earlyamericanwomenpoets



1820-1897




Woman's Art


(In Bologna.)

More than three hundred years ago
(Hunt for the place where it tells you so
There in your Baedeker), lived and wrought,
Here in Bologna, a girl, whose thought,
Carved on the stone of a plum, survives
The volumed records of thousand lives.

Yes, you were shown the frieze, you say,
In San Petronio, the other day,
And the pair of angels that bear her name
Propersia, — marvellous works these same,
Being a woman's. But did you know,
Praising the antique cuttings so,
Who made them? Maestro Amico,
Her artist-neighbor, refused to see
Rareness in any work that she,
A woman, might plan. "A woman's power
Bends to the sway of the passing hour;
Achieves, but never creates. The stone
Of the quarries was meant for men alone,
Whose genius had the gift to shape it: walls
Of churches, basilicas, palace-halls,
Only were ample enough to yield
To limitless skill, the nobler field:
But woman! ... a cherry-stone might well
Hold whatsoever she had to tell!"

Misprized and taunted, the maiden's pride
Would none of the marble thus denied,
Nor the canvas grudged. Henceforth she wrought
On the kernel of olive and apricot,
Marvels of frost-like carvings, — such
As grew under Benvenuto's touch.
Go to the Casa Grassi: see
The scene of the Passion on Calvary:
Mark, as you may, the sacred head,
And the Godlike look o'er the features shed,
And honor the art that skilled to trace
Such miracles scarce in an inch's space.

Now puzzle the guide by asking where
Are the wonderful frescoes, vast and rare,
Of her neighbor, the jealous artist, who
Flung her his scorn.... Just so! I knew
His name would be strange to the Bolognese:
— Did it ever reach us, over the seas?

Yet woman is weak for Art, you prove,
Since her genius works in a narrow groove;
But if, ast the crucial test appears,
It ever outlives three hundred years,
Better thus work than chafe or starve,
— Give her the plum-stone and let her carve!


Comforted


There are those who tell me I should be
So firm of faith, so void of fear,
So buoyed by calm, courageous cheer,
(Assured, through Christ's security,
There is a place prepared,) that I
Should dare not be afraid to die.

They question of the nameless dread,
With lifted brow, as if I let
Unreasoning foretastes overfret
My soul unduly, while I tread
A path self-clouded, underneath
The ever-conscious chill of death.

They babble of the fuller life,
Unswaddled of the mummied clay,
Whose cerements hide the upper day,
That shines serene above the strife
Of this poor charnel crypt, and cry,
That they are happiest still, who die.

Who holds it cowardice to shrink
Before the fearful truth, that none
Of all Time's myriads, — never one
Whose feet have crossed the fatal brink,
Has ever come to breathe our breath
Again, and tell us what is death?

We know that into outmost space,
Snatched sheer of earth, the spirit goes
Alone, stark, silent; but who knows
The awful whitherward? — the place
Which never deepest-piercing eye
Had glimpse of, into which we die?

Who knows? — God only. On His word
I wholly rest, I solely lean, —
The single voice that sounds between
The Eternities! No soul hath heard
One whisper else, one mystic breath
That can reveal the why of death.

I think of all who've passed the strife:
Pale women, who have failed to face
With bravery of common grace
Their daily apprehensive life,
Who yet, with straining arms stretched high
Through ecstasy, could smile, and die; —

Of little children, who would scare
To walk beneath the dark alone,
Unless some hand should hold their own,
Who've met the terror unaware,
Nor knew, while breathing out their breath,
The angel whom they saw was Death!

And I am comforted: because
The love that bore these tremblers through
Can fold its strength about me too,
And I may find my quailing was,
As theirs, a phantom that will fly,
Dawn-smitten, when I come to die.

Therefore I cleave with simple trust,
Amid my hopes, amid my fears,
Through the procession of my years, —
The years that bear me back to dust,
And cry, "Ah, Christ, if Thou be nigh,
Strong in Thy strength, I dare to die!"


Keeping His Word


(Told to a child.)

I.

"Only a penny a box," — he said:
But the gentleman turned away his head,
As if he shrank from the squalid sight
Of the boy who stood in the failing light.

"Oh, sir," he stammered, "you cannot know,"
(And he brushed from his matched the flakes of snow,
That the sudden tear might have chance to fall,)
"Or, I think — I think you would take them all.

"Hungry and cold, at our garret pane,
Ruby will watch till I come again,
Bringing the loaf. The sun has set,
And he hasn't a crumb of breakfast yet.

"One penny, and then I can buy the bread."
The gentleman stopped. "And you?" he said.
"I — I can put up with hunger and cold,
But Ruby is only six years old.

"I promised our mother before she went, —
She knew I would do it, and died content, —
I promised her, sir, through best, through worst,
I always would think of Ruby first."

The gentleman passed at the open door;
Such tales he had often heard before;
But he fumbled his purse in the twilight drear —
"I have nothing less than a shilling here."

"Oh, sir, if you only will take the pack,
I'll bring you the change in a moment back;
Indeed you may trust me!" — "Trust you? — no;
But stop, — I'll give you the shilling; go!"

II.

The gentleman lolled in his easy-chiar,
And watched his cigar-wreath melt in air,
And smiled on his children, and rose to see
The baby asleep on its mother's knee.

Just then came a message, — "Outside the door" —
But ere it was uttered, across the floor,
Half breathless, a child rushed, ragged strange:
"I am Ruby, — Mike's brother, — I have brought the change."

"Mike's hurt, sir. The snow, it made him blind;
He didn't hear the train behind
Was near, till he slipped on the track, as by
It whizzed; I'm afraid — I'm afraid he'll die.

"Yet nothing would do, sir — nothing would do,
But out I must hurry and hunt for you.
He is sure of his hurt you won't have heard,
And he wished you to know he had kept his word."

— When the garret they reached, with pain they saw
Two arms stretched, crushed, on the heap of straw:
"You did it? — dear Ruby — God bless you!" said
The brave boy, smiling, and sank back — dead.



Sources

Allan, Elizabeth Preston. The Life and Letters of Margaret Junkin Preston. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1903.

Junkin Preston, Margaret. Beechenbrook; a Rhyme of the War. Baltimore: Kelly & Piet, 1866.

— — —. Cartoons. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1875.

— — —. Colonial Ballads, Sonnets, and Other Verse. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, & Co., 1887.

— — —. A Handful of Monographs Continental and English. New York: Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., 1886.

— — —. For Love’s Sake: Poems of Faith and Comfort. New York: Anson, D. F. Randolph, & Co., 1886.

— — —. Old Song and New. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1870.

— — —. Silverwood: A Book of Memories. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1856.

Klein, Stacey Jean. Margaret Junkin Preston: Poet of the Confederacy: A Literary Life. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.