Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in 1825 — almost 200 years ago. Reading her poetry, however, the language remains so timeless that it sometimes feels as though it is coming to us from even further away.
I had never encountered Harper until this semester, when I was introduced to her in one of my English classes. An African-American poet and author, Harper was born in Baltimore to free parents and raised by her aunt and uncle, civil rights activist Rev. William Watkins. She was incredibly prolific, publishing her first volume of poetry at the age of 20 and going on to write several more works of poetry, short stories and novels.
Given the fact that she produced so much work over the course of her lifetime, it is hardly surprising that Harper touches on a variety of different themes, subject matters and messages throughout the scope of her work. A lot of it deals with slavery, which of course was widespread at the time when Harper was writing. The first poem of hers that stuck with me was “The Slave Mother, A Tale of the Ohio,” which is inspired by the story of Margaret Garner, who killed her child rather than have her be returned to slavery (a story also reimagined by Toni Morrison in “Beloved”). Harper’s depictions of scenes within the poem (“Winter and night were on the earth, / And feebly moaned the shivering trees, / A sigh of winter seemed to run / Through every murmur of the breeze”) are vivid and chilling when presented alongside such dark subject matter.
Harper has many more poems that deal with recounting or retelling the tragedies of slavery, such as “The Slave Auction,” “Eliza Harris” and “Bible Defense of Slavery.” One of her great strengths lies in her ability to make use of other texts and to extend her subjects into matters of universal and spiritual significance. “Eliza Harris,” for instance, retells a scene from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in which a character runs across a frozen river with her child in order to escape slavery. In “The Slave Mother,” Harper invokes biblical times: She recounts how “Judea’s refuge cities had power / To shelter, shield and save, / E’en Rome had altars: ’neath whose shade / Might crouch the wan and wary slave,” and juxtaposes these ancient cities with Ohio, which “had no sacred fane, / To human rights so consecrate.” She visits biblical literature many other times in her works, in poems like “Ruth and Naomi,” “The Burial of Moses” and “Rizpah, the Daughter of Ai.”
Harper’s work is saturated with evidence of her multifaceted intellectualism, from her religious, literary and cultural references to her old-fashioned language and careful, impeccable meter. One of the things that makes her such a fascinating figure is that the thoroughness with which she involved herself in her literature is reflected in the life that she lived apart from her writing. In addition to being a writer, Harper was an abolitionist, suffragist and political activist. She helped slaves on the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada, and was involved in several activist groups, such as the National Association of Colored Women (of which she was a founding member), the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Any artist, or really any person at all, could learn a great deal from Harper: She articulated herself with elegance and sophistication, and also practiced the ideals that her writing espoused in her day-to-day life. She was everything that makes a great poet — which is to say, deeply in tune with everything around her: the culture and the injustices, the past and the present and the future.