William Ellery Leonard

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William Ellery Leonard (born January 25, 1876, in Plainfield, New Jersey; died May 22, 1944, in Madison, Wisconsin) was an American poet and literary scholar. The son of a Unitarian minister, he received his B.A. from Boston University in 1898, his M.A. from Harvard University in 1899, engaged in graduate studies in Germany at both the University of Bonn and Göttingen University, and earned his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1904.

From 1906 until the end of his life, Leonard taught at the University of Wisconsin, being an assistant professor of English. Among his prominent students were literary critic Leslie Fiedler and poet Clara Leiser, the latter an outspoken opponent of Naziism.

In his personal life he suffered from lifelong agoraphobia, which not only kept him confined to the area of his home and university campus but increased with age to the point that, in the last years of his life, he conducted all lectures from his home. He married Charlotte Freeman, the daughter of his landlord, in 1909. The marriage was short lived, however; after the death of her father she committed suicide on May 4, 1910.

Over his career Leonard wrote numerous volumes of poetry, the first of which was Sonnets and Poems, a collection regarded as showing emotional intensity as well as psychological depth. He is most remembered, however, for Two Lives, a cycle of 250 sonnets telling the story of his tragic marriage. Stephen Vincent Benét called it the best American poem of the twentieth century. In his psychological autobiography, The Locomotive-God, he probed his agoraphobia. Leonard is also known for his many scholarly works, particularly translations of Aesop and Lucretius as well as the epic Beowulf.

Today the William Ellery Leonard House is on the list of Registered Historic Places in Madison, Wisconsin.


  • Byron and Byronism in America (1905—Columbia University dissertation)
  • Sonnets and Poems (1906)
  • The Fragments of Empedocles (1908)
  • Aesop and Hyssop (1912)
  • The Vaunt of Man (1912)
  • Socrates, Master of Life (1915)
  • "Bryant and the Minor Poets," Book II, Chapter V of The Cambridge History of American Literature (1917-1921)
  • The Lynching Bee (1920)
  • Tutankhamen and After (1924)
  • Two Lives (1925)
  • The Locomotive-God (1927)
  • Translation of Lucretius' Of the Nature of Things (1916)
  • Beowulf: A New Verse Translation for Fireside and Class Room (1923)
  • Gilgamesh: Epic of Old Babylonia (1934)
  • A Man Against Time (1945)


Daniel S. Burt, editor, The Chronology of American Literature. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

Chester E. Jorgenson, "William Ellery Leonard: An Appraisal" in Studies in Honor of John Wilcox by A. Dale Wallace and Woodbrun O. Ross. Detroit: Wayne State University press, 1958.

Chauncey D. Leake, "1876-1944 William Ellery Leonard: Tormented Genius of the Midlands" in Wisconsin Alumnus 77:4, 1976.

The Columbia Encyclopedia Third Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Sixth Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

German Wikipedia article.

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