North American Scholar

LEONARD, William Ellery Channing

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1876-01-25
  • Born City: Plainfield
  • Born State/Country: NJ
  • Parents: Rev. William James, newspaper editor and Unitarian pastor, & Martha Whitcomb L.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1944-05-02
  • Death City: Madison
  • Death State/Country: WI
  • Married: Charlotte Freeman, 23 June 1909; Charlotte Charlton, 10 Oct. 1914; Grace Golden, 29 June 1935; remarried Charlotte Charlton, 23 Apr. 1940.
  • Education:

    A.B. Boston U., 1898; A.M. Harvard, 1899; fell. Boston U. in philol. & lit. & study at Göttingen, 1900-1; Bonn, 1901-2; Ph.D. Columbia, 1904.

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr. Lat. Boston U., 1898; princ. Wrentham (MA) HS, 1899-1900; instr. Ger. Lynn (MA) HS, 1904; asso. (philol.) ed. Lippincott's English Dictionary, 1904-6; instr. to prof. Eng. U. Wisconsin, 1906-44; vis. prof. NYU, 1916-7; mem. NIAL.

  • Dissertation:

    "Byron and Byronism in America" (Columbia, 1904); printed (Boston, 1905; New York, 1907)

  • Publications:

    Sonnets and Poems (Boston, 1906); The Fragments of Empedocles (trans.) (Chicago, 1908); The Poet of Galilee (New York, 1909); Glory of the Morning: A Play in One Act (Madison, WI, 1912); The Vaunt of Man and Other Poems (New York, 1912); Aesop and Hyssop: Being Fables Adapted and Original with the Morals Carefully Formulated (Chicago, 1912); Socrates, Master of Life (Chicago, 1915); Poems 1914-1916 (N.p., 1917); The Lynching Bee, and Other Poems (New York, 1920); Lucretius, Of the Nature of Things: A Metrical Translation (trans.) (London & New York, 1921); Beowulf: A Verse Translation for Fireside and Class Room (trans.) (New York & London, 1923); Two Lives: A Poem (Binghamton, NY, 1923; London, 1926); Red Bird: A Drama of Wisconsin History in Four Acts (New York, 1923); Tutankhamen, and After: New Poems (New York, 1924); A Son of Earth: Collected Poems (New York, 1928); This Midland City: Etchings of Some of Its Best People (Detroit, 1930); Gilgamesh: Epic of Old Babylonia (New York, 1934); T. Lucreti Cari De Rerum Natura Libri Sex, ed. with Stanley Barney Smith (Madison, WI, 1942); A Man Against Time: An Heroic Drama (New York, 1945).

  • Notes:

    William Ellery Leonard was chiefly a poet and professor of English, a friend of Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg, and Sherwood Anderson. He made an important contribution to the teaching of Lucretius by the school text of that poet which he edited with Stanley B. Smith. At the age of two, Leonard was terrified by a locomotive that produced a phobia of trains, while his being set upon by a group of schoolyard bullies at age nine led (according to Leonard's autobiography, The Locomotive-God) to a lifelong neurosis, reclusiveness that became agoraphobia, and failed marriages. Practically self-educated, he attended Boston University in nearly abject poverty and studied at Harvard under George Lyman Kittredge and William James. Though he studied in Germany when American universities were most Germanophile, he was not a scientific scholar, but rather the reflection of a German Romantic poet in dress, manners, and spirit. In grief over the suicide of his first wife in 1911, Leonard sought distraction in translation and completed his rendering of Lucretius in 1912. His most notable poem, Two Lives, an examination of his first marriage, was called by Howard Mumford Jones "the best poem that has ever come out of America" (Yearsley). He then went on to translate Beowulf, compose his poems in the forms and language of an earlier age, and teach his classes, particularly freshman English. Leslie Fiedler said, "in the classroom he was everything he was out if it—translator, critic, scholar, poet, autobiographer, raconteur, philosopher, theologian, wit—plus something else: a model for the young of the way in which the stuff confided by authors long dead . . . can again become living flesh." His edition of Lucretius was the product of nearly a lifetime's interest, which took 15 years to complete. The commentary is long on information, short on exposition. The job of work was divided: Smith handled matters of philology and style, Leonard wrote an introduction placing Lucretius' poem in historical context. The introduction describes Lucretius' "scorn, his pity, his nobility of spirit, his intelligence, his capacity for long, difficult toil, his zest for combat with the weapons of song." Leonard's view of Lucretius' sources is limited essentially to Epicurus and Empedocles (missing out tragedy, satire, Hellenistic philosophers), but the introduction is still one of the best essays on Lucretius, and the edition was at the time of its publication the best edition available. It remains widely used in colleges and universities.

  • Sources:

    Leslie A. Fiedler, DAB Suppl. 3:453-5; Leonard, The Locomotive-God (New York & London, 1927); WhAm 2:319; Meredith Yearsley, Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Poets 54 (Detroit, 1987) 201-6 (with bibliography); Neile Reinitz, William Ellery Leonard: The Professor and the Locomotive-God (Lanham, MD: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013).

  • Author: Ward W. Briggs, Jr.