June 10, 2012

Genuine expression of an American mind

"She may readily be supposed to have that characteristic which is so rarely found among us, Americanism," wrote Rufus Wilmot Griswold in his preface to The Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, dated June 10, 1845. "Her writings in their department may be regarded as the genuine expression of an American mind." Oakes Smith, according to Griswold, wrote to express her thoughts, not for notoriety. Even so, she published essays, tales, and criticism in addition to her poetry — all to the praise of Griswold, one of her greatest supporters. Through all her writings, he says, lies "the same beautiful vein of philosophy," which Griswold ultimately concludes is morality.

Among the most well-known poems in the collection are "The April Rain," "The Acorn," and the nearly 80-page The Sinless Child, which is broken into seven parts (and a section of notes). Indeed, Griswold (a licensed Baptist clergyman) would have approved of the religious message prevalent in most of the collection. Yet Oakes Smith was not as conventional or conservative as might first be presumed from his support. At 16 years old, she married a man nearly twice her age, a fellow poet and author named Seba Smith, but refused to use only his name. Even her children were named "Oakes Smith" (or "Oaksmith") rather than merely Smith. Five years after Griswold's endorsement/preface, she began a series of articles promoting women's rights (published by Griswold's some-time mentor Horace Greeley). At one point, she was considered for a leadership role among a group of women, but was denied the opportunity simply for wearing a dress that too fully exposed her neck and arms.

One particular poem in this collection expresses some of her frustration with life, "The Unattained":

And is this life? and are we born for this?—
To follow phantoms that elude the grasp,
Or whatsoe’er secured, within our clasp
To withering lie, as if each earthly kiss
Were doomed death’s shuddering touch alone to meet.
O Life! hast thou reserved no cup of bliss?
Must still THE UNATTAINED beguile our feet?
THE UNATTAINED with yearnings fill the breast,
That rob for aye the spirit of its rest?
Yes, this is Life; and everywhere we meet,
Not victor crowns, but wailings of defeat;
Yet faint thou not: thou dost apply a test,
That shall incite thee onward, upward still:
The present cannot sate, nor e’er thy spirit fill.

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