Famous Women: Sacred and Profane (Part 4)

by Glen Levin Swiggett

The University Press of Sewanee, Tennessee



Madame Roland, 1754-1793

Not for the courage shown in will to die
Has Mme. Roland won eternal fame,
But for these words, "What crimes have in your name,
O Liberty, been done!" words she did cry
When Marat's Party which she would defy,
Doomed her to walk the way of death, aflame
With fury uncontrolled, which to the shame
Of France does but on reading horrify.

Yet caught between political extremes
In times of great upheavals such as those
That plagued France in her days of tragedy,
The Girondists or liberals, it seems,
Would, soon or late, as history ever shows,
Have suffered like her momentarily.

Madame Vigée-Lebrun, 1755-1842

'Twill always be a wondrous mystery
Why women have not chosen for career
The art of painting, for in them appear
The qualities that of necessity
One must possess to paint successfully;
And they have, too, the power to persevere,
Which in all great endeavor must inhere:
Lebrun's portraits show this revealingly.

As long as reproduction by someone
Continues, many we shall not forget,
Who would with death have met oblivion;
But through her genius Marie Antoinette
With beauty lives, and Lady Hamilton
Who Nelson's heart aflame with passion set.

Sarah Kemble Siddons, 1755-1831

As we were winning independence, she
Was coming into fame at Drury Lane,
Whence she retired the year we were again
At war with England. Famous family
Of Kembles! none has more devotedly
Served Shakespeare's stage, nor sought to entertain
With such array of varied gifts as gain
The praise of critics unreservedly.

The Kemble destiny! how different
From Rachel's, singing in the streets for bread,
Before chance made her greatest in all France!
Her Phèdre lacked, howe'er, the wonderment
Of Siddons' Lady Macbeth which has led
To peak beyond which there is no advance.

Marie Antoinette, 1755-1793

A king of France once said, I am the State;
And with this thought so lived he paved the way
For revolution at a later day,
When of French queens the most unfortunate,
Marie of Austria, that sorry fate
Endured from frenzied populace, a prey
To passions, dead to pity, that would slay,
Their baser humors to propitiate.

Marie was but a child when as a bride
She came to France, becoming soon a queen.
Caught in the current of intrigue and war,
And, with her husband, helpless in the tide
Of hate, she bravely faced the guillotine
When came her turn to ride the fatal car.

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1759-1797

For freedom and for rights political
Unfit was woman, Aristotle said.
But Mary Wollstonecraft, high-spirited,
Had England been in thought more liberal,
Would, doubtless, be today the classical
Example of his challenger, instead
Of living, challenged, for such rights, ahead
Of times that were to her inimical.

To Church and State her views on marriage gave
Offense; and one in Shelley, too, has seen
Their grave effect. Outstanding feminist,
Her first defense of woman's rights did pave
The way for later efforts that have been
Successful through the movement suffragist.

Josephine de Beauharnais, 1763-1814

Letizia, mother of Napoleon,
So dearly known to him as Madame mère
And to the world for her maternal care
Of him at Elba, for herself has won
Affection greater than we shower upon
His Empress whose great beauty did not spare
Her, nor her tact, when he at last did dare
Divorce and exile her to Malmaison.

Napoleon's wish to found a dynasty
Far greater than his land had ever known,
To kings and princes of the Church and State
Related disavowed her for sterility,
Though in her former children she had shown
Such gifts as did him highly fascinate.

Mary Lamb, 1764-1847

Although in life tied down with duty's chain,
Poetic flashes streaked reality
For Mary's brother, whose rich phantasy,
When she, at intervals, became insane,
Enabled him to carry on midst strain,
Accepting, sharing with her happily
Life's hampering responsibility,
Which was to be with them a common gain.

No brother could have given greater care
Than she received; and yet for him in need
She made the opportunity to share
Creatively affection that would lead
To Tales from Shakespeare and rare essays where
One, although nameless, can her spirit read.

Julie de Krüdener, 1764-1824

Of Madame de Staël an intimate,
Capricious, passionate; neurotic one
Might say today, and even some would shun
This woman Russian born, whose powers fate
So early sought through love to dissipate;
A mystic later then she has begun
To practise pietism wherewith she won
The Russian czar as her confederate.

The Holy Alliance is her greatest claim,
For here, with Metternich, such role she played
As only is reserved for those who make,
And are not made by, history; whose fame,
Not of the passing moment, cannot fade
As long as life's high purpose is at stake.

Madame de Staël, 1766-1817

A woman born to happy heritage
Of intellect and wealth, who early drew
Around her Europe's famous men who knew
To value this wise mistress of their age;
The woman who had fired Napoleon's rage
When with her Germany she sought to woo
The French, as had her novel Delphine, too,
Romanticism's early flowerage.

Forced both by Revolution and Empire
Into exile, a source of culture she
Became for all lands she has visited;
Who even our own writers did inspire
While at their German university;
And to romanticism France has led.

Charlotte Corday, 1768-1793

Courageous woman deemed assassin by
The radicals, for she did Marat slay,
But by the Girondists and Chénier
A patriot, whose will was but to die,
That she, through death, might free and save thereby
Her land from terrorists who would betray
Her own belovèd France that prostrate lay,
Scorned by the goddess with the bandaged eye.

The Revolution thought that it was Greek
In spirit; if so, then no better sign
It offers than this lovely Norman maid
Who went to Paris to destroy and seek
Revenge; who to her Party seemed divine
Like Joan of Arc who came to her king's aid.

Dolly Madison, 1768-1849

She must have been admired and loved to be
Forever called in history with name
So dear as Dolly by all those who came
To her receptions offered lavishly,
And famous for such hospitality
As seldom towns like Washington could claim;
For sixteen years a hostess of such fame,
That one today speaks of her lovingly.

Those days of Jefferson and Madison
Demanding were and ever called for tact
Of all who must make friends of husbands' foes.
In this field Dolly Madison had won
Distinction by such manners as attract
Those who for Party's reasons would oppose.

Dorothy Wordsworth, 1771-1854

To be the sister of a poet who
With England's greatest lies, the laureate
At last in closing years and intimate
Of Britain's best, is a great honor, too,
For her who shared, with Coleridge, the new
Direction Wordsworth would for verse create;
Whereon must English poetry await
Till Rousseau's Revolution France o'erthrew.

We learn from her the intimate detail
Of living such as seldom comes to man;
We see her brother's moral stature grow
As for him in their walks she does unveil
The loveliness of Nature, greater than
He knew without her or might ever know.

Mother Seton, 1774-1821

Since our Lord's Church for all eternity
Was built, it never failed to recognize
The worth of women and to canonize
Them for good works as well as piety.
If, therefore, for the founder of the free
School of her church, it will now do likewise,
That will, indeed, be cause of no surprise,
For she has world-wide fame for charity.

She ranks in education as a pioneer
Who sensed and early tried to meet a need
For those whose followers today revere
Her memory and would with their prayers plead
That she be given her reward now here
On earth for spirit and her saintly deed.

Jane Austen, 1775-1817

If Pride and Prejudice today is read,
And even seen upon the screen and stage,
'Tis truly a great tribute to our age,
As well as to Jane Austen who was bred
To social attitudes inherited
From living in a lonely vicarage,
Where largely she learned life from printed page
And small-town ways before her daily spread.

A perfect teller of a tale, though thin
Sometimes the substance seems, in style and thought
They now the highest praise of critics claim;
And may again serve as the origin
Of well-told stories where good taste, not plot
With sex and crime, gives to a novel, fame.

Dorothy L. Lieven, 1785-1857

Her life came at a time when Europe, bled
By revolution, through alliance sought
To overcome the harm Napoleon wrought,
And ban strange ideologies that fed
On crime and poverty inherited
From his late wars, and radical free thought.
In such a current was this princess caught
When to a diplomat of Russia wed.

Her best years fell in what was called the age
Of Metternich, who was, with Wellington,
Her friend; and from her letters we know, too,
The fame of her salon and patronage
Of such men as Guizot, for there was none
As great when France Louis Philippe o'erthrew.

Frances Wright, 1795-1852

America to such as Frances Wright,
Of Scottish birth like Robert Owen, seemed
To be a special place where causes deemed
By them essential could be realized, despite
The means wherewith they sought to expedite
Their brave new plans, not of this world but dreamed,
Prophetic of a time when men have schemed
In vain, and sated, will no longer fight.

She came too soon to carry out her plan
Where men sought with the soul of pioneer
To make their own way independently;
And yet her plans humanitarian
Are vital and unwittingly appear
In every socialized community.

Peggy O'Neill, 1796-1879

It might have been affection for his state,
Or dislike that some men for others feel,
That Jackson led to shield Peggy O'Neill,
Who for her lowly birth had won the hate
Of some who with her were associate
As wives in Jackson's cabinet, whose zeal
For etiquette could not contempt conceal,
And helped Calhoun and Jackson alienate.

To some unknown today, her husband had
Influence greater than Calhoun, for he
Belonged to Jackson's "Kitchen Cabinet,"
Responsible for many good and bad
Decisions. Jackson served them loyally,
Protecting Peggy in her social set.

Harriet Martineau, 1802-1876

A type of woman that increasingly
Will in the English-speaking world appear:
To serve some cause more as a pamphleteer,
Reforming evils of society,
And advocating ideology
Or some religion to the public, queer;
She also served, and well, as pioneer
In introducing Comte's philosophy.

Strong tides of thought were running high between
America and England when she came
First to our shore, not yet bound to such cult
As would her learned brother from her wean.
To find her true place in a Hall of Fame,
For values vanishing, is difficult!

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1804-1894

As teacher she will doubtless be best known,
Although she greatly helped to make the book
Of greater use when teaching she forsook
And carried on a bookshop of her own,
Which Boston served as center wherein shown
Its brightest lights; and she, too, undertook
To print such booklets as the nation shook,
Whose seeds of war were partly by her sown.

Associate of men like Emerson
And Alcott, Mann and Channing, she bacame
America's first planner to prepare
For kindergarten training, and has won
In this new field her major claim to fame
As one who gave to children her first care.

George Sand, 1804-1876

As I recalled her lovers DeMusset
And Chopin and how genius sharply grows
Through passion such as theirs, the thought arose
That maybe poems like the Nuit de Mai
Or some nocturn by Chopin in some way,
With passing years, might critics too dispose
To claim gifts for her greater than disclose
Her novels, though great passion they display.

As novelist, she has achieved great fame
Deservedly, howe'er, although they show,
Despite her love of Nature, mother earth,
And lowly life, her strong beliefs aflame
With social theories that stronger grow
In time with those who show, with her, their birth.

Eugénie de Guérin, 1805-1848

Like some exotic flower that blooms alone
In loveliness, the Guérins have a place
In their land's letters; leaving little trace,
And only after death to others known
Through some remembered essence vaguely sown.
As in a mirror a reflected face,
So in their Diaries delicate as lace,
Their spirits seem from other planets flown.

Such spirits must not fade from memory!
Praised by great writers of a later day
Like Arnold and Sainte-Beuve, to her we owe,
Devoted to her brother, lovingly
Recorded in her Journal, such good way
Of life as only gentle spirits know.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806-1861

The greatest poem ever written by
The Brownings was their life in Italy.
If ever man and woman ardently
Have loved with passion that does purify,
Wherein the highest inspirations lie,
They had the golden opportunity
Of sharing here their rich gifts lovingly,
Creating poetry that cannot die.

In her own Sonnets of the Portuguese,
Inspired by love such as few women know,
We learn how through it new life to her came.
No greater lovers ever were than these
In letters. Shakespeare even does not show
Such passion, pure and spotless, without shame.

Margaret Fuller, 1810-1850

What to most men seemed eccentricity
We now know was a sign of the ferment
That stirred our country and the continent
Of Europe, which led to the unity
Of Italy, and here, for slavery,
To Civil War. The era's discontent
We well see in her work for betterment
Of women in the nineteenth century.

As scholar, critic, editor, she led
The long-fought struggle to emancipate
And give to women of the world the right
Men thought that they alone inherited.
Romance, another right, she only late
Had won when drowned at sea with land in sight.*

*Revised from America: The Gate to Freedom.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896

One day in Italy I found by chance
An old and much thumbed book with yellowed page,
That had the imprint of an earlier age;
And this I saw, with but a single glance,
Was our great anti-slavery romance
That set aflame the rival heritage
Of North and South, and made the people wage
A war that gave this book significance.

Within its covers lay the answer for
The yearning that within the people lay.
It was read everywhere most eagerly
Before and following the years of war;
And though this book is seldom read today,
It was the best known of its century.*

*Revised from America: The Gate to Freedom.

The Bronté Sisters

Charlotte, 1816-1855; Emily, 1818-1848; Anne, 1820-1849

If it is true that from experience
Alone great fiction comes, which some deny,
The Bronté novels would not hold such high
Place. Two of them have given evidence,
Howe'er, that phantasy feeds violence
And faithfully its people fashions by
Such forces strange, mysterious, as lie
Within, and are with genius more intense.

The Bronté sisters were the heirs of ways
Of Ireland, loneliness, and mystery
Of English moors, and strong wish to create;
And though unfortunate in early days,
Three novels in one year this family
Assured of fame immune to unkind fate.