Famous Women: Sacred and Profane (Part 1)

by Glen Levin Swiggett

The University Press of Sewanee, Tennessee



Dedicatory Sonnet

As Dante once for Beatrice has done,
I wrote these sonnets to the memory
Of women, known to fame in history
And legend, since recording has begun;
To some outstanding women who have won,
Profane or sacred, immortality
As long as man continues faithfully
The course that has with these recordings run.

To man's first mother and to her who bore
The Son of Man who on the Cross has died
For man; to women, real or fancied, who
Inspire succeeding generations o'er
And o'er, and writers, too, with themes provide;
Who through themselves or others greatness knew.


I had some misgivings in the writing of these sonnets for publication. It would, perhaps, be less difficult, if one were to write of contemporary women, though one's selection might be prejudiced. One could also set a definite date for the omission of such deservedly famous women. One should include, however, founders or leaders of any movement vital to the culture of their country.

Within the limitations of the sonnet, I have sought to catch something salient in the life of the person portrayed, something of importance in progressive culture.

I make no apology for beginning this series with Eve, the mother of man, nor for including a sonnet to Mary, the blessed mother of our Lord. Nor do I likewise for sonnets to mythical and semi-mythical women who have served so well since they fired man's imagination in the creation of the world's first letters.

While my selection is easily subject to criticism, the women selected, almost without exception, are historically famous. That is the real test, whether there is common agreement, or not, as to what fame is. Few women, until this century, have achieved historical greatness. Occasionally one has appeared above the horizon of history to prove that they could achieve as well as men, and yet like falling stars they seem to have been but flashes in the night.

I have before me, as I write, a recent anthology of philosophic thought, from the earliest times, by about four hundred writers. The name of only one woman is in this long list. The story is more or less the same in other fields.

Perhaps you, too, with me will wonder why!


First of her sex and our first mother, sign
For man of love on earth and his desire
For continuity: now to inspire
In him the highest thoughts and deeds benign;
Now sink, as Dante tells, to depths malign,
Whenever passion, offspring of her dire
Temptation, sets both head and heart afire
For things false to his destiny divine.

Eve, mother of mankind! in history
Too long has man remained to her a slave
And has of her too long thought but in sin,
For in her womanhood lie really,
With Mary, whom our Saviour once forgave,
Man's frailties, inborn with his origin.

The Nine Muses

I. Calliope

Myth honored women more than history;
And men like Homer, Virgil, Dante, won,
In worship of the Muses, fame, each one
A daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne;
And to those three most dear, Calliope,
As well as to that son of Albion,
Whose epic has with Ancient Days begun,
And those of Portugal and Italy.

The reworked cycles of the Middle Age
And early efforts of an ancient race
That felt the urging to record its past
And leave in speech or on the written page,
Show how from tales these stories grew apace
And into epics later were recast.

II. Clio

Since homage by Herodotus was paid
To Clio, those who write of history
Or pen their chronicles with industry,
Have sought in retrospective moods her aid.
To those whose charm of spirit does pervade
Assembled facts, her gifts are helpfully
Bestowed, explaining why from memory
Will Xenophon and Livy never fade.

We know thus why Macauley is still read;
Why we to Prescott go if we would know
Of Mexico; to Grote who wrote of Greece;
For Rome, to Gibbon; and all others bred
To their approach, who in their treatment show
That scholarship and charm are of one piece.

III. Erato

Erato, Muse of passionate desire,
Has been the object of man's love since dawn
Of time; to whom sweet Sappho was so drawn
She gave all to this Lady of the Lyre;
Who did the poets of Provence inspire,
As well as heirs, to write such songs upon
Love's theme as doubtless would displease the Faun
But set, howe'er, their ladies; hearts afire.

Of Beatrice great Dante once has sung;
To Laura lovely sonnets wrote Petrarch;
And lovelier, perhaps, the Portuguese
Of Mrs. Browning, written in the tongue
Of passion; Shakespeare's, too, whose meaning dark
And hidden causes scholars such unease.

IV. Euterpe

Of Muses nine that dwell on mountain peak,
Euterpe is the one most widely sought
By man, yet, searching, he has rarely caught
Her, as world letters show, howe'er he seek.
Of poets of the past we seldom speak,
Although some to their time great honor brought
For beauty and nobility of thought;
Yet these were even then, as now, unique.

Euterpe gives her favors but to those
Who know that form to substance must be wed;
Who know that truth and beauty absolute
Are one, and poets ever predispose
Since Sappho and Villon, high-spirited,
To seek help from the Lady of the Flute.

V. Melpomene

The greatest of the Muses, if judged by
Success of Aeschylus or Sophocles
Or Athens' realist Euripides;
By Seneca and Lope who would vie
With them but failed, however they might try,
Although their plays Madrid and Rome did please;
And by our Shakespeare, too, whose plays, with these,
Have served a Golden Age to glorify.

Elizabeth and Charles of England gave
Her followers the freedom of the stage;
And so have kings of France and Germany,
Where living men and women could behave
With words and gesture of whatever age--
All faithful subjects of Melpomene.

VI. Polyhymnia

We must not think of her as drab and gray,
For, in a sense, all noble poetry,
Since gods were worshipped, has the quality
Of sacred verse, which now, as then, essay
Great poets, whether moods are sad or gay,
For, though at church she walks triumphantly,
And in the quiet study modestly,
She ever sweetly urges one to pray.

Some operas, all oratorios
And sacred hymns, all psalms in paraphrase,
And songs of Wesley, Luther, Newman, Donne--
All these at her command, as well as those
Since time began when man first sang in praise
Of God, stem from this Muse of Helicon.

VII. Terpsichore

Terpsichore, the graceful Muse of song
And dance, most worshiped at the present hour;
The one, undoubtedly, of greatest power,
As even when the bacchic crowd along
That classic stream, a gay and drunken throng,
Adoring her in worship, flowers would shower;
Who on the stage is praised today by our
Great ballet, dancers, marvelously strong.

And glancing down the centuries we see
Each Muse assume and special powers display,
To fashion due or maybe causes deep
Beneath the surface, that unknowingly
Attract attention and emotions sway:
Thus Russian ballets into favor leap.*

*May 15, 1959

VIII. Thalia

Thalia, more than Muse, for she as Grace
Is one of that immortal charming Three
The merry patroness of comedy,
Who wears a mask upon her lovely face;
By Aristophanes beloved, whose place
By Terence, Molière, recurrently,
With Shakespeare and Goldoni fittingly
Is taken to amuse the human race.

As long as comedy does entertain
And lighter traits of character appeal,
Affording pleasure without harmful pain,
Thalia, whether Muse or Grace, will feel
Impelled to have some lassie loved by swain,
And wounds of passion, made by Cupid, heal.

IX. Urania

Of all the Muses none today is more
Important than Urania who guides
Astronomy and will that man who rides
To outer space, for she stands at the door
To all the planets never seen before
By mortal man; who rules the starry tides
And in their courses stars besides,
And all things set within the heaven's floor.

The Muse that scientists now wish to know,
That they may safely probe the outer space,
In Egypt seven thousand years ago
The calendar gave to the human race,
And helped Copernicus much later show
How round the sun the planet earth does race.


All things are possible to God! Therefore,
We should have greater faith than Sarah's when
She first heard that she would become of men
The mother, more than sand upon the shore;
In whose seed nations would be blest, moreo'er,
Increasing upon thousands ten by ten;
Then after wandering, God would again
His people to their heritage restore.

With nations, as with men, it cannot be
Too late to have faith in God's ordering
Which, as with leaven, turns sterility
Into fertility, recovering
The functioning of errant destiny,
Which is eternally refreshening.


In Hagar, Jew and Arab of today
Reveal, as well as racial origin,
Ancestral faith, though late Mohammedan
Through Ishmael, compelled to live the way
Of nomad and to desert beasts a prey,
Now differs in Islamic discipline.
Yet Hagar, too, heard with her would begin
Such nation as within God's promise lay.

In Ishmael and Isaac it would seem
That there should show some tie of brotherhood;
That theirs should be of peace the heritage,
Not war; of love and neighborly esteem,
Not such dislike as has between them stood
And currently in strife does them engage.


Rebekah, virgin, fair to look upon!
To Isaac pledged unknown at Nahor's well,
Will in our memory forever dwell
As symbol of a maiden wooed and won
To serve her Lord; and through whom has begun
His chosen people's march, as Scriptures tell,
Up to the time their holy city fell,
And a new Light throughout the world has run.

A lovely jewel set within a ring,
All artists love to think of her as she
Came to this well, and poets likewise sing.
She lives, howe'er, in sacred history
As one who saw in Jacob's favoring
Fulfillment of her race's destiny.


In Joseph's mother history may well
Reveal the reason why endures his race,
For sired by one who saw God face to face,
And wrestling through the night at Peniel
To win the blessed name of Israel,
This son she gave possessed the power through grace
Of God his people to recover and efface
Misfortune and such wrongs as them befell.

What lovely picture of love at first sight
When Jacob coming saw his promised bride!
And with what patience through the seven years
And more she waited for the blessed right
To be a mother and her race provide
With Joseph, mighty son whom one reveres!


The ways of God man cannot comprehend
Except through faith which helps him understand
Where Joshua could take the Promised Land
But with a harlot's help, when he would send
To Jericho, for Rahab to befriend
And hide, his spies; to whom her fatherland
Was less than her belief in the command
Of Moses' God whom she dared not offend.

The part that Rahab played may seem quite small
To many in the march of history;
But in God's purpose 'twas no accident,
For Israel saw here before the wall
Of Jericho His power triumphantly
Displayed, of which she was the instrument.


As evil upon evil Israel
Committed, Deborah in prophecy,
With others, judged her and to victory
Led over Sisera; and sang as well,
With praise to God, those stirring lines that tell
How her song from captivity did free
Her people, and from gross idolatry,
When Jabin's captain bowed his head and fell.

In Deborah the judge we find a type
Of woman far removed and different
From those once sought in marriage in the land
Whence Abram came: courageous women, ripe,
Becoming fittingly the instrument
Of God for any work that lay at hand.


Delilah courtesan, hired to betray
The hairy Nazarite, was but a pawn
In aid of Samson's mission, called upon
By God to judge his people and to slay
Philistine enemies on Dagon's Day,
When, with recovered strength, Manoah's son,
Though blind, brought down their pagan temple on
Them, whither shouting they had gone to pray.

Among the ancient evil women no
Small place Delilah has, for she, too, died
To serve God's purpose with His chosen race;
And though she tempted Samson to let grow
No more the hair that gave him power, and lied,
She was the tool whereby God showed His grace.


Against a background of obedience,
First of Hebraic virtues, David's line
Descends from Ruth unto the Son Divine.
Her loving trust and simple reverence
Without the guidance of experience,
Idyllic innocence so infantine,
Show, too, in him who came from Jesse's vine,
And that great king known for his sapience.

More dear than seven sons through loyalty,
Naomi has unknowingly her led
To glean in Boaz' field, and then to lie
Unbidden at his feet where secretly
He vowed to take this maiden to his bed,
And God thereby as kinsman glorify.


Her Hittite husband had to die that she
Be David's wife, who did from Michal wring
Contempt when he before the Ark would sing
And dance. No more a shepherd, royally
King David ruled; and then, with tyranny,
When from his roof he ordered men to bring
Bath-sheba from her bath one evening,
And have Uriah slain, though valiantly.

'Tis not a pretty picture of the man
We hold in treasured memory; of one
Who sang for us sweet songs; whom Jonathan
Loved as a brother; one who Solomon
Reared wisely, and from whom Philistines ran
When he in battle with Goliath won.

Hatshepsut, fifteenth century B.C.

Her dynasty, known in the history
Of Egypt for artistic excellence,
Constructive power and munificence
Has through two women immortality:
Fate saves the lovely bust for all to see
Of Nefretete; and omnipotence
Of Hatshepsut, and her intelligence
As well, lives ever in man's memory.

The wife of her own brother and known, too,
As Thutmose, she became a ruling queen
In everything but name as Egypt grew
Beyond frontiers and has through battles been
The conqueror of lands that never knew
Till then the strength of her land's fellaheen.

The Queen of Sheba, tenth century B.C.

To Solomon the Queen of Sheba came
From some strange land that she might gratify
Her wish to prove him and to testify
To his great understanding, for his fame
As wise judge of his people made his name
Most widely known; and she, too, would supply
This Temple-builder with gifts that the eye
Delight, and stones that dim the brightest flame.

Then in his glory and magnificence
The son of David sent her on her way,
Dismissing her with presents equally
In witness of his own munificence:
A fitting thing to do in present-day
Democracy or ancient royalty.

Jezebel, ninth century B.C.

Division, at the death of Solomon,
To grievous sins and grave disasters led
In Israel, whence seemingly God fled
When Ahab married Jezebel who won
This land for Baal and had God's prophets done
To death; but one, Elijah, who was fed
By ravens, prophesied when she was dead,
The dogs would gnaw upon her skeleton.

Rebellion, rivalry, and bitter strife
On strife, began to plague this promised land
When Ahab took this maid of Tyre for wife.
Both daughter and grandson were slain by hand
Of followers of those who sought their life,
That they divided Israel command.


Adopted by her uncle Mordecai,
This fairest of the virgins, whom the king
Ahasuerus sent his men to bring
Before him when he put Queen Vashti by,
Because she did his high command defy,
Became the wearer of the royal ring,
Who would one day the Jews from suffering
Deliver and have Haman hung on high.

In recognition of deliverance,
The Jewish people now observe a day
Of joy, commemorating all that she
Accomplished when from cruel arrogance
Of Haman she has freed them, and dismay
That came upon them in captivity.

Helen of Troy

Did Helen only from blind Homer's brain
Emerge like Venus from the Cyprean sea,
A creature only born of phantasy,
Who for her beauty ever must remain
The cause that split the ancient world in twain?
And yet in history she seems to be
So real, such vital cause of jealousy
And hate when through her was brave Hector slain.

Great poems to her beauty testify--
Some by great poets: Marlowe wrote a line
Immortal; Goethe brought her back to lie
With Faust and have a son with name divine.
As long as love of beauty does not die,
Will poets worship at fair Helen's shrine.


Penelope is more than legend, more
Than sign of faithfulness one thinks is due
In marriage, for her story gives us, through
The keeping of the secret vow she swore,
The tale's eternal ending, o'er and o'er
Repeated, since in absence suitors woo
Ulysses' wife who his long overdue
Return awaits to drive them from her door.

'Tis strange that one could write of martial deed
So well and then a tale so simply tell
As Homer has done in his Odyssey,
Where wooers fight in rivalry, and feed,
With interwoven bits of pastoral
And hints of medieval chivalry.