African American Poetry (1870-1926): A Digital Anthology

Robert Kerlin, Chapter on Frances E.W. Harper (1923)


4. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper_

A female poet of the same period as Horton wrote in the same strain
about freedom:

    Make me a grave wher’er you will,
    In a lowly plain or a lofty hill;
    Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
    But not in a land where men are slaves.

Like Horton, she lived to see her prayer for freedom answered. Of the Emancipation Proclamation she burst forth in joy:

    It shall flash through coming ages,
      It shall light the distant years;
    And eyes now dim with sorrow
      Shall be brighter through their tears.

This slave woman was Frances Ellen Watkins, by marriage Harper. Mrs. Harper attained to a greater popularity than any poet of her race prior to Dunbar. As many as ten thousand copies of some of her poems were in circulation in the middle of the last century. Her success was not unmerited. Many singers of no greater merit have enjoyed greater celebrity. She was thoroughly in the fashion of her times, as Phillis Wheatley was in the yet prevalent fashion of Pope, or, perhaps more accurately, Cowper. The models in the middle of the nineteenth century were Mrs. Hemans, Whittier, and Longfellow. It is in their manner she writes. A serene and beautiful Christian spirit tells a moral tale in fluent ballad stanzas, not without poetic phrasing. In all she beholds, in all she experiences, there is a lesson. There is no grief without its consolation. Serene resignation breathes through all her poems--at least through those written after her freedom was achieved. Illustrations of these traits abound. A few stanzas from _Go Work in My Vineyard_ will suffice. After bitter disappointments in attempting to fulfil the command the “lesson” comes thus sweetly expressed:

    My hands were weak, but I reached them out
      To feebler ones than mine,
    And over the shadows of my life
      Stole the light of a peace divine.

    Oh, then my task was a sacred thing,
      How precious it grew in my eyes!
    ’Twas mine to gather the bruised grain
      For the Lord of Paradise.

    And when the reapers shall lay their grain
      On the floors of golden light,
    I feel that mine with its broken sheaves
      Shall be precious in His sight.

    Though thorns may often pierce my feet,
      And the shadows still abide,
    The mists will vanish before His smile,
      There will be light at eventide.

How successfully Mrs. Harper could draw a lesson from the common objects or occurrences of the world about us may be illustrated by the following poem:

TRUTH

    A rock, for ages, stern and high,
    Stood frowning ’gainst the earth and sky,
    And never bowed his haughty crest
    When angry storms around him prest.
    Morn, springing from the arms of night,
    Had often bathed his brow with light,
    And kissed the shadows from his face
    With tender love and gentle grace.

    Day, pausing at the gates of rest,
    Smiled on him from the distant West,
    And from her throne the dark-browed Night
    Threw round his path her softest light.
    And yet he stood unmoved and proud,
    Nor love, nor wrath, his spirit bowed;
    He bared his brow to every blast
    And scorned the tempest as it passed.

    One day a tiny, humble seed--
    The keenest eye would hardly heed--
    Fell trembling at that stern rock’s base,
    And found a lowly hiding-place.
    A ray of light, and drop of dew,
    Came with a message, kind and true;
    They told her of the world so bright,
    Its love, its joy, and rosy light,
    And lured her from her hiding-place,
    To gaze upon earth’s glorious face.

    So, peeping timid from the ground,
    She clasped the ancient rock around,
    And climbing up with childish grace,
    She held him with a close embrace;
    Her clinging was a thing of dread;
    Where’er she touched a fissure spread,
    And he who’d breasted many a storm
    Stood frowning there, a mangled form.

    A Truth, dropped in the silent earth,
    May seem a thing of little worth,
    Till, spreading round some mighty wrong,
    It saps its pillars proud and strong,
    And o’er the fallen ruin weaves
    The brightest blooms and fairest leaves.

The story of Vashti, who dared heroically to disobey her monarch-husband, is as well told in simple ballad measure as one may find it. I give it entire:

VASHTI

    She leaned her head upon her hand
      And heard the King’s decree--
    “My lords are feasting in my halls;
      Bid Vashti come to me.

    “I’ve shown the treasures of my house,
      My costly jewels rare,
    But with the glory of her eyes
      No rubies can compare.

    “Adorn’d and crown’d I’d have her come,
      With all her queenly grace,
    And, ’mid my lords and mighty men,
      Unveil her lovely face.

    “Each gem that sparkles in my crown,
      Or glitters on my throne,
    Grows poor and pale when she appears,
      My beautiful, my own!”

    All waiting stood the chamberlains
      To hear the Queen’s reply.
    They saw her cheek grow deathly pale,
      But light flash’d to her eye:

    “Go, tell the King,” she proudly said,
      “That I am Persia’s Queen,
    And by his crowds of merry men
      I never will be seen.

    “I’ll take the crown from off my head
      And tread it ’neath my feet,
    Before their rude and careless gaze
      My shrinking eyes shall meet.

    “A queen unveil’d before the crowd!--
      Upon each lip my name!--
    Why, Persia’s women all would blush
      And weep for Vashti’s shame!

    “Go back!” she cried, and waved her hand,
      And grief was in her eye:
    “Go, tell the King,” she sadly said,
      “That I would rather die.”

    They brought her message to the King;
      Dark flash’d his angry eye;
    ’Twas as the lightning ere the storm
      Hath swept in fury by.

    Then bitterly outspoke the King,
      Through purple lips of wrath--
    “What shall be done to her who dares
      To cross your monarch’s path?”

    Then spake his wily counsellors--
      “O King of this fair land!
    From distant Ind to Ethiop,
      All bow to thy command.

    “But if, before thy servants’ eyes,
      This thing they plainly see,
    That Vashti doth not heed thy will
      Nor yield herself to thee,

    “The women, restive ’neath our rule,
      Would learn to scorn our name,
    And from her deed to us would come
      Reproach and burning shame.

    “Then, gracious King, sign with thy hand
      This stern but just decree,
    That Vashti lay aside her crown,
      Thy Queen no more to be.”

    She heard again the King’s command,
      And left her high estate;
    Strong in her earnest womanhood,
      She calmly met her fate,

    And left the palace of the King,
      Proud of her spotless name--
    A woman who could bend to grief
      But would not bow to shame.

Those last stanzas are quite as noble as any that one may find in the
poets whom I named as setting the American fashion in the era of Mrs. Harper. The poems of this gentle, sweet-spirited Negro woman deserve a better fate than has overtaken them.

 

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