Biographical Sonnets

by Florence Churchill Casebeer


I. The Musician

Dedicated to Madame E. Schuman-Heink

Music! When through my heart, in youth's bright morn
Your flow began to surge, emotions known
To that glad time found overflow in tone,
You were confessional! Then overborn
In tumultuous tests, with rushing wind and storm,
The shell of life was hither, thither blown.
Though only echoes lingered--old forms had flown--
Still melody my searching hours transform.

I need not seek beyond the night bird's song,
Soaring in melody, above the tree;
And now a human voice in ethereal praise,
Answers from deep to deep, until we long
To merge our own in reneed minstrelsy,
And free all aching hearts for singing days.

II. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


An old poem returns in this our time,
Singing as sweetly as in days gone by,
Tuned to rhythm that can never die,
And yet my heart is quiet, for I pine
For a lost presence that leaves no sign--
A shadowy self that once would smile and sigh,
And muse in memory old verse to try,
That one might trace the form behind the line.

Oh heart leap up again! Just once impart
The fire that animated what was read,
Again possess the line, the poet's dream,
And in a flash reveal the magic art
That creates truth! Leave now no word unsaid
To kindle in the hearts of men, the gleam.

III. Emily Dickinson

And still you scorn the confines life would cast
About your fixed and marked identity.
A father, lover, friend tried endlessly,
And all the cycled censors failed at last.
Now resurrected in your revived past,
At signal of the butterfly and bee,
Witness your love wedded in mystery!
Beyond the book, the dream once believed, you clasp.

Not what we read or see or trace in line,
Becomes the ultimate of greater worth;
It is the dream we hold as our own right
Unseen by men, but envied for the sign
It shines upon the face of these on earth
Who cling to love and faith beyond the light.

       (After seeing "Alison's House" at the Community Theatre, Pasadena.)

IV. Edwin Arlington Robinson

More than a measured space, the searching heart
Has granted to this herald far ahead;
We scarce outline his shadowed counterpart
As down the hurrying years his light is shed.
A modern man! Tradition's silhouette!
In that supremacy secure, he folds
The barrier that will signify our debt,
When Time acknowledges the gifts he holds.

His light outlines memorials in our day.
His words speak for the shattered songs of men.
Lighting the Titan with a piercing ray,
We are made one with prophecy again.
Futurity extends a sheltering palm,
And safely draws the poet's dream to calm.

V. Edna St. Vincent Millay

Beyond the dark, beyond the lighted mote,
We share your depth and pinnacle of dream,
We crave the ecstasy of higher note,
Searching the lanes where late you traced the gleam.
In shadowed brightness now you hover near.
Why trails your pinion in the breaking dawn?
You haunt the gray 'twixt joy and mortal fear.
Yours is the sweetest, saddest voice we muse upon.

Your wistful words in careless fancy wrought
May answer for our heart's perplexity,
Restore that moment when your spirit thought
Hung pendant, trusting all eternity.
So may a single bird, unsought, unseen,
Trace heaven's hope above Time's tarnished green.

       (After hearing Miss Millay at Ebell.)

VI. Robert Frost

The little plot I claim for my new share,
May be stony, harsh and rough with rock--
A spot, that idle men are wont to mock
And curse as never worth a wise man's care.
I leave to them the right to choose and dare.
I never gauge my labor by the clock.
The Fall may never bring my grain to shock,
Yet on my hearth, my fire, my fruit I share.

The rough endurance of an earlier day
Survives and shapes the will to fit the need,
And though the ancient quarrel can smart and goad,
The back bends to the task, the furrowed way.
Man dream that Mother Earth will bless the load;
His hope vaults high to ride the harvest load.

VII. Willa Cather

Soul searching, thou hast journeyed far and wide
On dusty pilgrimages, charting the day
For those whose fading forms your power would stay
And fix forever where great truths abide,
Surely in seeking, you will never hide
One portrait, lest at teh last, in Time's own way,
Our measure be still less than what men say,
And all we might bequeath in you will bide.

For all the raising of the lifeless forms,--
That imminence of birth and death revealed;
For every waking figure,--cold, now warm
With confirmation and with wonder sealed,
The soul acknowledges the breaking light,
And walks with former tread out of the night.

VIII. The Physician

Dedicated to Dr. John Busby

I heard a great physician gently say,
Not one man's life raised up for price or fame,
But one gift made to lift the curse of pain,
One life of effort, just to add one ray
Of brighter living, in our human day.
To fix a bit of life where death has lain,
To bless one tortured soul where strength might wane,
Exceeds the wealth a suffering would would pay.

For every man who counts his gifts for gain,
A hundred stand to help men on their way,
No finer, truer souls push back the pall,
Than those who stand to guard the gates of pain.
No gold can recompense the part they play,
Fighting, they watch life's curtains rise and fall.

IX. The Scientist

Dedicated to Dr. Robert Millikan

There was one among them spoke as a child,
Confessed he questioned what he ought to know,
Some answer that true knowledge would bestow
If he were ready! And in spirit mild
He must have grasped the truth, for we beguiled,
Stand by and marvel that so far below,
Our little minds question and rarely go
Along the mounting trail so strange, so wild!

He pushes past the last guide post to press
A print to mark the taking of the place.
Defying precedent, the truth he would forecast
Into a newer realm, beyond the stress
Of man's vast ignorance of time and space,
That other souls might read the law at last.

X. The Preacher

Dedicated to Dr. Robert Freeman

"A dead dog speaks," so runs the preacher's text--
An ancient line of truth, a paradox,
That might be listed with the line that shocks
And holds our thought and some way almost next
We pause and read no more until the next
Head line allures. But even then truth mocks,
And he who turns to question and unlocks
The truth of dog and speech may use the text.

'Tis said, the Christ spoke many a long lost word,
As fraught with life as those we often quote,
And once when suddenly He sensed the death
Of some poor dog, the hurrying crowd then heard
These strange words rise from Him, who stopped to note
The cur "His teeth are whiter than pearls" He saith.

XI. To a Modern Painter

If from the chaos in the picture's frame,
There finally emerge a figure fair,
It seems a miracle the brush must dare
If the creator seek for modern fame.
Perhaps only an initiate dare name
These half real beings,--puppets that seem to stare
Out through the maze and wait for those who care
Enough to recognize them without blame.

So often seems the picture of our day,
A mass of unrelated forms and light,
And if there be a few who see it real,
Who sense the revelation and dare say
"There moves a figure to our deepening sight,"
From that admission, Truth may make its seal.

       (After hearing Sarah Bixby Smith relate an experience with a modern picture.)

XII. The New Teacher

Dedicated to Albert Edward Wiggam

Far have I wandered in the mind's long quest,
And many teachers have I called by name,--
Past all the goals that mark youth's end and aim,
Now spurs again the urge that knows no rest.
Which is the trail to take? Is this way best?
With soul more cautious and aware, the same
Vast range reveals new heights to claim,
And fewer guides to chart the heart's new test.

Now be it found, that clearly height on height,
The mind retain no excess, hopeless load,
So when wisdom descends to guide the will,
All stands, revealed as when a burning light
Is set by unseen hands beside a road,
And so we safely climb and round the hill.

XIII. Herbert Hoover


A father is our greatest need today!
For all our willful, careless venturing,
But though one move and act for us,--sighing
We see him not or understand the way
He marks from dark to light, and still men say
All, all is night! Where is the soul we sing!
"Land of the Pilgrim's pride"! Better to bring
A mumbled word, than no homage to pay!

Yet fatherlike he stands for us and prays,
His judgment and his power may be our strength.
He knows our human need, our old time fears,
And though it seem his cautious arm delays,
His eye surveys our land--its breadth, its length--
O will he guide us through when this storm clears?

XIV. To Mr. and Mrs. Edward MacDowell

Along the sunny side of the woodland path,
The wild rose hedge now dons its new green gown.
Now blooms the rose, far from the gardened town!
Now wafts the perfume, which no other bloom hath
Distilled or dreamed might be. Though winter's wrath
Touched all the man made gardens, on hill and down
Wild roses wreathe again the Spring's gay crown--
An old time grace renews the smile, the laugh!

Here is a hope to build through cloud and sun.
What though the blossom breathe for one brief hour?
The mystery lives in the heart that knows
True beauty, believing that the Spring will come
Strewing pale petals, and the perfumed flower
That has never changed,--Oh sweet wild rose!

XV. Dorothea Hoaglin Hayden

Some gifts a moneyed man can buy for gold!
For treasures, from your singing heart I long.
O friend, now give to me your rarer song,
For on that coral bank, grown slowly old
Maturing beauty broods and will enfold
The precious residue of dreams. No curse or wrong
Has marred your gift, but strong as love is strong
Your cadenced word reveals what life might hold!

Serenity, exceeding what the will might school.
Courageous evidence of tested worth!
A charity facing the world's demands!
All this I recognize in this carved jewel
That has evolved from your fair shore of youth--
A perfect part of the true whole, it stands.

XVI. Helena Modjeska

As we hear the nocturne rising once more,
Flowing through unseen hands caressingly,
The power of music rifts our apathy.
Unvoiced longings, uncharted hopes--the store
Youth yields to age, rise in the heart's deep core.
Song phrasings linger still and certainly
We follow up the strain and memory
Recalls the way that love once sang its lore.

Then the recurring cadence rose supreme
Above life's jangled strains and so it grew
To dominate the perfect arc, the heart
Declared high festival, part real, part dream.
And now there sounds a beat, the artist knew
While faint and fainter sounds the singing part.

       (After hearing Ralph Modjeska play the Rain Drop Prelude.)

XVII. To My Three Children

Arthur, William, Anne Belle

My children are my own interpreters
Of this strange modern world of ours,
That seems to yield no keys, no pass, no powers
Into my hands, unless perchance the spurs
That now and then I loan, and there occurs
So grave a doubt, such hounding of the hours,
I choose to trust the child, that never cowers
That I may share his lot, whate'er incurs.

One sweeps the univers, unseen but heart;
One loafs along the field, the stream, the height;
One delves into the mind's rich vein of ore.
And Mother-like I pray some magic word
Of mine be near, if tears should blind their sight,
And may my love illumine more and more.

XVIII. The Astronomer

Perhaps unseeing through Mount Wilson's eye
We look; beside us looms one that can see!
Speechless, we leave the modern laboratory,
Recalling, just a flash of truth, we sigh
Confounded by the answer to our Why?
No man can comprehend for certainty
The workings of a soul to set life free,
Because the soul is high, as heaven is high.

Posterity lives in the Einstein mind,
It traces out the maze of Michelson,
It works within the brain of Millikan,
And if we marvel, how its findings bind
Our common soul,--each age has sought and won
A power, unseen, that would lift up all men.

XIX. William Shakespeare


Bard immortal, your word is as a ledge
On which men lean and vision life at best.
Alas! that Lachesis withheld the pledge
That every verse of worth will now attest!
Those seeing eyes that see not ever quail--
Their length or lot of life determines sight.
I stand condemned if in my day I fail
To meet your word and there behold the light.

Were it not fitting then, serving life's hours
To bear the best a poet's heart e'er gives
And measure to this heritage of ours,
Nor miss one cadenced line where Shakespeare lives?
"The April of his prime" speaks in this place--
Through windows of my age his light I trace.

       (Sent to the opening of the Stratford Theater.)

XX. To My Grandmothers

Elisa Van Osdall, Ann Lovejoy Churchill

I note your shawl, bonnet and sturdy shoe
Your dress, your swinging step, your out-stretched hand,
Your forward searching eye across the land.
I trace my own ancestry back through you!
No longer is your figure strange and new
But animated with the forms that stand
Enshrined in memory,--the Mother band
That followed to the west, so fine, so true!

That soul that spurned the Allegheny range!
That one adventuring far, far, beyond
The Vermont hills and destined to meet its own
Again and yet again to pass. So strange
The emerging! A child and Mother fond
Still following the lure of fire and home.

       (Reflections on The Pioneer Mother, at Upland, Calif.)

XXI. Hildegarde Flanner

Today all barriers in your garden lift!
An instant and the poet in your breast
Swings on the compass of the further west
And you become a dream of wings that drift
On upper reaches where the eye may rift
Uncharted places and put earth to test.
Proven--your words anchor the souls unrest.
The flowering magic of the ash I sift!

And now I wait, reluctant that I leave
This endeared spot, where mysteries are wrought--
The pool's mirror, the star dust on the green,
The eerie sense of some one at my sleeve.
All the reality the curious sought
Is dimmed at sight of one in silver sheen.

XXII. Frederick Warde

Thy artistry has touched all types of men
And fashioned them again to forms we know
So when the curtain rises 'tis as though
They speak again. Father Serra then
Enters Mission Walls and roses blow as when
He spoke. And now I hear the voice of Romeo
In gardens where our loves in May still go
So plays thy voice, the harp Aeolion!

Old Lear hath found a gratitude in thee
And Woolsey proves sincerity through you,
And if for sight of all the Seven Ages.
I seek a miniature, behold I see
Its perfect form. To every man his due
Master of Make Believe, we are your pages!

XXIII. To Garden Lovers

Dedicated to Katherine Rogers

Let others plant vast gardens. I am content
With tiny little plots--a pansy bed,
A row of gardenias, some white, some red,
And to a sunny spot, Daphne is sent
With tiny corsages of rarest scent.
Through every season by my garden led
I wake to be surprised, turning my head
To meet the splendor Midas must have lent.

Ah, gay woodbine against the stony wall,
And goldenrod, I thought you'd gone to seed,
The purple aster sways,--its color fills
The patio. The orange tree blooms, and all
The roses bare an opening bud, nor heed
That frost creeps down the Pasadena hills.

XXIV. To My Challenged Self

Suggested by a line of Fanny Hodges Newman

"My heart was singing in another place."

My shut-in window framed for me today
The morning light upon a flowering tree
A brooding bird, a gay one soaring free!
As swiftly flashed the pictures, day did pass
And ere the setting sun burnished my glass
A leaf appeared to dance in ecstasy,
And suddenly, no leaf my eye could see!
Beyond my seeing eye the wonders pass!

Now fleeting shadows seem my dreams to woo;
A tireless spinner threads a web of lace;
The tall pine tree is tipped with newer green,
And where aerial wires appear as new
The shore of cloud land I can clearly trace.
Now stars appear as guides to worlds unseen.

XXV. Franklin Delano Roosevelt

January 30, 1882-1934

President of The United States

A Nation brings its proven gifts to you!
Take home these flowers from ashes and from tears,
They are the blossoms of our harrowed years,
Strong in the strain of native growth, yet new
And burgeoning as sturdy plants will do.
They have survived a storm of crushing fears;
They have withstood the blight of cruel jeers;
Now in God's cycled time, the flowers are due.

No wealth or worldly thing could bring more power--
A warmer heart beats for humanity,
And more unselfishly men act today.
In this your time and deep prophetic hour
Men bear; the stoics smile in irony;
America is furrowing a way!

XXVI. Acknowledgment

Beyond the years, there is for us somewhere
A haven, that will salvage all life's gifts
A sheltered harbor where in dreams one drifts.
Against that time, I chart the souls I dare
To prophesy are those whose gifts we share
Today and then. So may the Truth that rifts
Our cloudy sky, be as a beam that lifts
In clear relief, the features Time calls fair.

Now to my countrymen in heart and time,
I offer neither proof nor record here,
Rather affection's charting of the dream
Of high endeavor in its earthly climb.
Forgive those tracings, not altogether clear,
Enshrine within your hold the talent's gleam.

[Note: apostrophes in lines 11 and 13 inserted by Sonnet Central.]