September 4, 2010

Birth of Phoebe Cary

Originally named Mount Pleasant, this small village in southwestern Ohio was renamed Mount Healthy in 1850, following an outbreak of cholera. It was in this town that poet Phoebe Cary was born on September 4, 1824; her older sister and fellow poet Alice Cary was born there four years earlier. Their family home is now a center for the blind and visually impaired.

The two sisters wrote poetry and were first collected in an anthology by Rufus Wilmot Griswold in 1848; Griswold also helped them publish their own book, The Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary, in 1849. Its success inspired their move to New York. In that city, Phoebe published two books of her own poetry. Of the two sisters, Phoebe was the more outspoken one; she was involved with the women's rights movement and, for a time, she edited The Revolution, a newspaper published by Susan B. Anthony.

Phoebe's most famous poem is a hymn, "Nearer Home" — a somber piece which was often sung at funerals. However, she also had a humorous side and wrote many parodies (including one of Edgar Allan Poe and many of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). One example is "Ballad of the Canal," a parody of James T. Fields's "Ballad of the Tempest":

We were crowded in the cabin,
Not a soul had room to sleep;
It was midnight on the waters,
And the banks were very steep.

'Tis a fearful thing when sleeping
To be startled by the shock,
And to hear the rattling trumpet
Thunder, "Coming to a lock!"

So we shuddered there in silence,
For the stoutest berth was shook,
While the wooden gates were opened
And the mate talked with the cook.

And as thus we lay in darkness,
Each one wishing we were there,
"We are through!" the captain shouted,
And he sat upon a chair.

And his little daughter whispered,
Thinking that he ought to know,
"Isn't travelling by canal-boats
Just as safe as it is slow?"

Then he kissed the little maiden,
And with better cheer we spoke,
And we trotted into Pittsburg,
When the morn looked through the smoke.
*The image above is from "Old Pictures," an online resource collecting historic images.

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