Were tissues of silver
I’ll wear, O Fate, thy grey,
And go mistily radiant, clad
Like the moon.
In “Fate Defied,” Adelaide Crapsey simply and complexly engages the self in a fluid relationship between Fate and the moon. Crapsey’s poems were reflections of the nature of her radiant personality. A former student recalled Crapsey’s lesson of poetry: “[verse,] like music, from its very form achieved beauty. [A poem] had meaning because of its very form, a ballad became alive like a person—it had its own body.”
Adelaide Crapsey was born in 1878 in Brooklyn, New York. A year later the family moved to Rochester, New York. Crapsey was close to her father, Reverend Algernon Sidney Crapsey, who was expelled from the Episcopal Church after a famous heresy trial in 1906. Dr. Crapsey was banished for forming a non-denominational community center near his church, a “Brotherhood” inspired by Newman, Darwin, Karl Marx, and Social Christianity. No doubt Dr. Crapsey’s progressivism and humanity influenced Adelaide’s “keen and shining blade of spirit”.
In 1893, Crapsey and her sister Emily entered Kemper Hall, an Episcopalian college preparatory school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where she edited the school magazine, played basketball, and was the valedictorian for her class. Entering Vassar in 1897, she had a very active four years: class poet for three years; editor-in-chief of the Vassarion; basketball team manager; member of the debating club; and election to Phi Beta Kappa. At Vassar Crapsey roomed with Jean Webster—later the acclaimed author of Daddy-Long-Legs —who became her best friend and literary comrade. Webster later stated that many of her female protagonists were based on Crapsey’s humorous and animated character. At Vassar Crapsey was influenced by history professor Lucy Maynard Salmon and economics professor Herbert E. Mills, who referred to her as "a lovely soul, combining scholarship and aesthetic appreciation in an unusual way.” Crapsey’s thesis was about history, composition and the Socialist Party.
After graduating from Vassar in 1901, Crapsey returned to Wisconsin to teach literature and history at Kemper Hall. In 1903, she felt the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease which would prematurely claim her life. Suffering from chronic fatigue, Crapsey left her teaching post in 1904 and went abroad to Rome. There, she enrolled as a student at the School of Archaeology, supporting herself by working intermittently as a lecturer. From 1906 to 1908 Crapsey taught literature and history at a preparatory school in Stamford, Connecticut. Again, her ailing health forced her to give up teaching and seek recuperation in Europe. For the next three years, she lived in Rome, London, and Paris. During her time abroad, Crapsey undertook the intensive scientific analysis of meter and rhythm in English poems which was published posthumously as A Study in English Metrics in 1918.
Crapsey returned to America in 1911 and taught poetics at Smith College. A doctor’s visit that year revealed that she suffered from tuberculosis of the brain lining. Concealing this diagnosis from her family, Crapsey continued to teach at Smith until 1913, when her frail condition finally forced her to resign. She entered a sanatorium at Saranac Lake, New York, and it was here that she composed her best verses. Crapsey invented a new poetic form, the cinquain, a 22-syllable, 5-line poem in the sparse but delicate manner of the haiku and the tanka. Armed with a lyrical sensibility and a fluency in poetic form, Crapsey composed a torrent of poems from her sanatorium, many reflecting upon the nature of life and death, some of them with sardonic humor, such as the poem entitled, “Lines Addressed To My Left Lung Inconveniently Enamoured of Plant Life.”
In October of 1914, at the age of 36, Crapsey died at her family home in Rochester. A year following her death, her own selection of poems, Verses, was published. The two-line poem “On Seeing a Weather-Beaten Trees” reveals much about Crapsey’s poetic persona:
Is it as plainly in our living shown,
By which way the wind hath blown?
Despite being ill all her life, Crapsey, through control and lyricism, faced her death and secured immortality in her living words.
Alkalay-Gut, Karen. Alone in the Dark: The Life of Adelaide Crapsey. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1988.
Crapsey, Adelaide. Verse. Rochester: The Manas Press, 1915. p.9-12
Smith, Susan Sutton, ed. The Complete Poems and Collected Letters of Adelaide Crapsey. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977.