Famous Women: Sacred and Profane (Part 2)

by Glen Levin Swiggett

The University Press of Sewanee, Tennessee




Where myth and legend end and history
Begins, great poets have found much to fire
Creative urge. Thus Dido did inspire
Virgil who wrote of her when fatally
He had her love that one who fled by sea
From burning Troy, a victim of the ire
Of Greeks; whose death upon the flaming pyre,
Will ever haunt a schoolboy's memory.

Of Carthage founder and of Rome the foe,
Rome justice saw, howe'er, when she thus died;
And, too, a second time when Scipio
Her city conquered, which had long defied
Rome's power and vainly sought to overthrow
Her whom the gods did since Aeneas guide.


Lavinia, daughter of Latinus king,
When destined to the shores of Italy
Arrived the founder of its colony,
Though she was pledged to wear another's ring,
Became then with Aeneas conquering
That Empire's mother, which triumphantly
Would later occupy in history
First place and to its feet all nations bring.

How well has Virgil sung of her hero,
And Dante also of her Empire told!
On sea and land we see her legions beat
Foe after foe in passing to and fro
Across all boundaries and uncontrolled,
Till she through inner weakness met defeat.

Sappho, sixth century B.C.

One hears today that poetry is dead,
Slain by a people prone to industry
And customs of commerce. But can that be
When even now are Sappho's fragments read
By many with the pleasure which, 'twas said,
She gave the Greeks who once in rivalry
With Homer placed her; to whom yearningly
We hope to find more lines attributed.

How long, it seems, since she, rejected, cast
Herself into the sea, as legends say;
And yet her lines from this far distant past
Throb with emotion as if penned today.
Her lyric gift, however, unsurpassed
Has seemingly forever passed away.

Xanthippe, fifth century B.C.

Without Xanthippe would we now possess
The wisdom Plato has her husband say?
Would Socrates, the wise man of his day,
Have had the chance without her waspishness
That drove him forth from bed and board, to guess
Man's thoughts by novel methods; to waylay
In conversation Athens' youth, and flay
With covert irony her hollowness?

Shakespeare described Xanthippe as a shrewd
Coarse woman, and in her he saw no good.
More tolerant, howe'er, we should not let
Her pass as one to whom in servitude
Her husband lived for if we do, we would
In his accomplishment her role forget.

Aspasia, fifth century B.C.

When Poe wrote of the glory that was Greece,
He had in mind the age of Pericles;
Of Phidias, the Parthenon's famed frieze,
And civic arts whose wonders never cease,
Which ever with renewal give new lease
To Greek traditions, as did Sophocles,
With others, our imagination seize
And for their perfect plays desire increase.

Aspasia, cultured courtesan, became
The center of this glory, ruling well,
As mistress, Pericles; who shared his fame,
As well as those misfortunes that befell,
When Athens won by Sparta, to her shame,
No longer lived beneath Aspasia's spell.

Olympias, 316 B.C.

Olympias, the mother of a son
Whose royal father first trained to aspire
To be the builder of a world empire
Which but for early death he might have done,
Would in his stead have governed Macedon',
Had she through lust of power not stirred the ire
Of those who for offenses did conspire
Against her and retake what Philip won.

Throughout his reign, suspicious, ever prone
To jealousy, by passion driven, she
Committed crimes that finally have led
To her own execution, overthrown
By kin of those she slew pervertedly
Through evil traits she had inherited.

Three Courtesans

Some gods were minor in mythology,
As even may some poets be today,
And, too, most courtesans that sought to prey
On kings. Yet Thaïs, friend of Ptolemy,
Or Phryne, painted coming from the sea,
Or Laïs, greatest rival in her way,
Who would with beauty Alexander sway--
Famed women all, though living wantonly.

It is impossible to know how great
Was their influence, good or bad, upon
Their royal paramours, of whom we know
But dimly of relationships that fate
Has kept for us from those past ages gone
Forever, ages which strange customs show.

Cornelia, second century B.C.

Some ancient women have achieved their fame
As mother, daughter, wife or concubine
Of some great man from whom a lasting line
Has come. Thus through Cornelia, mother, came
The Gracchi, famous tribunes, who bacame
Through ardent efforts for reform, a sign
Unto Rome's poor as when the sun does shine
Through chilling clouds to set one's hopes aflame.

The idol of the Roman people, she
Received acclaim in her own right as well;
And to her they have built a monument
Inscribed such as might help all Romans see,
All coming Roman generations tell,
How she as matron did Rome represent.

Cleopatra, 69-30 B.C.

Incest and murder were her heritage,
A daughter of the line of Ptolomies,
And twin to her who helped him win the Fleece
Of Gold, whose children she has killed in rage.
Cruel Cleopatra, without anchorage,
A captive of her passions without peace,
Until through suicide she sought release,
Still lives to walk immortal Shakespeare's stage.

When Cleopatra ruled, close were the ties
Between the Nile and Tiber. Caesar had
Her for his mistress and by her a son
Caesarion, last Ptolomy, who dies
The victim of his brother, still a lad
When Antony of Rome his mother won.

Mary the Mother of Our Lord

The mother of our Saviour, Mary, dear
To man as can no other woman be,
Born of the flesh, throughout eternity;
Who does from time to time on earth appear
In vision; from whom one in prayer seeks cheer
And guidance when despair comes crushingly,
Or to whom offers one so trustingly
For blessings past his gratitude sincere.

There could have been no sweeter motherhood
Than when she thought on her Son's coming birth,
Foretold in manner never shown before:
By day at work and in the night she would
Think of her Son as bringing peace on earth
And brotherhood of man for evermore.

Mary of Magdala

With faith renewed, "My Master!" joyously
Has Mary cried to Christ, at first unknown,
When Jesus Risen called her in His own
Loved voice, which since His death unceasingly
Man hopes that he may hear, as silently
Through crowded streets he walks along alone,
Or when he prays his Saviour to condone
The sins that he has done regretfully.

As Christ to Mary first Himself revealed
When risen from the tomb, that act became
The core of Christian faith, for He then sealed
His everlasting promise to reclaim
Repentant sinners who in prayer appealed
For mercy with their hearts in love aflame.*

*Revised from America: Between Two Wars

Mary and Martha

In Mary and her sister Martha we
Have ever with us since their Master's birth
Two fine examples of the highest worth
As proving signs in Christianity
For one's faith in good works and piety:
Two attitudes that have helped fix, in dearth
Or plenty, man's determined course on earth,
And doubtless will unto eternity.

The guiding virtues that they represent
Have been divisive forces in the life
Of nations, social and political;
And even great religions implement
Beliefs with works that often lead to strife,
While others stress the passive principle.

Agrippina, first century

If ever emperor was born to crime,
The son of Agrippina, by him slain,
Who for him in her uncle's death a chain
Of murders forged, then Nero of all time
Best used the lethal weapon, that, sublime,
A god like great Augustus, he might reign,
Whose crown, together with his blood, not brain,
Had with time's passing come to him meantime.

The line of great Augustus had declined
Since Virgil wrote that a new world was born,
And a new Dispensation would appear.
For evil in Rome's favored womankind,
Not good that once Cornelia did adorn,
With Agrippina helped its grandeur shear.

Saint Helena, 249-328

Midst strife and battles Christianity
Came into Italy when Constantine
Within the sky beheld the Cross Divine,
Which led his mother Helena to be
Baptized, first of the royal family;
And, seeking, find and build our Saviour's shrine
Where He lay crucified, beneath the Sign
Which shines for Him through all eternity.

And of this Sign, it is believed, she brought
A fragment with her when she westward turned
With strengthened faith and will to keep aflame
Belief in Him whom later her son sought
On his death bed; for which the people yearned
As more and more unto the Cross they came.


Immortal Valkyrie or mortal maid,
Brunhilde, whether fact or phantasy,
Will have in literary history
Enduring place through Wagner as was made
For Helen whose fair features never fade
From Homer's page. But tragic loyalty
Brunhilde shows, revenge and cruelty,
When men with far less subtlety betrayed.

From early folk songs and illumined page
How well that nameless German monk did write
Of her who sings for us on Wagner's stage!
Who gives to music lovers same delight
As readers does the epic of this age
Of Nibelungs, Rhine maids and Gods' twilight.

Hypatia, ca. 400

Were women in Hypatia's day more wise;
Profounder students of philosophy,
Divisive dogmas of theology
That councils vainly sought to harmonize?
As Plato once at Athens taught, likewise
This lovely learned woman publicly
Explained how from the One or Unity
All things in life--mind, matter, soul--arise.

A wise and brilliant Neo-Platonist,
She suffered for a woman's love withal,
When Cyril saint urged on the mob to kill
The prefect's mistress, his antagonist;
Who did so long a world-wide group enthrall
And lovers with her moving wisdom thrill.

Theodora, sixth century

When Theodora ruled Justinian,
Rome's Western Empire had been long a prey
To German armies; and the Eastern lay
Exposed to priestcraft's schisms greater than
Her husband could control with his peace plan,
When this ambitious Empress then one day
At Nika, as the Blues and Greens did slay
Each other, in her way the Empire ran.

A former circus queen and dancer, she
Saw in their challenging as charioteer
The sign of their compelling urge to win;
And keen like them let often piety
Outrun ambition, where she should revere,
Unmindful of the sacred origin.

Fatima, early seventh century

Fatima, daughter of Mohammed, wife
Of Ali, is by virtue of her kin,
To Islam of most sacred origin;
And yet, since Ayesha, target of sharp strife
Conducive to divisive factions rife
With rivalries and discords that have been,
Despite great growth, unfortunate within
The Faith that has for sign a crescent knife.

Her followers see Ali as divine,
And down the centuries think secretly,
'Tis said, the line runs even now today,
Whence will Imam at last come by design
With majesty to govern openly
A Moslem world united to obey.


When Latin letters came to Saxony
At time Hroswitha lived, Matilda, queen
Was founding abbey-schools Benedictine;
And bringing culture into Germany,
Where must this learned nun, undoubtedly,
Have learned to write her answer to obscene
Plays of the Roman type, that contravene
Good taste and morals of a nunnery.

Great was Hroswitha in the Middle Age;
As Latin playwright, great in her own right,
But greater yet that she must represent
Associates unknown, who left no page
Whereby the world can judge that they could write
As well, but whose loss letters must lament.

Lady Murasaki, 978-1031

In years long past when Fujiwaras ran
Their land, and England was by Normandy
Attacked, and Ottos ruled in Germany,
Japan possessed a culture greater than
Knew Polo at the court of Kublai Khan;
And women at that time deservedly
Were recognized as first in poetry
As well as prose by Japan's leading clan.

Shikibu Murasaki wrote a tale
That like the memoirs of a later day
Not only for its style affords delight
But paints a valued picture in detail
Of Japan's ancient manners, sad or gay,
And of its classic culture at its height.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, twelfth century

As long as poetry and history
Are written, Eleanor of Aquitaine
Will be to some a woman gay but vain;
To others, one who lived in perfidy,
Who through divorce and plot maliciously
Sought to divide England and France and gain
The former for son Richard, later slain
In France, a living sign of chivalry.

As wife of Henry, greatest of his line,
For infidelity she suffered hate
Of him, and through him, her imprisonment;
And then retired, she did herself consign
To God, yet lived to see son John, ingrate,
A king who signed our freedom's testament.

Marie de France, twelfth century

Close were the ties that bound through Normandy,
And later Aquitaine, England to France
Who set the fashion for tales of romance
With knights at play and deeds of chivalry;
Who sent to her great dames of quality,
Of whom Marie, whose Celtic lais entrance,
Although in French, did English fame advance
For fabled satire told with artistry.

Marie was of the court, a courtly dame,
Whose lovely songs possess today such charm,
That they are loved and read with great delight
By all who seek not to discover blame
Where she in her satire may have done harm
To some poor courtier or foolish knight.

Empress Constance, 1152-1198

The Viking strain still showed in Sicily:
The stream that fed both crusade and conquest
When Constance wed the king who has possessed
The Crown of Charlemagne; and mother she
Was, too, of one who fought the papacy,
And yet became the patron mightiest
Of arts and science, who brought as his guest
To Court the men best known in poetry.

Within her husband's power the Lion-Heart
Of England lay; yet later on his way
Not from but to the Holy Land he died.
Their son, likewise, when he, too, did depart
Upon and win his crusade, did obey
The blood which was in Constance glorified.

Hëloïse, twelfth century

If everybody loves a lovers' tale,
Then that of Abélard and Hëloïse
Must surely lovers of such stories please,
For never greater sorrow did entail
Great love, nor aught that theyi would do, avail,
How'er they might endeavor to appease
Our Lady's canon, stern Fulbert, whose niece,
With Abélard a monk, then took the veil.

In letters, passion never was more pure,
Nor even Dante ever found a greater theme
Wherewith to glorify it down in Hell;
And though in life their lives were insecure,
As long as love endures and poets dream,
Will these immortal lovers weave their spell.

Beatrice, 1266-1290

Great Dante, grieving, promised he would write
Of her as ne'er before had poet done
Of woman; and his Comedy has won
For Beatrice immortal fame and sight
Eternal of both Father and the Light
Of Life, as well as all that was begun
And seemingly sprung from oblivion,
When God made darkness at Creation bright.

No greater tribute has been ever paid
To mortal than has Dante, Beatrice,
Through whom he saw the World's Creator face
To face, though in a flash; who, as his aid,
So wisely guided him in Paradise
And regions of the unknown outer space.