February 15, 2012

Harper: did the angels greet thee?

When it was first published, the poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was titled "To a Babe Smiling in Her Sleep," implying the babe in question was a generic one. When republished in the Weekly Anglo-African on February 15, 1862, it was given the more personal title "To My Daughter." Though the text of her poem was always in the first-person and references "my child," the new title clearly shows that this is the voice of a mother:

Tell me, did the angels greet thee?
    Greet my darling when she smiled?
Did they whisper, softly, gently,
    Pleasant thoughts unto my child?

Did they whisper, 'mid thy dreaming,
    Thoughts that made thy spirit glad?
Of the joy-lighted city,
    Where the heart is never sad?

Did they tell thee of the fountains,
    Clear as crystal, fair as light,
And the glory-brightened country,
    Never shaded by a night?

Of life's pure, pellucid river,
    And the tree whose leaves do yield
Healing for the wounded nations -
    Nations smitted, bruised and peeled?

Of the city, ruby-founded,
    Built on gems of flashing light,
Paling all earth's lustrous jewels,
    And the gates of pearly white?

Darling, when life's shadows deepen
    Round thy prison-house of clay,
May the footsteps of God's angels
    Ever linger round thy way.

By invoking such idyllic imagery of this paradisaical land, Harper begs a contrast with reality. By forming the poem using a serious of questions, she also pushes the reader to consider the ideal versus the real. She begins to break away at the reality by referring to a place "where the heart is never said" (implying that we do not already have that place). The idealism is finally shattered by more caustic references to "wounded nations" which are "smitten, bruised and peeled." The final stanza is not a question but a declaration: despite being in a "prison-house," remember the promises of paradise.

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