Charlotte Forten Grimke

Nine Poems by Charlotte Forten Grimké

Charles Sumner

On seeing some pictures of the interior of his house, Washington, DC

Only the casket left, the jewel gone
Whose noble presence filled these stately rooms,
And made this spot a shrine where pilgrims came—
Stranger and friend—to bend in reverence
Before the great, pure soul that knew no guile;
To listen to the wise and gracious words
That fell from lips whose rare, exquisite smile
Gave tender beauty to the grand, grave face.

Upon these pictured walls we see thy peers,—
Poet, and saint, and sage, painter, and king,—
A glorious band;—they shine upon us still;
Still gleam in marble the enchanting forms
Whereupon thy artist eye delighted dwelt;
Thy favorite Psyche droops her matchless face,
Listening, methinks, for the beloved voice
Which nevermore on earth shall sound her praise.

All these remain,—the beautiful, the brave,
The gifted, silent ones; but thou art gone!
Fair is the world that smiles upon us now;
Blue are the skies of June, balmy the air
That soothes with touches soft the weary brow;
And perfect days glide into perfect nights,—
Moonlit and calm; but still our grateful hearts
Are sad, and faint with fear,— for thou art gone!

Oh friend beloved, with longing, tear-filled eyes
We look up, up to the unclouded blue,
And seek in vain some answering sign from thee.
Look down upon us, guide and cheer us still
From the serene height where thou dwellest now;
Dark is the way without the beacon light
Which long and steadfastly thy hand upheld.
Oh, nerve with courage new the stricken hearts
Whose dearest hopes seem lost in losing thee.



Poet of the serene and thoughtful lay!
In youth’s fair dawn, when the soul, still untried,
Longs for life’s conflict, and seeks restlessly
Food for its cravings in the stirring songs,
The thrilling strains of more impassioned bards;
Or, eager for fresh joys, culls with delight
The flowers that bloom in fancy’s fairy realm —
We may not prize the mild and steadfast ray
That streams from thy pure soul in tranquil song
But, in our riper years, when through the heat
And burden of the day we struggle on,
Breasting the stream upon whose shores we dreamed,
Weary of all the turmoil and the din
Which drowns the finer voices of the soul;
We turn to thee, true priest of Nature’s fane,
And find the rest our fainting spirits need, —
The calm, more ardent singers cannot give;
As in the glare intense of tropic days,
Gladly we turn from the sun’s radiant beams,
And grateful hail fair Luna’s tender light.


From The Journal of Charlotte Forten, 1853

May those whose holy task it is,
To guide impulsive youth,
Fail not to cherish in their souls
A reverence for truth;
For teachings which the lips impart
Must have their source within the heart.


The Angel’s Visit

‘Twas on a glorious summer eve—
A lovely eve in June, —
Serenely from her home above
Looked down the gentle moon;
And lovingly she smiled on me,
And softly soothed the pain—
The aching, heavy pain that lay
Upon my heart and brain.

And gently ‘mid the murmuring leaves,
Scarce by its light wings stirred,
Like spirit voices soft and clear,
The night wind’s song was heard;
In strains of music sweet and low
It sang to me of peace;
It bade my weary, troubled soul
Her sad complainings cease.

For bitter thoughts had filled my breast,
And sad, and sick at heart,
I longed to lay me down and rest,
From all the world apart.
“Outcast, oppressed on earth,” I cried,
“O Father, take me home;
O, take me to that peaceful land
Beyond the moon-lit dome.

“On such a night as this,” methought,
“Angelic forms are near;
In beauty unrevealed to us
They hover in the air.
O mother, loved and lost,” I cried,
“Methinks thou’rt near me now;
Methinks I feel thy cooling touch
Upon my burning brow.

“O, guide and soothe thy sorrowing child;
And if ‘tis not His will
That thou shouldst take me home with thee,
Protect and bless me still;
For dark and drear had been my life
Without thy tender smile,
Without a mother’s loving care,
Each sorrow to beguile.”

I ceased: then o’er my senses stole
A soothing dreamy spell,
And gently to my ear were borne
The tones I loved so well;
A sudden flood of rosy light
Filled all the dusky wood,
And, clad in shining robes of white,
My angel mother stood.

She gently drew me to her side,
She pressed her lips to mine,
And softly said, “Grieve not, my child;
A mother’s love is thine.
I know the cruel wrongs that crush
The young and ardent heart;
But falter not; keep bravely on,
And nobly bear thy part.

“For thee a brighter day’s in store;
And every earnest soul
That presses on, with purpose high,
Shall gain the wished-for goal.
And thou, beloved, faint not beneath
The weary weight of care;
Daily before our Father’s throne
I breathe for thee a prayer.

“I pray that pure and holy thoughts
May bless and guard thy way;
A noble and unselfish life
For thee, my child, I pray.”
She paused, and fondly bent on me
One lingering look of love,
Then softly said, —and passed away, —
“Farewell! we’ll meet above.”

I woke, and still the silver moon
In quiet beauty shone;
And still I heard amid the leaves
The night wind’s murmuring tone;
But from my heart the weary pain
Forevermore had flown;
I know a mother’s prayer for me
Was breathed before the throne.


At Newport

A quiet nook ‘neath the o’erhanding cliffs:
The grim old giants frown upon us, but
Deny us not rest in their grateful shade.
Oh, deep delight to watch the gladsome waves
Exultant leap upon the rugged rocks;
Ever repulsed, yet ever rushing on—
Filled with a life that will not know defeat;
To see the glorious hues of sky and sea.
The distant snowy sails, glide spirit like,
Into an unknown world, to feel the sweet
Enchantment of the sea thrill all the soul,
Clearing the clouded brain, making the heart
Leap joyous as it own bright, singing waves!
“Ah, perfect day,” cry happy voices—yet,
For me, beloved, the joy is incomplete—
Thou art not here!


A June Song

We would sing a song to the fair young June,
To the rare and radiant June,
The lovely, laughing, fragrant June,
How shall her praises be sung or said?
Her cheek has caught the rose’s hue
Her eye the Heaven’s serenest blue,
And the gold of sunset crowns her head.
And her smile, ah! there’s never a sweeter, I ween,
Than the smile of this fair young summer queen.
What life, what hope her coming brings!
What joy anew in the sad heart springs
As her robe of beauty o’er all she flings.
Old Earth grows young in her presence sweet,
And thrills at the touch of her tender feet,
As the flowers spring up her coming to greet,
Hark how the birds are singing her praise
In their gladdest, sweetest roundelays.
Over the lovely peaceful river
The gold arrows of sunset quiver;
The trees on the hillside have caught the glow
And the heaven smiles down on the earth below
And out radiant June
Our lovely, joyous, fragrant June
Our summer queen
Smiles too, as she stands
With folded hands
And brow serene.
How shall we crown her bright young head?
Crown it with roses rare and red
Crown it with roses creamy white
As the lotus bloom which sweetens the night.
Crows it with roses pink as the shell
In which the voices of ocean dwell;
And a fairer queen shall ne’er be seen
Than our lovely laughing June.
We have crowned her now but she will not stay;
The vision of beauty will steal away,
Fading as faded the bright young May.
Ah, loveliest maiden, linger awhile!
Pour into our hearts the warmth of thy smile,
The gloom of the winter comes all too soon;
Stay with us, gladden us, beautiful June!
Thou glidest away from our eager grasp,
But our hearts will hold thee fast;
And the days to be
Will be brighter and sweeter for thoughts of thee.
Our song shall not be a song of farewell,
As with words of love the chorus we swell
In praise of the fair young June,
Of the rare and radiant June—
The lovely, laughing, fragrant June.

Written in Washington, DC on June 15, 1885


In Florida

In Florida to-day, the roses blow,
And breath of orange blossoms fills the air,
In blooming thickets, by a brook I know,
The mocking-bird is pouring forth his rare,
Rich song, thrilling the charmed listener’s heart.
In deeper woods the fair pink lily grows;
Pale as the wind-flower she droops apart,
Or, glowing with the blushes of the rose,
From the dark pool she lifts her lovely head, —
A radiant presence ‘mid the woodland gloom, —
While, smiling on her from their mossy bed,
Sweet purple violets in beauty bloom
Mid their dark shining leaves magnolias gleam,
White as the snows that o’er our fields extend;
And oleander-trees, beside a stream,
O’erladen with their rosy blossoms bend.
O’er hedge, and bank, and bush the jasmine flings
Its graceful golden leaves with a lavish hand;
To boughs of ancient oaks the grey moss clings,
Its long, weird tresses by the soft breeze fanned.
How sweet to linger in the shaded bowers;
How sweet to catch gleams of the blue, blue sky;
To dream away the softly-gliding hours,
As on the fragrant, flower-sown earth we lie!
Alas, it may not be; Our lot is cast
In bleaker climes, ‘neath duller skies we stray, —
Still haunted by bright visions of the Past; —
Sweet, sweet to be in Florida to-day!


Charlotte Corday

Suggested by two pictures in the Corcoran Art Gallery

She stands without the cruel leader’s door, —
A fair young girl, with sunny, slowing hair,
And eyes in whose blue depths methinks should dwell
Only the sweetness of a tranquil soul.
But the fierce light that burns within them now,
The dark frown resting on the girlish brow,
The red lips rightly pressed; the little hand
Grasping relentlessly the fatal knife,
Betrays a purpose dread within the heart
Whence all the happy dreams of youth have fled.
In scorn she marks the legend on the door, —
“L’Ami du Peuple.” God deliver thee,
Ah, my poor, bleeding France, from such a friend,
And strengthen this weak hand to strike the blow!
She leans her head against her prison bars
How wearily! The heavy, tear-dimmed eyes
Gaze at us, from the pale pathetic face,
In utter mournfulness. One slender hand
Clasps the rough bars; the other holds the pen
With which, in words with love and courage fraught,
She bids farewell to kindred, home, and life.
No burden of remorse, no dear of death
Weights that fair brow so heavily with pain;
For France alone she mourns; —one foe is fall’n,
But others live to stain her soul with blood.
Father, forgive the suffering young soul,
By her loved country’s woes the vengeance driv’n,
And grant to her the sweetness of Thy peace.


A Parting Hymn

When Winter’s royal robes of white
From hill and vale are gone,
And the glad voices of the spring
Upon the air are borne,
Friends, who have met with us before,
Within these walls shall meet no more.

Forth to a noble work they go:
O, may their hearts keep pure,
And hopeful zeal and strength be theirs
To labor and endure,
That they an earnest faith may prove
By words of truth and deeds of love.

May those, whose holy task it is
To guide impulsive youth,
Fail not to cherish in their souls
A reverence for truth;
For teachings which the lips impart
Must have their source within the heart.

May all who suffer share their love—
The poor and the oppressed;
So shall the blessing of our God
Upon their labors rest.
And may we meet again where all
Are blest and freed from every thrall.


Charlotte L. Forten Grimké (August 17, 1837 - July 23, 1914) was born into the leading free African-American family of Philadelphia. She was an ardent abolitionist, and taught freed slaves on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, for two years at the end of the Civil War. After that time, she settled in Washington, DC, where she worked in an administrative support position at Sumner High School (from 1872 to 1873), and for the US Treasury Department (from 1873 to 1878, as first class clerk in the Fourth Auditor’s Office). She married the Reverend Francis James Grimké in 1878, at age 41, and her only child, a daughter, died in infancy. Grimké’s health was frail throughout her life; she had a recurrent problem as a child with a condition described as “lung fever” and also experienced periods of depression. Her husband was 13 years her junior, whose sermons had gained national repute for their vigorous defense of African Americans. Her best-known works during her lifetime were her articles published in mainstream white magazines: “Life on the Sea Islands” (published in the Atlantic Monthly), and “Personal Recollections of Whittier” (published in New England Magazine). Grimké hosted salons and parties that made her home a social and cultural center. On Friday evenings from 8:00 to 10:00, she hosted the Art Club, a salon where friends gathered for the formal study of visual art and literature. Between 1855 and the late 1890s, she published 15 poems and approximately the same number of essays in African American periodicals. She also kept a diary which was published posthumously in 1953. Her house at 1608 R St. NW in DC is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and marked with an historic plaque. To read more by this author: "The Gathering of the Grand Army," Mapping the City: DC Places, Part II, Vol. 11:4, Fall 2010.