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May 8th, 2019

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05:29 pm - Poems on Mischellaneous Subjects
I was bored by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s *Poems on Miscelleneous Subjects* (1854) when I first read them. They seemed mandarin, guarded, obsessively obedient to literary conventions.

Then I read about her life – this is a woman who was anything but obedient to conventions. She was an abolitionist, suffragist, poet, teacher, public speaker, and writer.

Born free in 1825 (but in a slave State), she had a long and prolific career. At 14, Frances found work as a seamstress. During her early twenties, she published poems and articles in the local newspaper and published her first volume of poetry at 20 (extant as a single, recently discovered volume). At 25, the Watkins family fled north after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. She started publishing pieces in antislavery journals in 1839.

Harper's second book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), was extremely popular and was reprinted numerous times.

In 1850, Watkins moved to Ohio, where she worked as the first female teacher at Union Seminary and then Wilberforce University, the first black-owned and operated college. In 1853, Watkins joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and became a travelling lecturer for the group. In 1858 she refused to give up her seat or ride in the coloured section of a segregated trolley car in Philadelphia (100 years before Rosa Parks).

After the Civil War ended she moved south to teach newly freed black people during the Reconstruction. She was a strong supporter of abolitionism, prohibition and woman's suffrage. From 1883 to 1890, she helped organise events and programs for the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union and helped organise the National Association of Coloured Women in 1894, and was elected vice president in 1897.

Such an exciting life. Such conventional poetry. Take for example the stulitifying rhythms of ‘The Dying Christian’.

The light was faintly streaming
Within a darkened room,
Where a woman, faint and feeble,
Was sinking to the tomb.

I assume that Watkins was keenly aware that if she wrote with passion, she would be a hysterical woman. If she ignored classical conventions, she would be an uneducated uppity person who was incapable of understanding western culture. Hence the iron control.

There are some poems with a bit more oomph. *Bury Me in a Free Land* was written when she was seriously ill on an anti-slavery tour before the war, so presumably came from the heart.

I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.

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