Famous Women: Sacred and Profane (Part 5)

by Glen Levin Swiggett

The University Press of Sewanee, Tennessee



George Eliot, 1817-1880

Of strong mind, yet susceptibility
Of high degree from early years made her
The willing victim of her character;
Which dulled her faith in Christianity
And attitude toward society
Determined, and though free, the prisoner
Of such created characters as were
Entangled in their web of destiny.

Far greater, doubtless, as a writer than
A woman, nonetheless her friendly tie
With Lewes let her know where genius lay
And novels write humanitarian,
With social themes and problems that still cry
For cleansing, yet were novel in her day.

Victoria, 1819-1901

Contemporary critics sometimes show
Dislike for men and things Victorian;
And strangely so, for writers greater than
We have today still wrote, touched with the glow
Of those traditions that from genius flow;
And for a great humanitarian
Who fathered fiction proletarian,
Though to him we do not this evil owe.

Victoria's was expansion's greatest age;
Democracy sired strangely an empire;
And Tories showed an eager interest
In Britain's poor; and with the printed page
And in debate the English set on fire
For measures of relief for their distressed.

Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910

The Battle Hymn of the Republic set
To tune of John Brown's Body sang its way
Into the hearts of Union men. Today
Few know this song; and most of us forget
How much our social progress is in debt
To one who founded and did first essay
Plans for advance of women, which display
Reforming zeal of a real suffragette.

Of women's movements of those early days
When leaders worked for peace as well as dreamed
Of freedom for all men, there was no phase
Of this awakening that she has deemed
Unworthy of her efforts, and in ways
That then to most men unbecoming seemed.

Susan B. Anthony, 1820-1906

The rights of woman from such movements grew
As temperance and Anti-Slavery;
And in these great as Susan Anthony
Were others like Lucretia Mott who through
Her Quaker love of peace and freedom drew
Together that group in mid-century,
The first step on the road to victory
For suffrage and the rights of woman, too.

Yet Susan Anthony, perhaps of all
The greatest, through whom suffrage first began,
With Mrs. Stanton, while identified
With causes of her time, however small,
Will best be known as challenger to man
Who woman's right to vote had long denied.

Florence Nightingale, 1820-1910

'Tis difficult today to recognize
The valued work of Florence Nightingale,
Although with highest merit few lands fail
To honor her for nursing she did organize.
If one could but her problems visualize
When governments in war without avail
Sought ways to save their wounded, he would quail
Before the aid she had to improvise.

We see the nurse in modern living play
A role, in war or peace, so commonplace,
We easily forget how recently
This service so well organized today
Began with her who gave the human race
Relief, through nursing, from its misery.

Clara Barton, 1821-1912

Of women of the nineteenth century,
Outstanding for their voluntary aid
Of suffering by great disasters made,
Miss Barton's place is unreservedly
Assured. First as a teacher in a free
School, then as nurse to whom has Lincoln paid
High praise, and service such abroad displayed,
She won the Iron Cross of Germany.

First president of our Red Cross, she found
A way to offer aid in times of peace
As well as war. Before the government
Can act, by disciplined procedures bound,
The Red Cross helping measures can release
To lessen great disaster or prevent.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1821-1910

A delicate, frail woman, lonely, kind,
Found in the Message of our Lord relief
From pain, whereon she founded a belief
Or faith for others who had failed to find
In their religion what would comfort mind
And body heal when ill, and save from grief
And fright tormented souls that in their brief
Stay here but walk in darkness as if blind.

It is not strange that her belief has grown
And now embraces millions in our land.
The time was ripe, and her example, strong;
And as the founder's faith is ever shown
In worship, she has credit for the grand
Concept that life knows neither ill nor wrong.*

*Revised from America: Between Two Wars.

Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886

He would, indeed, a captious critic be
Of her who strangely did through life seclude
Herself, if he saw but some idle mood
Within her oddly packaged poetry
That largely spoke of God and destiny.
Yet would have served her better, solitude,
Her own verse ripening, had she been wooed
And less of death thought, and eternity.

Their mystery, however, of her made
The poet, to discipline obedient,
Whose thoughts into a dream-world seemed to fade,
Where she has written verse of wonderment,
Precise yet vague, that often does evade
Reality, with mysticism blent.*

Revised from America: Between Two Wars.

Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894

Most gifted was Christina's family,
And that may partly be one reason why
In English letters she does occupy
Today so high a place. From Italy
Her learned father came a refugee,
With fellow-exiles to identify
Himself with new surroundings and thereby
Become a part of English history.

One can, I think, say truly Dante came
To England with Rossettis; came to stay
And be in England's soul a vital thing.
Christina, with her brothers, too, became
A poet through him. Lyrics that display
High, sacred feeling show his visioning.

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, 1831-1891

America, a country that is prone
To profit as our culture testifies,
Oft something shows contrary that denies
Its spirit, as may easily be shown
In some philosophy or cult unknown,
Accepted instantly, though it belies
Basic beliefs. Yet such faith quickly dies
And never has within our country grown.

And only those can tell us why who know
The Orient; who know that East and West are twain;
And that the spirit cannot fully grow
In man when mind is set on money's gain.
To India, Blavatsky had to go
At last, where seeds of her faith long have lain.

Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888

How dull and drab can life be seemingly
To be a source mysterious of light
And joy to all who read with great delight
Such books as Little Women, lovingly
Enthroned within one's cherished memory,
Where publicly Louisa would invite
The world to come and share what she did write
About her strange and gifted family.

Such book as this can serve as antidote
To weary minds, by hurry worn and waste,
As quietly and unaware they fall
Beneath Jo's spell and with her sisters float
Along life's simpler current without haste:
A stream gone underground without recall.

Hetty Green, 1835-1916

In Hetty Green, America has an
Example rare of what some women do
Within the field of finance, then so new,
And till her time but occupied by man;
Wherein, though born to riches, richer than
All women she became, entirely due
To management and foresight wherewith few
Men of her age so well their business ran.

Acquisitive, with wish to have and hold,
This aspect of our land's development
She ably represents; but in that where
We see desire to give and help unfold,
With gifts in times of need to government
And institutions, she seemed not to share.

Frances Willard, 1839-1898

Most women of America, who fame
Achieved through working for some organized
Association for reform, have sacrificed
Careers as teachers to effect, aflame
With some great cause, the worthy claim
Inherent in its aim, and realized
Alone through efforts never compromised
With anything that might defeat this aim.

A high example of such nobleness.
The Christian Temperance Union's founder sought,
In national and international
Societies, to save from drunkenness
All men; and she has for the ballot fought
With zeal that seemed at times fanatical.

Empress Carlotta, 1840-1927

Of fatal families in history
The Austrian Hapsburgs easily can claim
A leading place to such unhappy fame.
We see the lovely Queen of France Marie
Go to the guillotine courageously;
Carlotta, Maximilian's wife, became
Insane soon after she to Europe came,
To help her husband in captivity.

Fate to this royal pair was most unkind
In asking them to rule midst lawlessness
O'er an unreal empire in Mexico!
One would, indeed, to history be blind,
If he forgot his passing merciless
And that of his consort, which came so slow.

Carmen Sylva, 1843-1916

By this name, doubtless, she is better known
Than as Roumania's queen, to whom death came
As her adopted land war's stage became;
Where she had made its folklore all her own
And from it stories woven that have grown
Into such things as have eternal fame
In letter of all lands, but she can claim
As well distinction for herself alone.

A queen who has for native gifts a place
In letters recognized by critics who
Establish reputations, nonetheless
Events that cast their shadows o'er the face
Of courts, which month by month momentous grew,
Have touched her Thoughts with greater wistfulness.

Catherine Breshkovskaya, 1844-1934

Like Tolstoi, member of nobility,
But differing as revolutionist,
She left her child and husband to enlist
And early serve the cause of liberty,
Devoted to the Russian peasantry.
But even as Kerensky, visionist,
Whom she, recalled from exile, did assist,
She was denied the fruits of victory.

And more than person she will live as sign
Of something fine that strangely went astray
Through selfish lust of Russian men for power.
'Tis sad to think that one to whom a shrine
Was freedom for which she did work and pray,
In exile died when came her final hour.

Sarah Bernhardt, 1844-1923

No voice has in such bondage held the stage
As divine Sarah's, greatest of her day,
Whose early efforts would misfortunes stay!
But when great Hugo spoke through her, the rage
Of Paris she bacame, who from the page
Created characters that in hte play
Far greater powers than in the book display
And world-wide hearers held in vassalage.

No longer young, to many in L'Aiglon
She had her greatest triumph, where she made
Art seem, through her superb art, something real,
Perhaps the highest victory she won;
And creature of her art, she but obeyed
Demands to win applause beyond repeal.

Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, 1844-1879

It seems, almost as yesterday,
When this poor peasant girl the Virgin saw
In vision, and of Lourdes a saving spa
Has made, where millions come each year to pray,
Believing, for strange cures through springs that lay
Till then unknown for miracles, and draw
Their healing with a feeling unto awe,
As to her and their Lord they homage bring.

If we believe in wisdom when we see
The first time Rodin's Thinker, why not more
And more have faith in some things to the eye
Now evident in cures so helpfully
Bestowed through Bernadette, a saint moreo'er,
Whose power of vision one cannot deny.

Annie Wood Besant, 1847-1933

Had finite, as with many, been her goal,
She would have, doubtless, been, as she began,
A truly great humanitarian,
Who cared far more for body than for soul.
But friends like Stead theosophy her sole
Life-interest have made, far greater than
Her teacher's whose society she ran
As president and keeper of its scroll.

However one may judge theosophy
Today, thought's mystic mould, wherein is bred
Its principles, continues without break
Since man first felt within divinity;
And divine wisdom thus inherited
Has helped to keep his mind and soul awake.

Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887

If, loving freedom, we'd be always free,
For poetry of one in whose lines flow
Rich racial heritage, and, too, the glow
Of mellowed melancholy naturally,
Fired by her people's loss of liberty,
A deeper understanding we should show
Of her crusading work, whereof we know
So little, and less of her poetry.

Her message of a freedom-loving land
Was gratefully engraved on the Statue
Of Liberty, for every immigrant
A sign of welcome to our native strand;
And letters she enriched with what the Jew
Had so well done in countries tolerant.*

*Revised from America: Between Two Wars.

Salome Ureña de Henriquez, 1850-1897

Few women of the Western Hemisphere
Have greater right to their established fame
Than she who with Cornelia can well claim
To have born sons whom she did richly rear,
Midst trials that sometimes hopeless did appear,
For letters and diplomacy, wherein became
Each one, Pedro and Max, crowned with the same
Degree of praise as did the Gracchi cheer.

A soldier-statesman's wife, in her own right
She shared the plan and ideology
Of Hostos who in exile made his home
Where they from Spanish rule could freely fight
And to her last lands help give liberty,
As would those freedom-loving sons of Rome.

Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, 1850-1926

As silently some river broad and deep
At flood-tide even flows upon its way,
And without undue haste, without delay
Pursues its destined course as if asleep,
Oft seems some woman's life to run and keep
True to those ends that force her to obey
Unwittingly, perhaps, the destiny that lay
Within ancestral traits that outward creep.

One may in her as daughter of Hawthorne,
Or in her marriage, find the sign
To tell us why she lived for charity;
For though she was to arts and letters born,
And student both of painting and design,
Life's goal for her led to her nunnery.

Mrs. Philip North Moore, 1852-1931

Some women, eager for reform, embrace
All nations of the world in their desire
To help; and seek through Councils to inspire
Like-minded women of whatever place
To share their effort to improve the race.
The Women's Councils to this end, afire
With world-wide plans, did on this plane aspire
To do some things that governments outpace.

And Mrs. Moore and Lady Aberdeen
In national and international
Relations, once assisted ably by
One dear to me, have in convention been
A moral instrument effectual
In helping women's work to unify.

Lady Gregory, 1852-1932

If you would know the Irish legends best,
To Galway go where Lady Gregory
Was born, wherewith, helped by the poetry
Of Yeats and Synge whose playboy of the West
Rides pridefully the Irish movement's crest,
She built the structure whence came unity
In Ireland's ardent wish that she be free
To seek the object of her age-old quest.

I live again the life of Dublin days
Of fifty years ago as I now write
These lines to her, when at the Abbey I,
With freedom-loving Irish friends, did gaze
In wonder on her stage with such delight
It seems it never can in memory die.

Mrs. Humphrey Ward, 1857-1920

The Arnolds have great contributions made
To English life and letters since those days
At Rugby when one through reforms did blaze
The way with new experiments in aid
Of public education; and essayed
Another, culture with best thought to raise
To higher levels than his time's, which praise
Received, though from good taste, he thought, it strayed

And then another saw in Amiel
Reply to social problems that her mind
Perplexed; who helped her see man's destiny
Demands he reconcile material
With the ideal, though he may only find
Deception and frustration finally.