Four poems by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, from the Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper, ed. Maryemma Graham (1988):
“The Slave Mother
Heard you that shriek? It rose
So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
Was breaking in despair.
Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form—
That look of grief and dread?
Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony
Were sweeping through the brain.
She is a mother pale with fear,
Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries
His trembling form to hide.
He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother’s pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
Is coursing through his veins!
He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.
His love has been a joyous light
That o’er her pathway smiled,
A fountain gushing ever new,
Amid life’s desert wild.
His lightest word has been a tone
Of music round her heart,
Their lives a streamlet blent in one—
Oh, Father! must they part?
They tear him from her circling arms,
Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes
Gaze on his mournful face.
No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks
Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart
Is breaking in despair.”
“A Double Standard
Do you blame me that I loved him?
If when standing all alone
I cried for bread a careless world
Pressed to my lips a stone.
Do you blame me that I loved him,
That my heart beat glad and free,
When he told me in the sweetest tones
He loved but only me?
Can you blame me that I did not see
Beneath his burning kiss
The serpent’s wiles, nor even hear
The deadly adder hiss?
Can you blame me that my heart grew cold
That the tempted, tempter turned;
When he was feted and caressed
And I was coldly spurned?
Would you blame him, when you draw from me
Your dainty robes aside,
If he with gilded baits should claim
Your fairest as his bride?
Would you blame the world if it should press
On him a civic crown;
And see me struggling in the depth
Then harshly press me down?
Crime has no sex and yet to-day
I wear the brand of shame;
Whilst he amid the gay and proud
Still bears an honored name.
Can you blame me if I’ve learned to think
Your hate of vice a sham,
When you so coldly crushed me down
And then excused the man?
Would you blame me if to-morrow
The coroner should say,
A wretched girl, outcast, forlorn,
Has thrown her life away?
Yes, blame me for my downward course,
But oh! remember well,
Within your homes you press the hand
That led me down to hell.
I’m glad God’s ways are not our ways,
He does not see as man,
Within His love I know there’s room
For those whom others ban.
I think before His great white throne,
His throne of spotless light,
That whited sepulchres shall wear
The hue of endless night.
That I who fell, and he who sinned,
Shall reap as we have sown;
That each the burden of his loss
Must bear and bear alone.
No golden weights can turn the scale
Of justice in His sight;
And what is wrong in woman’s life
In man’s cannot be right.”
Like a fawn from the arrow, startled and wild,
A woman swept by us, bearing a child;
In her eye was the night of a settled despair,
And her brow was o’ershaded with anguish and care.
She was nearing the river—in reaching the brink,
She heeded no danger, she paused not to think!
For she is a mother—her child is a slave—
And she’ll give him his freedom, or find him a grave!
’Twas a vision to haunt us, that innocent face—
So pale in its aspect, so fair in its grace;
As the tramp of the horse and the bay of the hound,
With the fetters that gall, were trailing the ground!
She was nerved by despair, and strengthen’d by woe,
As she leap’d o’er the chasms that yawn’d from below;
Death howl’d in the tempest, and rav’d in the blast,
But she heard not the sound till the danger was past.
Oh! how shall I speak of my proud country’s shame?
Of the stains on her glory, how give them their name?
How say that her banner in mockery waves—
Her “star-spangled banner”—o’er millions of slaves?
How say that the lawless may torture and chase
A woman whose crime is the hue of her face?
How the depths of forest may echo around
With the shrieks of despair, and the bay of the hound?
With her step on the ice, and her arm on her child,
The danger was fearful, the pathway was wild;
But, aided by Heaven, she gained a free shore,
Where the friends of humanity open’d their door.
So fragile and lovely, so fearfully pale,
Like a lily that bends to the breath of the gale,
Save the heave of her breast, and the sway of her hair,
You’d have thought her a statue of fear and despair.
In agony close to her bosom she press’d
The life of her heart, the child of her breast:—
Oh! love from its tenderness gathering might,
Had strengthen’d her soul for the dangers of flight.
But she’s free!—yes, free from the land where the slave
From the hand of oppression must rest in the grave;
Where bondage and torture, where scourges and chains
Have plac’d on our banner indelible stains.
The bloodhounds have miss’d the scent of her way;
The hunter is rifled and foil’d of his prey;
Fierce jargon and cursing, with clanking of chains,
Make sounds of strange discord on Liberty’s plains.
With the rapture of love and fullness of bliss,
She plac’d on his brow a mother’s fond kiss:—
Oh! poverty, danger and death she can brave,
For the child of her love is no longer a slave!”
“Let the Light Enter
The Dying Words of Goethe
“Light! more light! the shadows deepen,
And my life is ebbing low,
Throw the windows widely open:
Light! more light! before I go.
“Softly let the balmy sunshine
Play around my dying bed,
E’er the dimly lighted valley
I with lonely feet must tread.
“Light! more light! for Death is weaving
Shadows ‘round my waning sight,
And I fain would gaze upon him
Through a stream of earthly light.”
Not for greater gifts of genius;
Not for thoughts more grandly bright,
All the dying poet whispers
Is a prayer for light, more light.
Heeds he not the gathered laurels,
Fading slowly from his sight;
All the poet’s aspirations
Centre in that prayer for light.
Gracious Saviour, when life’s day-dreams
Melt and vanish from the sight,
May our dim and longing vision
Then be blessed with light, more light.”
Source: Complete Poems of Frances E.W. Harper, ed. Maryemma Graham (1988)