Famous Women: Sacred and Profane (Part 6)

by Glen Levin Swiggett

The University Press of Sewanee, Tennessee



M. Carey Thomas, 1857-1935

Devoted dean and later president
Who lived to see come true her dream Bryn Mawr,
An institution where one would not bar
The higher studies in development
Of women, and by such encouragement
Prepare them for careers particular,
And with such courses as were similar
To those for men at that time prevalent.

No institution of these latter days
Has in its founding had a faith so great,
Nor knowledge of the problems to be met;
And for this faith and understanding, praise
The highest must be given to the late
Miss Thomas whom Bryn Mawr will ne'er forget.

Selma Lagerlöf, 1858-1940

Outstanding woman of her native land,
Oft honored for her stories' purity
And charm, and pastoral simplicity--
All virtues of this Swedish wonderland!
First woman member of that favored band
To win the Nobel Prize, she fittingly
Was likewise first in its Academy,
Whence women members formerly were banned.

She travelled far that she might supplement
Her gentle heritage and discipline
With atmosphere demanded by such tales
As Miracles of Antichrist; content
Far more, how'er, with those whose origin
Lay in her love for Sweden's hills and vales.

Eleanor Duse, 1859-1924

The greatest actress of the Italian stage,
She did not need her poet-lover's Flame
of Life to give to her a deathless fame,
For like Bernhardt she had the patronage,
Despite great hardships, that from early age
Led them by common paths to take the same
Hard road to favors, whereby each became
For all who love the theatre, the rage.

The critics praised her great simplicity
And power to show emotion in the face;
And to interpret only with a look
Those characters of great diversity
By famous playwrights of the world, whose place
Had lain for many hidden in some book.

Carrie Chapman Catt, 1859-1947

Out of the woman suffrage movement came
The League which Mrs. Catt had long foreseen
Must be, if women would their harvest glean
From years of sowing, now within the frame-
Work of the Constitution, and their claim
Defend to right of ballot that had been
Denied. The League of Women Voters, keen,
Alert, remains as fair part of her fame.

In this great movement, as in others, she
Was ably helped by such as Maud Wood Park,
Selected as the League's first president,
A lovely lady serving loyally
The suffrage cause which bears, howe'er the mark
Of Mrs. Catt as sign of victory.

Marie Bashkirtsev, 1860-1884

To die so young! and yet to write as one
Who had lived richly with abundant years,
And knew life's happiness as well as tears.
Before its course had even well begun,
Rare talent she displayed for art, that won
High praise, yet one beneath that promise fears
Could see of early death which oft appears
In genius, dead before its work is done.

Than fiction stranger is the diary
Naïve, and yet profound, of one who knew,
As if innately and subconsciously,
Life's goal and meaning as, perhaps, but few
Have done so young, a greater tragedy,
Since fame so wistfully she, too, would woo.

Jane Addams, 1860-1935

To a great woman, highly prized, I write
These lines; to one who our first settlement
Established and became first president
Of a society that would unite,
Through peace and freedom, nations torn by might.
Hull House, however, is the monument
Of this wise woman, kind, intelligent,
Who sought to brighten sorry lives with light.

Not as director but as missioner
She should be known, who really met the need
Of social effort to deliver one
From momentary want, whose character
Was weakened by untoward fears that lead
To charges criminal that one should shun.

Edith Wharton, 1862-1937

The heart of fools is in the House of Mirth,
Ecclesiastes said, who gave to her the name
Not only of this book but, doubtless, fame,
For in her novels of surpassing worth,
Despite the social level and the birth
Of characters, she strangely showed the same
Frustration and unhappy end that claim
High praise in Ethan Frome, son of the earth.

A high example of what letters might
Have been with us, had Henry James not fled
To England early but remained to found
A school whose followers, with her insight
In human motives, but not limited
To class, would now with praise be better crowned.

Ricarda Huch, 1864-1947

Though born patrician, she had sympathy
For things unpleasant, even ugly, who
Successfully the veil of beauty drew
In tale and novel o'er reality.
Of women one of first in Germany
To win the doctorate, she wrote as few
Have of her time in history and, too,
In letters, all expressed with artistry.

A German-trained historian, she wrote
Of war her country waged for thirty years,
A book that is a classic in its field;
And in it and in one of greater note
Upon Romanticism such skill appears
As has her well-earned fame for all time sealed.

Marie Curie, 1867-1934

Devoted to her husband and career,
One vainly seeks in science for a pair
As great: a teacher-pupil who did share
Desire increasingly becoming dear
To physicists in research nuclear.
The world thought then a woman would not care
To enter on career where one would dare
To make the hidden things of Nature, clear.

Career and life were to her like romance,
And therein, doubtless, lay her great success,
Which in her own right won the Nobel Prize;
For at the threshold of the great advance
In physics, on her own inventiveness
Our late discoveries did capitalize.

Gertrude Stein, 1874-1946

To found a school, or rather place in debt
Some who have later won distinction in
Such art and letters as have doubtless been
Outstanding in their time, will never let
Them nor the critics of their age forget
The strangest endless flow of words to win
Applause, whose hidden meanings sibylline,
If such there be, bewilderment beget.

Mere words, howe'er, if swiftly read aloud,
Have sometimes tonal beauty which the sound
Repeated oft produces without thought;
And this she must have had for that keen crowd
That gathered round in Paris this profound,
Gay lady and her friendly counsel sought!*

*Revised from America: In Balance.

Amy Lowell, 1874-1925

Ancestral traits of this great family
Lived on in her, although she would have seemed
Most strange, indeed, too those who ever deemed
Accord, convention and conformity
Essential to the best society;
And this she, too, believed until she teamed
Up with those London Imagists who dreamed
A new philosophy of poetry.

Of many movements that have come and gone
With late World Wars, some traces still persist
Of one she led; and lives with some of those
That have their origin in verse of Donne.
And yet despite influence Imagist,
Keats is the best example of her prose.

Mary McCleod Bethune, 1875-[1955]

Her efforts have not had success that they
Deserve, although great progress has been made.
The type of education and the aid
She offered at Daytona Beach display
Rare understanding of the kind and way
Of training that for industry and trade
Can best prepare her people to evade
Misfortunes and mistakes of yesterday.

And through her Council by example she
Has shown how one can, too, advance her race;
How one by training only can prepare
Himself to play his part in the economy,
And find in the community his place
And in the common life his rightful share.

Willa Cather, 1876-1947

Of novelists the greatest in the sense
That much of what so swiftly disappears
In settling of the West, O Pioneers,
With other tales lives on as evidence
Of fortitude and loneliness intense
Which foreign immigrants on our frontiers,
With overtones of tragedy, in fears
Endured within their lonely land immense.

She wrote of women and the sacrifice
They had to make in building their own nest;
Of charm of character that hidden lay
Beneath their rugged strength; and of the price
A great priest paid for living loneliest
Of men midst those for whom he came to pray.

Helen Keller, 1880-[1968]

No man possessed of his five senses can
Begin to understand what she has done;
How with her rare companion she has won
Her way out of the soundless dark that ran,
A lifeless void, as when the world began.
How patiently, through touch alone, the sun
Of knowledge shone for her, inspiring, one
By one, her deeds humanitarian.

Achievement such as hers, accomplishment
Transcending mortal man's experience,
Makes one believe a miracle can be
Performed today, if man will but consent,
Believing in God's grace and providence,
And for relief pray understandingly.

Pavlova, 1882-1931

What is it that we seeking never find
As great in others as Pavlova had?
'Tis not technique, nor like Bacchantes mad
With joy she danced, for others of her kind
Are likewise trained and moved; but more refined,
A greater artist, elflike, rhythm-clad,
To whom was sadness, sad, and gladness, glad,
More subtly she her subject did unwind.

We see her now in the immortal role
Which Fokine once composed for her alone,
And which once seen lives on in memory,
Where we but see the beauty of the soul
Embodied, from some sylphine region flown,
Forever struggling in captivity.

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884-[1962]

Some men and women of great heritage,
Wealth and position gladly dedicate
Themselves with zeal to those less fortunate,
Devoting themselves daily without wage
To solving problems that their times engage.
To fail to recognize and praise her great
Accomplishments one would be an ingrate,
For none have tried to help more in this age.

Yet, though a great humanitarian,
Her party loyalty undoubtedly
Makes her an over-zealous partisan.
In controversy, therefore, frequently
She is the target of attacks more than
Seems fair for one of such warm sympathy.

*Revised from America: In Balance.

Gabriela Mistral, 1889-1957

The second of the name to win the prize
So highly coveted in letters, she bacame
Of Western women first to have this fame:
A teacher-poet to idealize
The things of spirit even more, and rise
Sometimes to heights whereto the Saints aflame
With ideal love aspire--her greatest claim,
Perhaps, to fame most critics recognize.

And as with Vasconcelos, Mexico's
Great teacher of this present century,
However practical or realist
Her aim may seem to be, there clearly flows
Through her philosophy and poetry
The traits of mystic and idealist.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, 1890-[1900-1990]

A brave, great soul inspired and paved the way
For Indian independence which Nehru
And, too, his sister, followers, best knew
How to promote and profit by dismay
Of people whom the British did affray
At Amritsar. Of Indians these two
Have best known how to follow and pursue
The course where their land's independence lay.

They have served country and their Congress well;
And Madame Pandit in diplomacy
First woman of all India became:
As diplomat, except in Israel,
No parallel can be found currently
Where women have achieved so quickly fame.

Pearl Buck, 1892-[1973]

Deservedly she won the Nobel Prize
For good work and not for Good Earth alone
That would for East and West, out of her own
Experience in China, mobilize
Public opinion that might otherwise
Ignore conditions there which she had known
First-hand and to such level now had grown,
That she could only tell them fiction-wise.

But her good novel has in vain been told,
It seems. The East and West cannot agree.
Ancestral China is today so far
Away from former customs, that the old
Things China loved so well seem hopelessly
Replaced by acts of violence and of war.

Dorothy Sayers, 1893-1957

A lettered English woman truly great,
Who turned away, of her own will, for pay
A gracious mind and spirit to essay,
With Peter Wimsey, thrillers that create
Delight, 'tis true, yet made, perhaps, too late
Translating Dante at this latter day,
Where undue haste and prejudice betray
Ripe scholarship and knowledge intimate.

Her Dante should have followed Catholic Tales,
Not rapidly, but with the ripening
Of spirit which this scholar has possessed.
One would be less aware of bothersome details,
And better know of Dante's visioning
And thoughts sublime on sinners and the blest.

Marian Anderson, 1907-[1897-1993]

(on seeing her televised Asian tour)

It did not seem that such rich melody
Could possibly come from a human throat,
Such tonal range and beauty as did float
Upon the air in unheard harmony;
And yet by their enraptured faces we
Knew that this woman's voice, God-given, smote
The lowly Asian folk and those of note
As well, and with us won them instantly.

How wisely she was chosen for this tour!
Her sympathies would in advance be known;
And she would, therefore, welcome be to all
The peoples visited. May then endure
The friendly ties her lovely voice alone
Created with those whom it did enthrall!*

*Revised from America: The Gate to Freedom.

Clare Boothe Luce, 1903-[1987]

The daughter of her time as well as child
Of destiny, a patroness of art,
Fame came to her when she became a part
Of that strong stream which like some current wild
Flows through our body politic. Unreconciled,
Howe'er, to such debate as has a dart
Concealed beneath the honied hand and heart,
Foe upon foe in public life she piled.

With her, to think leads quickly to swift deed;
And yet in her behavior one can see
Those gifts that but in quiet can create.
Endowed with wit and beauty, she, indeed,
Well represents our country currently,
Whose public acts should even foes placate.