The Resurrection Issue
Volume 14:3, Summer 2013
HEARING THE BATTLE—JULY 21, 1861
One day in the dreamy summer,
On the Sabbath hills, from afar,
We heard the solemn echoes
Of the first fierce words of war.
Ah, tell me, thou veiled Watcher
Of the storm and the calm to come,
How long by the sun or shadow
Till these noises again are dumb.
And soon in a hush and glimmer
We thought of the dark, strange fight,
Whose close in a ghastly quiet
Lay dim in the beautiful night.
Then we talk’d of coldness and pallor,
And of things with blinded eyes
That stared at the golden stillness
Of the moon in those lighted skies;
And of souls, at morning wrestling
In the dust with passion and moan,
So far away at evening
In the silence of worlds unknown.
But a delicate wind beside us
Was rustling the dusky hours,
As it gatherd the dewy odors
Of the snowy Jessamine-flowers.
And I gave you a spray of the blossoms,
And said: “I shall never know
How the hearts in the land are breaking,
My dearest, unless you go.
ARMY OF OCCUPATION
At Arlington, 1866
The summer blew its little drifts of sound—
Tangled with wet leaf-shadows and the light
Small breath of scattered morning buds—around
The yellow path through which our footsteps wound.
Below, the Capitol rose glittering white.
There stretched a sleeping army. One by one,
They took their places until thousands met;
No leader’s stars flashed on before, and none
Leaned on his sword or stagger’d with his gun—
I wonder if their feet have rested yet!
They saw the dust, they joined the moving mass,
They answer’d the fierce music’s cry for blood,
Then straggled here and lay down in the grass:
Wear flowers for such, shores whence their feet did pass;
Sing tenderly; O river’s haunted flood!
They had been sick, and worn, and weary, when
They stopp’d on this calm hill beneath the trees:
Yet if, in some red-clouded dawn, again
The country should be calling to her men,
Shall the reveille not remember these?
Around them underneath the mid-day skies
The dreadful phantoms of the living walk,
And by low moons and darkness with their cries—
The mothers, sisters, wives with faded eyes,
Who call still names amid their broken talk.
And here is one who comes alone and stands
At his dim fireless hearth-chill’d and oppress’d
By something he has summon’d to his lands,
While the weird pallor of its many hands
Points to his rusted sword in his own breast
APRIL AT WASHINGTON
O whispering Phantom and fair
Of the April of two years ago!
Rising here in the delicate air,
How strange are the pictures you show!
I see you, with Triumph that sounds
In the cannon and flashes in light,
Glide over these blossoming grounds
Through the crowded rejoicing at night.
And I see you where steel is reversed
To the funeral drum’s stifled beats,
To the thought of a murder accursed,
To the bugle’s long wail down the streets;
To the dust, under bells moving slow
With the weight of a people’s great grief,
Among flags falling dark-draped and low,
To the dead-march behind the lost chief:
Who was wrapp’d in your beautiful hours
As he pass’d to his glory and rest,
His coffin-lid sweet with your flowers
And his last human look in your breast!
“West Point?” Yes, that was the one grand argument ever so long
At the capital, I remember now, in our far-back battledays;
If the hour’s great Leader blundered and war, therefore, went wrong,
West Point would give a subtle faith in that great Leader’s ways.
West Point—Ah, well, no doubt they can graduate generals there,
Why, I wonder they do not send them out, plumed, sworded, and ready-scarr’d,
And just because one when a boy has happened somehow to wear
The uniform of their cadets, let his shoulders be splendidly starr’d!
And if he in such starlight should grope on a little ahead
Of the failures of two or three others and fall in some shining high place,
Does that go to prove that not one in the dusty dim legions he led
Could give him his orders in secret and point him the way to your grace?
Oh, you fancy you honor where honor is due? But I feel
You may shake the hand that finished your work, nor guess at the head that planned;
What if I tell you that one, who studied the science of steel,
In the nameless name of a Private commanded his chief to command!
If I say that he passed, through a wound in his breast, up the hill,
And lies buried where grave-marks by thousands at Arlington whiten the air—
Why—you will go on and believe that our very first warrior still
Sits smoking his pipe of Peace in the Presidential easy chair!
THE BLACK PRINCESS
(A True Fable of My Old Kentucky Nurse)
I knew a Princess: she was old,
Crisp-haired, flat-featured, with a look
Such as no dainty pen of gold
Would write of in a fairy book.
So bent she almost crouched, her face
Was the like the Sphinx’s face, to me,
Touched with vast patience, desert grace,
And lonesome, brooding mystery.
What wonder that a faith so strong
As hers, so sorrowful, so still,
Should watch in bitter sands so long,
Obedient to a burdening will!
This Princess was a slave—like one
I read of in a painted tale;
Yet free enough to see the sun,
And all the flowers, without a veil.
Not of the lamp, not of the ring,
The helpless, powerful slave was she;
But of a subtler, fiercer thing—
She was the slave of Slavery.
Court lace nor jewels had she seen:
She wore a precious smile, so rare
That at her side the whitest queen
Were dark—her darkness was so fair.
Nothing of loveliest loveliness
This strange, sad Princess seemed to lack;
Majestic was her calm distress
She was, and beautiful, though black.
Black, but enchanted black, and shut
In some vague giant’s tower of air,
Built higher than her hope was. But
The true knight came and found her there.
The Knight of the Pale Horse, he laid
His shadowy lance against the spell
That hid her self: as if afraid,
The cruel blackness shrank and fell.
Then, lifting slow her pleasant sleep,
He took her with him through the night,
And swam a river cold and deep,
And vanished up an awful height.
And in her Father’s house beyond,
They gave her beauty, robe, and crown:
On me, I think, fair, faint, and fond,
Her eyes to-day look, yearning, down.
Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (August 11, 1836—December 22, 1919) was born on a plantation outside Lexington, Kentucky, to a family of slave owners, and related on her father's side to Daniel Boone. She graduated from Henry Female College, and began publishing poems in 1854. In 1861, she married John James Piatt, known to friends as J.J., a journalist who had already published a book of poems. The young couple moved to DC, where her husband had secured a job as a clerk in the Treasury Department, and rented a home in what is today the Burleith neighborhood, north of Georgetown. They remained until 1867, when J.J. lost his job, and while here, they began to raise a large family of eleven children, although only six would survive to adulthood. The family shuttled between government jobs in DC, when her husband could get them, and newspaper jobs in her husband's native Ohio, when he could not. They returned to DC two more times when J.J. got jobs as librarian for the House of Representatives and with the postal service. His most successful government job came in 1884, when he was appointed American consul in Ireland. The family would spend eleven years in Cork, Ireland. In 1914, J.J. was seriously injured in a carriage accident and never fully recovered. He died in 1917, and the widowed Sarah moved in with a son in New Jersey, dying herself in 1919. Although J.J. had published more than his wife when they first married, her poems soon eclipsed his, both in popularity and in number. He struggled to maintain the appearance of parity with her, but her work was distinctly preferred by magazine editors, and she published poems for adults and children regularly in leading periodicals in the US and Great Britain, including Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Scribner's, Irish Monthly, and The Independent. She published 18 books, two of which were co-authored with J.J. Her book titles include: The Nests at Washington and Other Poems (1864, co-written with J.J.), A Woman's Poems (1871), A Voyage to the Fortunate Isles (1874), That New World (1877), An Irish Garland (1885), The Witch in the Glass (1888), An Enchanted Castle (1893), and Complete Poems (1894). The Piatts developed friendships with a number of other writers, including William Dean Howells and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In DC, they became part of a lively group of literary government clerks and journalists (and their spouses), making the acquaintance of Walt Whitman, John Burroughs, William Douglas O'Connor, Grace Greenwood, George Alfred Townsend, John Willis Menard, and others. Sarah Piatt's poems are notable for their use of dialogue and their irony, although in other ways they conformed to the genteel tradition of Victorian era poetry. She wrote often of motherhood and children, but also of politics and current events, and there is also a strong yearning for social justice in her work, and a large number of her poems are about the devastation of war and war's aftermath. I have reprinted a selection of her Civil War poems here. They are of special interest not only because they reflect her time spent in DC, but because the war galvanized the poet, forcing her to re-think her assumptions about her happy Southern childhood, her family's complicit role in slavery, and her era's romanticized ideals about war. She is one of the best-published American women writers of the late 19th century.