Famous Women: Sacred and Profane (Part 3)

by Glen Levin Swiggett

The University Press of Sewanee, Tennessee



Saint Catherine of Siena, 1347-1380

Among the famed hill towns of Italy
Siena lies, birthplace of Catherine
The saint, who, though of lowly origin,
Was called upon to free the papacy
From Babylonian captivity;
Who would so early free all men of sin
And dedicate herself to discipline,
Good works among men, and virginity.

Saint Catherine to the Dominican
Became a patron saint who later won
With them, through sainthood and devotion, fame,
When the ill-fated papal Schism ran
Its course, and has no longer Avignon
Plagued prayers and meditations, to her shame.

Joan of Arc, 1412-1431

Will one forever of her write to do
But justice to this martial peasant maid
Who led the Dauphin's army unafraid
To win the siege of Rouen and subdue
The English soldiers in fierce battles, too;
Or fervently, as on some great crusade,
We see her riding to her hero's aid,
Impelled by voices which her blindly drew?

As long as lives within man's heart a spark
Of love for loveliness in bravery,
Will poets of this peasant maiden sing,
Who felt such inner calling to embark
Upon a mission that triumphantly
Would lead to Rheims and crowning of a king.

Isabella of Spain, 1451-1504

In looking backward, one oft wonders why
Some periods seemingly without man's aid
Are so significant, while others fade
Into oblivion and quickly die.
In Isabella's reign things that defy
All understanding happen; things not made
By men, who led by fate, as on crusade
For good or bad, would themselves glorify.

The Inquisition and discovery
Of foreign lands, the conquest of the Moor,
And their expulsion with that of the Jews,
Together with the wars in Italy,
Were such, and will in history endure
As long as blindly man his path pursues.

Beatrice D'Este, 1475-1497

The times alone explain how families
Could rule both Church and State in Italy
When Beatrice has lived. The Medici,
With others, governed principalities
And papacy, and Sforzas, too, did seize
Great cities. Wealth was used most lavishly
For their adornment, and in rivalry
The greatest artists sought their courts to please.

And while, with France, their cities wars have waged,
With Isabella, Beatrice has made
Ferrara known as center of great art;
Milan, too, when Da Vinci was engaged
To paint the mural that, though it may fade,
Will never from man's memory depart.

Anne of Brittany, 1477-1514

One often thinks of what she might have been
Had she kept faith with Maximilian,
Whose grandson's circling territories ran
Around the world, but, for her origin,
She later married Charles and Louis, kin,
And as they warred midst strife and trouble, Anne
Tied Brittany to France more firmly than
War's bands have ever done or hope to win.

One asks not whether Anne of Brittany
Will live as Villon wondered once of Dame
Thaïs, for great with those of Italy,
Who have alone or with their husband's name
Achieved outstanding place in history,
She has in statesmanship enduring fame.

Lucrezia Borgia, 1480-1519

The world has thought that from the Borgia line
No good could come, and since Cesare's day
Maintained that he lived but to wound and slay
Both friends and foes, a cruel man malign.
As sinister and even saturnine,
One on Lucrezia, too, looked with dismay,
Because she had her brother put away
Her second husband, moved by foul design.

Then married to the Duke of Este, she
Became, 'tis said, a credit to the place
That lovely Beatrice did grace before
Milan drew her. Here known for piety
And beauty, friends, despite implied disgrace,
To high esteem the duchess helped restore.

Margaret of Navarre, 1492-1549

When man, endowed with thought and feeling, sought
First to express himself with artistry,
We now know, as revealed in history,
That he in tale and play was early taught
To have his own experience and others' wrought
In story, comedy and tragedy.
While tales of Margaret no novelty
Us show, they have, howe'er our fancy caught.

With Chaucer, Shakespeare, to Boccaccio
She stands in debt; and her Heptameron
Reflects the Renaissance of Rabelais,
Whose patroness she once was, with Marot.
At courts of Paris and Navarre she won
High praise for talents that her tales display.

Saint Theresa of Avila, 1515-1582

Theresa, Spain's Barefooted Carmelite,
A saintly woman of far greater power
Than her namesake, the gentle Little Flower
Of Lisieux, did with unceasing might,
Together with John of the Cross, once write
Such works for Church reforms as overtower
The efforts of all others of her hour,
Whose being manifests the Inner Light.

In Saint Theresa's order lies a spell
Transcending its beginning in her land,
That takes one gently by the hand to lead
Him to the time when did Elias dwell
Upon Mount Carmel with his youthful band,
Who now as then upon the Spirit feed.

Catherine de' Medici, 1519-1589

The Medici both in the art of peace
And war were strong: a family that gave
The Catholic world a pope, and France a brave
Yet perverse queen whose scheming did release
Religious passions that for centuries
Men's minds in even distant lands enslave.
Though mother of three kings, France did engrave
Her name for infamy that will not cease.

The hate that lay back of that fatal day
Of Saint Bartholomew fled over sea
With Mary when her husband Francis died;
Who as the Queen of Scots to the dismay
Of Knox became the target finally
Of charges many claim unjustified.

Elizabeth, 1533-1603

Elizabeth, judged illegitimate
When Anne her mother for adultery
Was put to death, became then finally
For English folk their queen both good and great,
Who did not only Spain humiliate
But made her people of lands oversea
Aware through Drake and Raleigh pridefully,
And helped thereby prosperity create.

If judged as queen, Elizabeth ranks high
In history, but as a woman less;
For though oft mean and always fickle, vain,
No ruler ever sought to glorify
His country more with thoughts of worthiness,
And exploit less the weakness of his reign.

Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-1587

How much has faith, what part has beauty played;
How much the character of Guise of France,
And what, too, those blind happenings of chance?
How much have these harmed this unhappy maid
Whose fate from history will never fade,
And ever be with poets of romance
A chosen theme of tragic sufferance
In beauty as she faced death unafraid.

As Queen of France or Scotland she was caught
Enmeshed within a sorry web of zeal
That but for faith and not for right does fight.
The Queen of England, therefore, has not sought
Her death as one that threatened England's weal
But in defense of her religion's rite.

Margaret of Valois, 1553-1615

The blood of Valois and the Medici
In this late daughter of the Renaissance,
A queen and sister to three kings of France,
For Henry of Navarre flowed fatally
And to religious wars led hopelessly.
If royal child with such inheritance
E'er lived to pay the piper for the dance,
Then Margot of Navarre that child must be.

Hate, prejudice, and passion were allies
That watched o'er her in childhood and when wed
To Henry, who put later her away
Imprisoned and divorced for plots and vice
Which she, despite her own, inherited
From royal lines already in decay.

Marie de' Medici, 1573-1642

In looking back upon the times that made
The Medici so powerful in history
Of Europe, one can see how faith may be
Through prejudice almost a vice in aid
Of passions leading to acts that degrade,
Producing sins of immortality,
Assassination, and, for sorcery,
Beheading, burning of those who betrayed.

And even oversea ill fate pursued
Marie whose daughter Charles of England wed,
Who for his faith was done to death. But France,
Despite her private life, has prospered, wooed
By Richelieu, on whose account she later fled,
To die in exile, creature of cruel chance.

The Rose of Lima

For beauty, Isabel became the Rose
Of Lima, first saint to be canonized
In that new world which first was colonized
By Catholic Kings of Spain, and then by those
Of rivals, whereby, later, wars arose.
By Lima's worldly women early recognized
For saintly qualities, and idolized
By them, to live like Catherine she chose.

Austere, yet loving Christ her Lord, she spent
Her first years in her parent's garden sown
With bitter herbs and crosses; then, when poor,
For their support in service, instrument
Devoted to her Saviour's call, headstone
Of faith wherein she did her soul immure.

Anne Hutchinson, 1590-1643

New England, home of those brave men who came
Across the sea in quest of liberty
Of worship, early with authority
Denied this right to others who would claim
Same freedom for their fath of other name.
Such was Anne Hutchinson's, who had to flee
Hostility of Cotton's colony,
And elsewhere seek refuge, to Boston's shame.

The Holy Spirit dwells within and guides
Believers, she has taught, in thought and deed,
As even would the Quaker's Inner Light.
Banned for this thought that now with many bides,
Her trail through Roger Williams' isle did lead
To cabin which the Indians burned at night.

Henrietta Maria, 1609-1669

Democracy in Europe has been rude
And rough; and common men, too long denied
Their rights, have fought for it and nameless died.
And royalty, both vain and proud, imbued
With rights divine, howe'er refined, pursued
In self-defense a course that did betide
Ills personal and public to their side,
Incurring violence, oft stark and crude.

Into such royalty and warring age
This daughter of Navarre and Medici
Was born, whose Catholic faith has led,
As England's queen, some strong men in their rage,
Though once loved by the English ardently,
Her Stuart husband later to behead.

Madame de Sévigné, 1626-1696

What price our busy world now pays for speed!
The letters of past years when one would write
In long hand of small things that give delight
To friends and to their friends, which one would read
Not once but many times, and which oft lead
To closer ties of friendship! We have quite
Forgotten how such letters to indite
And must let others satisfy this need.

And need there is! And none can satisfy
It better than Madame de Sévigné,
Whose famous letters to her daughter let
Us know not only what and how but why
We should write letters such as hers today,
That those who follow may us not forget.

Madame de Maintenon, 1635-1719

Born in captivity and poverty,
With first years spent in distant Martinique,
And wed as child to Scarron, old and weak,
She soon became attached devotedly
To a great cause, and taught so faithfully
The Sun King's children he was led to seek
Her hand in marriage, though at court a clique
Opposed assumption of such royalty.

Despite her good influence on the king,
Her greatest merit lies in the sincere
Belief in education for the poor;
And too this faith is due her mothering
Of orphan girls in her school at Saint-Cyr
Which was to be her place of sepulture.

Jeanne Marie Guyon, 1648-1717

The quietistic faith of Jeanne Guyon
In France ran strangely when supremacy
The Sun King sought and urged activity.
The friendship of Madame de Maintenon,
Howe'er, and of her pupil Fénelon,
Had many seek God with passivity
Of soul, despite the charge of heresy
Which for her many years in prison won.

Desire to speak with God and see Him face
To face is mysticism's common core,
And shows in most faiths coming from the East.
Conversion and salvation through God's grace
She taught, and, too, without all thought before
Him, one must live with Him as ONE at least.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, 1651-1695

To her attracting vast vice-royalties
Spain sent a faithful and devoted band
Of priests who, when they reached their savage strand,
Set up schools for the aborigines,
And early founded universities
In Mexico and Lima; to command,
Transplanting, Spanish culture in each land,
Enriching slowly down the centuries.

This learned nun well shows the flowering
Within the colony of Mexico;
Whose lyrics, after Góngora in style,
Spain's foremost writer of his day, still bring
Great pleasure to those who enjoy the flow
Of artful passion written to beguile.

Queen Anne, 1664-1714

The Glorious Revolution gave a Bill
Of Rights to England, and her Parliament,
Defending people's rights, an instrument
That should forever represent their will.
Yet wars entangling France and England still
Involved these countries when Anne's government
Began, wherein her chief accomplishment
Were victories won through Marlborough's skill.

First ruler of Great Britain, Anne as queen
Successes had at home and oversea,
To those due who now coming to the fore,
Had previously by Catholic rulers been
Suppressed, and through trade, too, prosperity
Once more were bringing to the British shore.

Catherine the Great, 1729-1796

To Catherine the Great the Soviet
Must often turn, although they may deny
They have with her remotely any tie;
For they in many things stand in her debt,
Which seemingly their spoken words forget;
Her foreign policy based on the lie,
Behavior that does decency defy,
And acts that sometimes crimes beget.

Through Catherine did Russia greatly gain
In lands and culture. Born in Germany,
A child of the Enlightenment, she knew
Men like Voltaire, yet when was Peter slain,
Became conservative increasingly,
To measures of reform no longer true.

Martha Washington, 1731-1802

One can so easily his tribute pay
To womanhood, when one recalls such son
As our first president George Washington,
Whose wife and mother one can surely say
Were high examples of what we today
Prize in America, and which have won
Affectionate regard since those homespun
Beginnings in that distant foreign day.

America, howe'er, had travelled far
When she became, first of First Ladies, bride
Of our first army's chief and president;
Who served him and his country well in war,
And with her charm and common-sense helped guide
The destiny of a new government.

Abigail Adams, 1744-1818

The daughter of a clergyman and wed
To one descended from a farmer's son,
The mother of a family that won
Distinction early--all high-spirited,
And all of them in letters widely read--
Of Adams' wife time-tested stories run
That as America's First Lady, none
To public life has more contributed.

How young she was when John first bravely fought
For colonies; endangering their place and stand,
Creating enemies, when he was sent
Abroad. How much he owes to his self-taught
Companion, one can clearly understand
From letters that tell well of his torment.

Jeanne du Barry, 1746-1793

Of some are said some things that could be true,
Though they may legends be, as when 'twas said
Of Louis Sun-king, "I'm the State", which led
To his great-grandson's waste of revenue,
To courtesans and corrupt courtiers due;
And Jeanne, for form's sake to Du Barry wed,
Extravagant, has most contributed
To Louis' words, "Let ruin me pursue!

A woman of great brilliancy of wit
And extraordinary loveliness,
Though lowly bred like Lady Hamilton,
Jeanne easily became first favorite
Of Louis Fifteenth, which led to distress
And tragic death she finally has won.