earlyamericanwomenpoets



1771-1843


The preface to Isabella Oliver’s volume Poems, on Various Subjects describes her as the daughter of James Oliver, an “eminent mathematician” and a long-time resident of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Concerning her aptitude for poetry, the preface-writer notes:

She never received anything more than a common english [sic] education. She very early discovered a fondness for rhyme, and took pleasure in clothing her friendly and pious sentiments in a poetic dress. And what is very remarkable, though strictly true, she composed her pieces, generally, while engaged in the common business of life, or while taking a walk, and finished them without putting pen to paper: and when she was solicited to make a collection for publication, not being a ready writer herself, she dictated them to another person, who wrote them down. These Poems, therefore, have come, not so properly from the pen, as from the memory and heart of the Poetess. (3-4)

Oliver’s works include elegies to friends, family, and historical figures; poems of romantic friendship addressed to the pseudonymous “Phebe” and “Alvira”; an anti-slavery poem; and various hymns, pastorals, and satires. Her volume attracted over one thousand subscribers (an astonishingly wide audience for its day).

Oliver married landowner and Revolutionary War veteran Alexander Sharp seven years after publishing her poetry collection. The couple had no children.


Inscribed to Mrs. J. F. ——.


[Note: Mrs. J. F. —— had previously declined to partner with Oliver in a poetry publication, fearing the negative consequences of public exposure: "What different treatment must I bear, / The critic's taunt, the witling's sneer! / While genius, from his height sublime, / Would pitying view my waste of time; / And prudent housewives thank their starts, / They dealt in no such useless wares." Later, Oliver published Mrs. J. F. ——'s refusal in Poems, along with the following reply.]

Why should my friend neglect the gifts of heaven,
Who has to all their different talents given?
Let critics point the faults we ought to mend,
And every art its sister art befriend:
While we the dictates of the muse obey,
And shape our course as nature points the way.
Thou lively emblem of whate'er is kind!
Why should the precious offspring of thy mind
Be kept so close? — Come, let them take the air,
They'll bloom more fresh at least, if not more fair;
The sun, indeed, may tinge their lily hue,
But while imbrowning it invig'rates too.

Orestus seconds, but we plead in vain;
The coward muse denies her pleasing strain,
Or breathes it softly to unconscious trees;
May-hap indebted to some freindly breeze
Some notes are caught; transported with the sound,
We for the unseen warbler gaze round.
You for concealment cannot name a plea
But what applies with equal force to me.
Shall I go on, regardless of th' event,
Borne strangely forward by my native bent?
Methinks I could with greater firmness stand,
Might I but hold thee by thy friendly hand.
Yet let not kindness tempt thee to agree
To act contrariant to thy mind for me.
At worst, I think, it cannot be a crime;
Sure there's no bloodshed in a mangled rhyme;
Or should there be, e'en while that blood is spilling,
Those cannot suffer who are void of feeling.
Pen, ink, and paper, neither hear nor see;
Of course the anguish all devolves on me;
Or at the very farthest, but extends
To the kind bosom of those partial friends,
To whom I very freely give a share,
Since they neglect to warn me to forbear.

Dear friends, I'm gone beyond a hint, I doubt;
If you would stop me, pray speak freely out,
Or else, let life or death this work betide,
Hereafter stand with firmness by my side.
Cannot your kindness break each cruel blow
That may be dealt to lay my laurels low?
Such words as these may soften my concern —
"The world wants judgment and cannot discern;
"Some liberal minds alone confess their merit,
"The rest are guided by a captious spirit —."
O words more sweet than sugar-plumbs or pears!
Grateful as healing oil to aching ears!
The pleasing foretaste makes my heart expand;
With such a cordial plac'd so near at hand,
Why should I hesitate, why wait to think,
But freely at Parnassus' fountain drink?
"How shall the muse in silence then remain?"
The air we breathe of course respires again.
Till these inspiring streams shall cease to flow,
While on their borders fancy's garlands grow;
While there are sprigs enough to form a wreath;
'Twill be as natural to rhyme as breathe.

Here let me turn the current of my lays,
Lest you suppose me angling after praise.
But were I conscious of no higher aim,
I'd stand indebted to ingenuous shame
For that which would-be-beauties vainly spread
On shall cheeks — I mean, a little red.
Where my true motives are not understood,
Sweet charity, draw near, and think them good.



Composed by the Authoress When In Childhood


I've just begun a walk through life;
And to avoid all future strife,
I now should cultivate a mind
For immortality design'd.
Shall I to manly thoughts aspire,
And nought but what is great admire?
No: I'll to softer rules conform,
And rather fly than meet a storm;
But should that storm my flight o'ertake,
And after all upon me break;
Then let me bear it patiently,
And with the greatest constancy.
Within this breast let pity glow,
And my heart melt at others woe;
For souls devoid of feeling, find
A dreadful vacancy of mind.
O may my soul each virtue grace,
And make it far transcend my face!
For faces shortly must decay,
But souls last to eternity!

To Junius, with Young's Night Thoughts


Thrice have I read this precious volume o'er,
Still gathering wisdom from the heavenly lore.
The best instruction's in these pages given;
They lead the soul to piety and heaven.
Delightful book! with every beauty fraught!
Justness of judgment, energy of thought,
Breathe through each line, with such devotion fir'd,
As speaks a muse by heaven itself inspir'd.
Here sorrow is so movingly express'd,
Pity and admiration fill the breast:
We love a woe so tender and refin'd,
Which thus exalts, and purifies the mind.
But while the muses mournfully complain,
And all the soul is sunk in tender pain,
The CONSOLATION beams a ray divine;
The clouds disperse and heavenly beauties shine;
The soul is wrapt in wonder and delight;
We grow enamour'd with the face of night;
We trace the glowing poet through the skies
And strive to catch his spirit as he flies.


A Soliloquy


Is fancy dead? Has she forgot her flights?
Is the muse tuneless? Will she mount no more,
And raise my soul on sweet poetic wings?
Has she forgot her notes? It must not be; —
These notes were wont to sooth my soul to peace,
When sunk in anguish, and oppress'd with grief.
Grief, did I say? Do I complain of grief?
My life how short! that life how pleasant too,
Compar'd with multitudes who sadly pine
From year to year, poor, helpless, and forlorn!
Without the tribute of one pitying tear!
Pity them, heav'n, and fix their hopes on thee!
Do I complain of grief? No; rather let
My grateful heart ascend in songs of praise,
To nature's author and preserver too;
To Him whose bounty liberally supplies
The wants of all his creatures, and to each
With care paternal gives what suits them best;
Still ordering all things for the general good.
Thou gracious source of happiness of life!
Fountain of every blessing! 'tis from thee
The various streams of pleasure take their rise,
Which flow diffusing health and gladness round
Through all creation's channels ——
O! condescending goodness, love immense!
Behold! the meanest insect, moth or fly,
This earth sustains, is not forgot by thee,
Tho' trod upon and crumbled into dust,
By man, proud man, his brother of the clay.
What did I say? A worm, a moth, a fly?
And what am I? What my original
But such as their's? We all from nothing came,
And it is owing to distinguished grace,
I stand erected thus, and thus assay,
In strains harmonious, my Creator's praise;
And thank the glorious giver for his gifts.
And I will thank thee; yes, I will rejoice
In all the kind effusions of thy love;
For all conspire to raise the grateful soul
To gratitude's best office; ————
Acting in sweet accordance with thy will,
But conscious of my weakness, O my God!
In thee I trust, to thee I look for aid,
To execute the good resolves I make:
For thou alone art inexhaustible;
Thy magazines of strength are never drain'd;
Though still communicating, ever full.
Thou infinite! O! when I think on thee,
The great idea swells my little soul!
Ye angel-bands! ye ministers of light!
Ye who drink deep at the celestial spring,
Inhaling wisdom as we breathe the air!
Say, can your most enlarg'd capacities
Take in his vast idea? —————
Can you comprehend th' incomprehensible,
And tell us what it is to be a God?
No: that is more than finite nature can.
To us his nature is thus far reveal'd; ——
We know none ever trusted him in vain.
Then keep me, Lord, be thou my sure defence,
Secure me in the hollow of thy hand,
And make me not an outcast from thy love;
For JESUS's sake, — he who on Calv'ry bled,
A spotless victim altogether pure,
The great atoning sacrifice for sin.
And did he bleed? O! what transcendent love!
What matchless goodness! Did the Prince of Peace,
The king of glory, He who form'd us first
In happy state of innocence and bliss,
Become the victim of our hapless fall,
And die, to give his ruin'd creatures life!
O! could the muses touch the highest string,
And to thy praise in lofty numbers sing,
If I could catch the glowing seraph's fire,
And more than mortal eloquence acquire,
Still would thy goodness far transcend my praise:
But thou wilt not disdain the feeble lays,
The weak effusions of that spark of love,
Which thou hast kindled, which thou canst improve.
O! blow the smoaking flax into a flame,
Aspiring to the source from whence it came!


To My Sister


Whatever could in infancy engage,
Or promise comfort from her riper age,
Was sweetly blended in the form and mind
Of her you lately to the grave consign'd:
Gay as the birds, which hop from bough to bough;
Lovely and innocent, as aught below.
How just and clear her first ideas rise!
Ev'n strangers mark her with a fond surprise:
Docile, as young, but wise above her years,
She for a moment shines, and disappears.
With gratitude thy maker's bounty trace;
A new Maria fills the vacant place:
May this sweet babe renew thy wither'd joy,
And with her sister in her temper vie.
In her young mind the seeds of knowledge sow;
Whate'er is good let her be taught to know;
Knowledge of evil of itself will grow.
Our general mother this too dearly bought;
In this, alas! we're all too fully taught!
Oh! precious babe, for thee my bosom warms
With pleasing hopes, and beats with fond alarms!
May God himself instruct thee, how to choose,
To love the good, the evil to refuse:
Preserve thee, till thy earthly trial's past,
And bring thee safely to himself at last.
Hail! highly-honour'd! for to thee is given
To train up children for the King of heaven.
Yet know thy post is dangerous — thus it stands:
Lost through neglect — then surely at thy hands
Their blood shall be requir'd — an awful thought!
'Tis strange that this should ever be forgot;
'Tis strange, so many should unfaithful prove,
Impell'd at once by fear, and drawn by love.
Some tender mothers, that their girls may charm,
In zeal to polish quite forget to form:
The very toyman can't proceed so fast;
His mimic fair receive their varnish last:
But these, enamour'd of external grace,
Give it the first, the last, the middle place;
They vainly decorate an empty case,
Or worse than empty; for the busy mind,
Or bad, or good, must some materials find
To fill imagination, memory, thought:
And can a child select them as it ought?
Who would not shudder, were he to be told,
A child was dead with hunger, or with cold;
Or swallowing poison with its deadly fare,
Or heedlessly expos'd to tainted air,
Not through necessity, but want of care?
Nor should those parents be esteem'd more kind,
Who nurse the body, but neglect the mind.
The mind requires, it hungers after food:
What's light puffs up, it can't digest the crude,
But thrives on what is nourishing and good.
Some think they have their duty well fufilld'd,
When a high sense of honour is instill'd;
The world's opinions highly this regard;
And, well reputed, they have their reward:
This may be right in an inferior sense;
With this, perhaps, 'twere dangerous to dispense.
But there are nobler motives not a few,
And found, in fact, more efficacious too:
Virtue's best guardian, far the strongest fence
To bar out vice, is an abiding sense
Of lying open to th' omniscient eye,
Of him, who can't behold iniquity;
Who, as it were, the very soul dissects,
And every lurking vanity detects;
Who the extensive universe commands,
And holds our fates in his external hands;
Whose bleeding mercy has found out a plan
To save and quicken lost, degenerate man;
To raise him from the sink, to purify,
And kindly make him capable of joy;
But ne'er dissolv'd, nor will, for any price,
Dissolve the tie 'twixt misery and vice.
Hence let her reason — justly, hence conclude,
If I'd be happy I must first be good;
God still beholds whate'er I say or do;
My inmost thoughts are open to his view:
Him let me please, tho' others I offend,
And make his glory still my highest end.


On Slavery


Among the moral evils which disgrace
The page historic of the human race,
Slavery seems most to blacken the records;
It militates against our blessed Lord's
Divine instructions. Is it not a shame
For any that assume the christian name,
Who say the influence of his blood extends
From sea to sea, to earth's remotest ends,
To trade in human flesh, to forge a chain
Fort those who may with them in glory reign?
But, independent of the christian light,
Humanity is outrag'd, every right
Of human nature trampled to the ground;
By men who deify an empty sound,
And call it liberty, or what they please;
But God will visit for such crimes as these.
Behold the fruitful islands of the main;
Where sweetness is extracted from the cane
Where luscious fruits in rich profusion grow,
And streams of milk and honey us'd to flow:
The cords o slav'ry were so tighten'd there,
Its hapless victims could no longer bear;
But desperation work'd in every brain,
And gave them strength to break the iron chain.
A scene of terror and of blood ensues!
The bare idea petrifies the muse!
Here is a glass: let each oppressing state
Forsake their practice, or expect their fate.
Slavery's a very monster on this earth,
Which strangles every virtue in its birth:
From the first dawning of the human mind,
Children should be instructed to be kind;
To treat no human being with disdain,
Nor give the meanest insect useless pain:
Yet mark how babes and sucklings learn to rack,
And trample down, the poor defenceless black;
Their little humours ample scope may have,
When only vented — on a wretched slave.
God's image in his creature they deride,
And daily grow in indolence and pride,
With ignorance and cruelty combin'd;
A Slavery of the most ignoble kind!

O ye, who make and execute the laws,
Exert your influence in so good a cause;
Pursue with zeal some well-arranged plan,
To stop this most unnat'ral trade in man:
This interesting object keep in view:
Much has been done, but much is still to do.
Forever honour'd be their names, who strive
To keep divine philanthropy alive:
But horror seizes every feeling mind,
To hear of depredation on mankind!
Till this inhuman commerce disappears,
Our country must claim kindred with Algiers.
AMERICA! wipe out this dire disgrace,
Which stains the brightest glories of thy face.
'Twas thine against oppressive power to raise
A noble standard, and attract the gaze
Of the surrounding nations, who approve
Thy arduous struggle, rising from a love
Of liberty. Your rights you understood,
And rose, resolv'd like men to make them good;
Through every rank the gen'rous ardour ran;
The poorest lab'rer feels himself a man.
COLUMBIA's sons put forth their talents now;
Intrepid soldiers, starting from the plough,
A virtuous independence to secure,
Hunger and thirst and nakedness endure.
Such great occasions noble minds invite,
And bring conceal'd abilities to light;
Consummate statesmen in our councils rise,
Fit for their station, honest, brave, and wise;
Our gallant leaders in the martial field
To neither Greece nor Rome the laurels yield;
Nor were it just to pass Columbia's fair;
Who share the burden should the garland share.
Thy charms, O Liberty! their souls impress;
Behold them patriots even in their dress;
The graceful vestments of the most refin'd,
By their own hands have been with pleasure twin'd;
They throw the shuttle, and they mix the dye,
And ev'n the famed Spartan dames outvie;
Their tenderness and modesty retain;
Gentle, not weak, they vigorously sustain,
Without a murmur, the severest toil;
With their fair hands they cultivate the soil;
Expos'd to summer's heat and winter's cold;
Prepare the fuel, and attend the fold;
To give the husband, brother, or the sire
To the hard duties which the times require.
The world can testify this picture true;
From recent facts the muse her colours drew.
But ah! how soon those glowing colours fade!
The sons of Afric form a dismal shade:
Each southern state unnumber'd slaves commands,
Who steel their hearts, and enervate their hands.
There knotted whips in dreadful peals resound,
While blood and sweat flow mingled to the ground,
So fame reports, and rising in her ire
She adds, that some beneath the lash expire.
Ah stop! inhuman! why provoke the rod,
The dreadful vengeance of an angry God!
Behold with trembling the outstretched hand
Of incens'd injustice lifted o'er the land!
For crimes like yours, and their pernicious brood,
(For these are parent-sins, and taint the blood)
Malignant fevers through the land are sent,
To punish sin, and lead us to repent;
But if these warnings we refuse to mind,
A train of evils follow close behind;
If we may credit God's eternal word,
And those examples left upon record.
Are these the blest abodes of liberty!
Is this the generous race that would be free!
The poer to whom you fancied honours pay,
From scenes like this with horror turns away!
Wherever genuine liberty is found,
She copies heaven in shedding blossoms round.
Should not this fruitful, this salubrious clime
Inspire us with the gen'rous and sublime?
Our hills appear for contemplation made,
Our lofty forests form a noble shade;
These seem the native haunts of liberty:
Was not the wild unletter'd Indian free?
Alas! the mournful truth must be confess'd,
Ferocious passions triumph'd in his breast;
There gloomy superstition's terrors reign'd;
Insidious wiles his manly courage stain'd;
While sloth and ignorance in fetters bind
The nobler workings of the savage mind.
See these by Europe's fairer sons displace'd,
With useful arts and polish'd manners grac'd!
Now sturdy labour, with incessant toil
Clears the rude wild, and cultivates the soil.
As art's first sample clapboard roofs appear;
But soon a neat convenient house they rear;
At length a stately dome attracts the eyes;
And seat with seat in taste and beauty vies.
Now liberal sciences the land pervade,
And philosophic musings court the shade.
The fairest traits of liberty we find,
Where equal laws to peace and order bind,
And true religion elevates the mind.
Oh, slavery! thou hell-engender'd crime!
Why spoil this beauteous country in her prime,
Corrupt her manners, enervate her youth!
Blast the fair buds of justice, mercy, truth!
But, Europe! know, to thy eternal shame,
From thee at first this foul contagion came;
Before we to a nation's stature grew,
We learn'd this trade, this barb'rous trade, from you:
Should not we now exert a noble pride,
And lay your follies, and your crimes, aside?
Yet not so vain, or self-sufficient be,
As not to copy excellence of thee.
How many futile reasons have been given
For mixing God and mammon, sin and heaven!
Some say, they are of Canaan's cursed race,
By God ordain'd to fill this servile place:
Was then their lineage fully ascertain'd,
Before they in the cruel hold were chain'd?
Before the tenderest ties of human life
Were torn asunder; the beloved wife
Dragg'd without mercy from her husband's breast,
And the sweet babes they mutually caress'd,
Carried like cattle; — (Let it not be told!)
By christians too, to be to christians sold?
Their lineage prov'd — it were of no avail;
Here all attempts at palliation fail.
In Joseph's case we may a parallel see;
Sent into Egypt by divine decree,
His brethren's evil, God intends for good,
Yet they , as guilty, in his presence stood.
Some plead the precedent of former times,
And brin examples in, to sanction crimes:
Greece had her Helots, Gibeonites the Jew;
Must then Columbia have her Negroes too!
By men who by his spirit were inspir'd,
To teach us what our blessed Lord requir'd,
Rules have been given to regulate our lives,
As subjects, husbands, parents, children, wives;
Masters and servants due directions have;
But show a single lesson to a slave.
Those heavenly doctrines have a liberal aim,
And practis'd, soon would abrogate the name.
Our blessed Lord descended to unbind
Those chains of darkness which enslave the mind;
He draws the veil of prejudice aside,
To cure us of our selfishness and pride:
These once remov'd, then Afric's sable race
No more among the brutal herd we place:
Are they not blest with intellectual powers,
Which prove their souls as excellent as ours?
The same immortal hopes to all are given,
One common Saviour and one common heaven.
When these exalted views th' ascendant gain,
Fraternal love will form a silken chain,
Whose band, encircling all the human race,
Will join the species in one large embrace.


Sources

Basker, James G., ed. Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems About Slavery, 1660-1810. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

— — —. American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation. Library of America, 2012.

Biographical Annals of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Vol. 1. Westminister: Heritage Books, 2007.

Detsi-Diamanti, Zoe. Early American Women Dramatists: 1775-1860.

Oliver, Isabella. Poems, on Various Subjects. Carlisle: A. Loudon, 1805.