December 14, 2011

She sprang afraid, like a trembling maid

While shopping in New York, the Wisconsin-born poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox saw an opal for the first time. A friend suggested she write a poem about the gem, saying he was compiling a poetry anthology with that theme. The next day, December 14, 1886, she wrote "The Birth of the Opal":

The Sunbeam loved the Moonbeam,
   And followed her low and high,
But the Moonbeam fled and hid her head,
   She was so shy—so shy.

The Sunbeam wooed with passion;
   Ah, he was a lover bold!
And his heart was afire with mad desire.
   For the Moonbeam pale and cold.

She fled like a dream before him,
   Her hair was a shining sheen,
And oh, that Fate would annihilate
   The space that lay between!

Just as the day lay panting
   In the arms of the twilight dim,
The Sunbeam caught the one he sought
   And drew her close to him.

But out of his warm arms, startled
   And stirred by Love's first shock,
She sprang afraid, like a trembling maid.
   And hid in the niche of a rock.

And the Sunbeam followed and found her
   And led her to Love's own feast;
And they were wed on that rocky bed.
   And the dying day was their priest.

And lo! the beautiful Opal—
   That rare and wondrous gem—
Where the moon and sun blend into one,
   Is the child that was born to them.

According to her autobiographical The Worlds and I, it took Wilcox "perhaps a half-hour's time" to write; she was paid $25 for it. It was printed without her name, however, and when it later appeared in her collection Poems of Pleasure, some readers demanded evidence that it was truly written by her.

The poem is oddly able to commingle traditional sentimentalist women's themes with an almost violent sexuality: the "bold" lover is the sun, which chases after the uninterested moon "with mad desire." He is described as loving her and having "warm arms"; she, on the other hand, never seems to return that love and is referred to as "cold." Her hope to stay away from the aggressive male figure, however, will soon be "annihilated." When she is finally caught, she first chooses to spring away and hide, afraid and startled by "Love's first shock" (presumably their first sexual encounter and the end of her virginity, here labeled by maidenhood). Only after this encounter (and another referred to as "Love's own feast") do they wed on a rocky bed.

Despite the title, "The Birth of the Opal" is more about the opal's conception rather than its birth. The salacious nature of the theme was furthered when Wilcox recited the poem at private parties and public gatherings while she herself was pregnant.

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