a traveller. On January 27, 1964 he wrote:

This summer I am going to Greece, flying May 15. I am trying to persuade the Indiana Press to bring out a work of mine on Pintar. A strange world, is it not?

Henry was also prepared to travel across the United States and Canada. Henry's Asian studies provided him with material and enthusiasm for a new enterprise after his retirement from Columbia which he described as turning over a new leaf, "the best thing I ever did." He put himself "in the market as" a casual speaker on subjects that on most college campuses there is not much to be read or known, unless a visitor drops that way."

     He lectured at Indiana University, and in various other colleges and universities in the United States. He was in Edmonton and Calgary in January 1965. In 1966 we were pleased by his readiness to speak at the University of Western Ontario. After considerable negotiation, we arranged for his appearance in November 1967; he gave an interesting lecture on "The Classical Drama of India." Since he was near Toronto, he visited Vi and Claire Pratt, wife and daughter of Ned (who had died in 1965). They were, and remained, among his choicest friends. He was also delighted when they came to see him and Katharine later in Harpswell, in Maine.

     It is my impression that, in his last ten years, he found in classical Chinese literature much that was congenial and comforting to an aging man.

     He enjoyed gardens. Having seen the gardens in Vancouver, he told me (July 13, 1967):

If I had a great many years to look forward to and much free time, I should spend much of it in a comparison of "comparative gardening," not comparative literature. I grow more and more in love with the world's great gardens, not to mention small ones, like the two that Katharine and I have, one in Maine, the other in New York . . . I discourse on [gardening] with my students, who are usually surprised to find gardening considered one of the major arts of civilization.

"Falling from a ladder" is not necessarily one of the disadvantages of gardening, but that is what happened to Henry in the summer of 1969 at his home in Maine. He broke a few bones in his body, but, after a stay in hospital, he could claim to be "about as well as before the accident." I suppose that should also throw some doubt on the tranquility which he professed to enjoy in a "transition to retirement" which in September 1972, he considered "rather more simplified and smoothed out that [he] fanci[ed] is usually the case." He explained in these words:

I have always been more a writer than a regular teacher, for I have done relatively little undergraduate teaching and have always been close to that hermaphroditic form of investigation and creation, library scholarship or criticism. While at Columbia some of my most rewarding work came in assisting in dissertations, by which, as you know, I made many friends. Even after retirement I have at least been consulted by many people, especially, for example, by Orientals who ask my advice about their English.

     In another letter he said that he had not kept up close relations 'with any great number of people I knew at Columbia...."

     He explained on December 26, 1973:

I have a new circle of friends, with two of whom I am collaborating in two books at the present time. The story there is briefly that I am making something at least resembling poetry in English out of their literal translations.... I have a delightful project in hand. The founder of the classical schools of Chinese painting and poetry was a comprehensive genius Wang Wei. A painter friend of mine is painting in the desaical manner pictures to make an album with his pictures and my "renderings"of Wang Wai's poems on the opposite pages.

     The attractive booklet entitled An Album of Wang Wei by Ch'eng Hsi and Henry Wells was published in 1974. Henry's foreword gives the dates of Wang Wei's life as "from 669 to 759 A.D." HenryJs co-translator and friend was Ch'eng Hsi.

     A typed manuscript-sent by Henry, and now one of my treasures-is entitled "An Ordinary Day by the Hudson With Tu Fu." The date is not indicated, but it could be 1975 (when one adds '~early four score" to 1895). The setting along "that stately river, the Hudson, The towers of Manhattan in haze behind me" marks a walk near the Wells's home at 777 Kappoch Street in Riverdale. The introductory lines of the poem are:

            Today I walked with Tu Fu as companion,
            Guide to nature, politics, art, religion,
            Not as a faded book held in hand
            But as a living friend and master.
            Whatever I have seen, felt, heard
            Has come to me through his eyes, heart, hearing
            Though my own years have come to nearly four-score,
            Never before have I known such intimate comradeship.

     For another book, Quietly in Harpswell, Poems After Wang Wei, privately printed in 1974, the setting is Harpewell, the Wells's beloved summer home. The title is exlained in Henry's Foreword:

The verses that follow are based on poems by the celebrated poet-painter Wang Wei (A.D. 699-759). Most of his poems, like his paintings, derive their imagery from the landscapes of water, hills, and trees in the neighbourhood of his famous retreat on the Wang River. Finding his thoughts congenial, his poetical form attractive, and his imagery apposite poems: in so many ways to the environs of the cottage in Maine where I have spent  over thirty happy summers, I have undertaken a somewhat novel, though by no means wholly new, type of literary transposition.

     "Morning After Rain" is an excellent example of the Chinese-Maine poems:

            Apple blossoms grow red from the nights hard rain.
            Evergreens shine. Spring smoke veils wood and hill.
            Mayflowers wither. Sunrise clouds have faded.
            Birds sing. One guest from the city is sleeping still.

     This nature-loving man was also working on the T'ang period with the help of Hsi Ching. He had already done "extremely literal translations" of over 350 verses by one of the chief masters, Po Cho-i, for the chief translator of the East Asian Languages of the State Department. In 1977, the year before his death, the Chinese Materials Center in San Francisco published Diary of a Pilgrim to Ise, attributed to SAKA JUBUTSU, rendered into English verse by Henry W. Wells, with illustrations by Ching Hsi. The pilgrim visits two shrines, in turn Buddhist and Shinto. The author may have been Saka Jubutsu, a devout Buddhist, a physician and a poet.

     Katharine Wells, later (28 June 1979) gave this information about Henry's contributions to this 'lovely" book, which "gave him the greatest satisfaction":

he [Henry] uses verse forms that an English poet might have used had he written it at the time of its creation, the later 14th century, which, of course, is exactly when Langland did, presumably, write Piers Plowman, which Henry "translated" from middle English while he was a graduate student, but did not get published until 1935.

     I cannot account for Henry's kindness to me over so many years. I have only his own version. On June 29, 1974, he wrote:

It is a joy for me to think that we are both literally and philosophically collaborators in the humanist, not in the political, sense of the word. We work to common ends and are well aware of it. All joy to you.

I still regard his long letter of October 13, 1976 as his "hail and farewell."

I cannot think of you as I would a student of mine. You are not. But in serious sense you have been through all the years my closest companion. Your humanist spirit is very rare and precious to me . . . we are brothers, I might say blood brothers in the spirit, in one fraternity of the spiritual world.

In the same letter he expressed "much pleasure and gratitude at the thought of your warm and lasting friendship:"

My congratulations to you on your very considerable services to scholarship and the humanities . . . a loyal spokesman for the literature of your own land . . . We have approached the same goal by different roads but how often it has been the same goal. Or possibly I should see our joint efforts as two sides of the same coin.

Illness, "foot trouble" and perhaps heart trouble, had plagued Henry throughout the 1970s. A Christmas card in late 1977 was written in his own hand. A few months later, on March 22, 1978, he was dead. We were unaware of this loss until we received Katharine's letter of December 3rd, 1978:

Henry may have written to you that his health was failing chiefly due to weak heart which could no longer maintain his body though his mind was perfectly clear. For over a year he had had fainting spells which came suddenly causing him to collapse suddenly. When we returned from Maine a year ago he knew he had not long to live, put his papers in order, completed all his projects and simply took to reading biography. He found here when we returned the copies of his "Diary of a Pilgrim to Ise" which was, in affect his last message to his friends. He set to work immediately, drawing up lists for sending, some including a reprint some not, he got envelopes, postage and had the books stacked. . . . Apparently a fainting spill overtook him on the stairs and he fell, breaking a bone in his neck, which necessitated surgery: pneumonia developed and he never recovered his power of speech and died in hospital.

Since that time I have added to my set of Henry's letters a small file of correspondence with Katharine, Henry's widow.

     I know that I have failed in giving a deep impression of Henry's engaging personality., one needs the full evidence of a large file of his letters. So also I shall not be able to present, from the precious file of Katharine's letters, an adequate impression of her mind and heart: a devoted wife and a supporter of Henry's aims and accomplishments. Her letters contain many more quotable passages than I have been able to me, but these show the excellence of her style:

It is true that Henry led a most fortunate life, free to follow his own intellectual interests without professional or financial pressures. The justification is not only his own publications but the example he set for ouch scholars as yourself.

And this:

Henry delighted in bringing the thoughts of the ancient poet, "Wang Wei" to rural Harpswell to the delight of friends who have never read a Chinese poem. Amongot all the political horrors of our time, let us rejoice in the universality of the arts.

     Our friendship with Henry and Katharine endured over thirty years. When I had retired in 1973, Henry had written

No one I know has had it seems as happy and rewarding an academic career as yours.

Here, as always, he rates my modest successes too highly. Yet I would not question my "happiness" in trying to follow the example of a dedicated man who showed how scholarship can be generous and humane.


  1. See also The Asian Student (clipping), "Standards of Translation," March 27,       1976.[back]