earlyamericanwomenpoets



1809-1893


pic - Kemble Frances Ann - girlhood.jpeg

A celebrated actress in Covent Garden, Frances Ann Kemble traveled to the United States in 1832 to support her father in his financial difficulties. As a result, her theatrical and intellectual fame increased on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1834, she married a wealthy Southern heir, Pierce Butler, who would inherit his father's plantation, Butler Place, three years later. Butler's infidelities and Kemble's horror of plantation life drove her to seek a legal separation in 1843. It was during this period of scandal and accusation that she published the first edition of her poetry. Although Kemble was compelled to remain Butler's wife in order to have access to their daughters, Butler sued for divorce in 1847 on the grounds of desertion. In the final settlement, Kemble was granted two months out of every year to spend with her daughters. During the Civil War, she published her abolitionist work, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, an exposé based on her life at Butler Place. Throughout her life, she was known as a traveler, an memoirist, an actress, and a Shakespearean reader.


To —.


One after one, the shield, the sword, the spear,
The panoply that I was wont to wear,
My suit of proof, my wings that kept me free,
These, full of trust, delivered I to thee,
When, through all time, I swore that by thy side
I would henceforward walk: — I since have tried,
In hours of sadness, when my former life
Shone on my through thick gathering clouds of strife,
To wield my weapons bright, and wear again —
My maiden corselet and free wings — in vain!
My hands have lost their strength and skill — my breast,
Beneath my mail throbs with a wild unrest;
My pinions trail upon the earth — my soul
Quails ‘neath the heavy spell of thy control.
All that was living of my life seems fled,
My mortal part alone is not yet dead.
But since my nobler gifts have all been thine,
Trophies, or sacrifices, for thy shrine,
Pierce not the breast that stripped itself for thee
Of the fair means God gave it to be free;
Have yet some pity, and forbear to strike
One without power to strive, or fly alike,
Nor trample on a heart, which now must be
Towards all defenceless — most of all towards thee.


Faith


Better trust all, and be deceived,
And weep that trust, and that deceiving;
Than doubt one heart, that, if believed,
Had blessed one's life with true believing.

Oh, in this mocking world, too fast
The doubting fiend o'ertakes our youth!
Better be cheated to the last,
Than lose the blessèd hope of truth.


Sonnet


Thou poisonous laurel leaf, that in the soil
Of life, which I am doomed to till full sore,
Spring'st like a noisome weed! I do not toil
For thee, and yet thou still com'st darkening o'er
My plot of earth with thy unwelcome shade.
Thou nightshade of the heart, beneath whose boughs.
All fair and gentle buds hang withering,
Why hast thou wreathed thyself around my brows,
Casting from thence the blossoms of my spring,
Breathing on youth's sweet roses till they fade?
Alas! thou art an evil weed of woe,
Watered with tears and watched with sleepless care,
Seldom doth envy thy green glories spare;
And yet men covet thee — ah, wherefore do they so!


Sonnet


Have you not heard that in some deep-seal'd graves,
The Dead retain in beauty undisturb'd
The very countenance they living wore?
But if forbidden yearning vainly craves
To look upon the hidden face once more,
Lo! the sweet sleeping aspect is perturb'd,
The piercing light and the keen breath of life
Smite like a blow the features, and before
The hungry eyes of longing, Love, at strife
With Fate, efface the vision it desires,
And dust and ashes fill the friendly gloom
That might have kept immortal in its bloom,
What now again — and now for aye expires.
Leave we our buried pleasures in their tomb.


Sonnet


I cannot sleep for thinking of thy face,
Which thrusts itself between the dark and me,
Scaring my rest. Oh, for Heaven's gentle grace,
Haunt me not with this speechless misery.
What could I do that I have left undone,
That to thy life might bring content or peace?
Have I not made my days to hang upon
Thy will and wish, and every hour to beat
Only one patient, waiting, longing measure,
Unto thy going and thy coming feet,
Counting my greatest joy thy slightest pleasure?
And now I would I could but pour the treasure
Of my heart's life-blood out before it breaks,
To put a brighter colour in thy cheeks.


On a Hollow Friendship


A bitter cheat! — and here at length it ends —
And thou and I, who were to one another
More closely knit than brother is to brother,
Shall not be even as two common friends.
Never again in our two hearts may grow
The love whose root was bleeding torn away;
Sadly and darkly shall our spirits go,
Companionless, through life's remaining way:
What though still side by side — yet never more
Each answering other, as they did before;
Lonelier by far, than those who ne'er have known
Dear partnership of love such as we knew,
Unpitied by our fellows, to whose view
A seeming false must o'er our state be thrown —
Thus shall we henceforth walk, together — yet alone.


A Noonday Vision


I saw one whom I love more than my life
Stand on a perilous edge of slippery rock,
Under her feet the waters' furious strife,
And all around the thunder of their shock;
She stood and smiled, while terror held my breath,
Nor dared I speak, or move, or call, or cry,
Lest to wild measuring of the depth beneath,
From her small foothold she should turn her eye.
As in the tyrannous horror of a dream,
I could not look away, but stony, still,
Fastened my eyes on her, while she did seem
Like one that fears, but hath a steadfast will.
Around her, through green boughs, the sunlight flung
Its threads of glory like a golden net,
And all about the rock-wall where she clung,
The trembling crests of fern with stars were wet,
Bright beads of crystal on a rainbow strung,
Jewels of fire in drops of water set;
And while I gazed, a hand stretched forth to her
Beckoned her on — and holding firm and fast
By this her unseen guide and monitor,
Behind the rocks out of my sight she passed,
And then the agony of all my fears
Broke forth from out my eyes in sudden tears,
And I fell weeping down upon the sod;
But in my soul I heard a voice that said,
Be comforted — of what art thou afraid?
Nor for the hand she holds be thou dismayed,
The hand that holds her is the hand of God.


Sicilian Song


I planted in my heart one seed of love,
Water'd with tears and watch'd with sleepless care.
It grew — and when I look'd that it should prove
A gracious tree — and blessed harvests bear,
Blossom nor fruit was there to crown my pain,
Tears, care, and labour, all had been in vain;
And yet I dare not pluck it from my heart,
Lest with the deep-struck root my life depart.


Sources

Clinton, Catherine, ed. Fanny Kemble’s Journals. 2000. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

David, Deirdre. Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

James, Henry. Frances Anne Kemble. Temple Bar 97.389 (April 1893) 503-525.

Kemble, Frances Ann. Poems. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1883.