Born in 1874 in Geneva, Trumbull Stickney led a short but productive life and could well have been one of the great poets of the 20th Century had he not died shortly after his thirtieth birthday. It is certain that he had not realized the full extent of his literary powers and his finished work is now often characterized as a poet in search of his own voice.
Brought up in Switzerland, Stickney was well educated and was taught largely by his scholastic father. He traveled extensively during his youth though, something which had an effect on his formative poetry and he spent some time in New York at Cutler’s School. In his later teens, he went to Harvard and quickly became editor for the university magazine at which time he also began to publish some of his own poems.
Stickney graduated from Harvard in 1895 and turned to more academic studies, spending a short time at the Sorbonne in Paris. It is evident that he was often undecided between a career in academia or one as a poet and this may have hampered his early development. He spent his time at the Sorbonne writing two academic theses but also managed to compose a number of noteworthy poems.
Amongst these was the lengthy poem Kalypso which he wanted to publish but was never really sure that it was ready. He began to think that his academic side was becoming too dominant in his poetry and that it was something he needed to change in his writing if he were to succeed. His later works show a definite move away from more cerebral verses towards something that was focused on sensations and emotions.
There is some suggestion that his writing was helped by an affair he had at the time, though any letters relating to this were destroyed by his family shortly after his death. He managed to collect enough poetry during his lifetime to complete a book but had trouble finding a publisher who would take him seriously. The collection was called Dramatic Verses and contained a large number of works from his time in Paris.
Stickney made a short visit to Greece and then returned to America where he succumbed to a post as academic at Harvard but was never particularly happy. It was during this time that he began to get headaches which he called ‘blind spells’ and shortly after suffered from a brain hemorrhage and died.
A collection of Stickney’s work was published by friends after his death in 1904 and he was praised by many of the literary lights at the time including W H Auden. It is said that Stickney produced most of his memorable work shortly before his untimely death and this may have led to the legend that has grown up around him.
In truth, he was a poet at the beginning of his career and may have gone on to produce a sizable body of work. But whether he would have been the genius that many suspect him to have been is still widely open to debate.