Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"sorrow chain'd my tongue"

The first official Poetry Tuesday!

This is Ann Eliza Bleecker's "Written in the Retreat from Burgoyne." I chose this one because 1) I often focus on 20th-century poets and I wanted something different and 2) in grad school, I wrote my last paper for my Futures of American Poetry class on Bleecker (specifically on this poem), looking at the ways her poetry and life intersect with modern trauma theory.

Bleecker was a colonial poet. She lived from 1752 to 1783, and she experienced quite a lot of grief in her short life. She lost many family members, including her daughter Abella, her mother, and her sister, as they were driven from their home during the American Revolution.

Her daughter Margaretta also became a poet.

So, without further ado:

Written in the retreat from Burgoyne

Was it for this, with thee a pleasing load,
I sadly wander'd thro' the hostile wood;
When I thought fortune's spite could do no more,
To see thee perish on a foreign shore?

Oh my lov'd babe! my treasure's left behind,
Ne'er sunk a cloud of grief upon my mind;
Rich in my children---on my arms I bore
My living treasures from the scalper's pow'r:
When I sat down to rest beneath some shade,
On the soft grass how innocent she play'd,
While her sweet sister, from the fragrant wild,
Collects the flow'rs to please my precious child;
Unconscious of her danger, laughing roves,
Nor dreads the painted savage in the groves.

Soon as the spires of Albany appear'd,
With fallacies my rising grief I cheer'd;
'Resign'd I bear,' said I, 'heaven's just reproof,
'Content to dwell beneath a stranger's roof;
'Content my babes should eat dependent bread,
'Or by the labour of my hands be fed:
'What tho' my houses, lands, and goods are gone,
'My babes remain---these I can call my own.'
But soon my lov'd Abella hung her head,
From her soft cheek the bright carnation fled;
Her smooth transparent skin too plainly shew'd
How fierce thro' every vein the fever glow'd.
---In bitter anguish o'er her limbs I hung,
I wept and sigh'd, but sorrow chain'd my tongue;
At length her languid eyes clos'd from the day,
The idol of my soul was torn away;
Her spirit fled and left me ghastly clay!

Then---then my soul rejected all relief,
Comfort I wish'd not for, I lov'd my grief:
'Hear, my Abella!' cried I, 'hear me mourn,
'For one short moment, oh! my child return;
'Let my complaint detain thee from the skies,
'Though troops of angels urge thee on to rise.'

All night I mourn'd---and when the rising day
Gilt her sad chest with his benignest ray,
My friends press round me with officious care,
Bid me suppress my sighs, nor drop a tear;
Of resignation talk'd---passions subdu'd,
Of souls serene and christian fortitude;
Bade me be calm, nor murmur at my loss,
But unrepining bear each heavy cross.

'Go!' cried I raging, 'stoick bosoms go!
'Whose hearts vibrate not to the sound of woe;
'Go from the sweet society of men,
'Seek some unfeeling tyger's savage den,
'There calm---alone---of resignation preach,
'My Christ's examples better precepts teach.'
Where the cold limbs of gentle Laz'rus lay
I find him weeping o'er the humid clay;
His spirit groan'd, while the beholders said
(With gushing eyes) 'see how he lov'd the dead!'
And when his thoughts on great Jerus'lem turn'd,
Oh! how pathetic o'er her fall he mourn'd!
And sad Gethsemene's nocturnal shade
The anguish of my weeping Lord survey'd:
Yes, 'tis my boast to harbour in my breast
The sensibilities by God exprest;
Nor shall the mollifying hand of time,
Which wipes off common sorrows, cancel mine.


  1. How nice, it's Tuesday.

    I'd never heard of Bleeker before, so I googled her. You're right, the poor woman had a dreadful time, didn't she.

    And it surely comes through in this poem. I can't say the work strikes me with any great poetic force, but there's genuine emotion there-- particularly in her rage against those "officious" would-be comforters.

    I'm reminded of all of those elegies of Phillis Wheatley's, who you'll no doubt remember as a contemporary of Bleeker. (*checks dates*) Yes, contemporary almost to the year, and another woman who lost everything and died young. Yet she seems much more willing to recommend pious resignation:
    Perfect in bliss she from her heav'nly home
    Looks down, and smiling beckons you to come;
    Why then, fond parents, why these fruitless groans?
    Restrain your tears, and cease your plaintive moans.
    Freed from a world of sin, and snares, and pain,
    Why would you wish your daughter back again?
    No--bow resign'd. Let hope your grief control,
    And check the rising tumult of the soul.

    Ann Bleeker would have none of that, and good for her.

    So thanks for introducing me to her!

  2. Hmm. Yeah. I wonder, though, how much of that has to do with race, because Wheatley was a slave when she was writing. Bleecker could rage at the world as a white (free) woman, and Wheatley--well, my guess is that if she raged at her white owners through her poetry, the reception would have been much different, to say the least.

    That said, I think Bleecker, in her unwillingness to be consoled, is an anomaly for her time. The norm was pious resignation, and Bleecker doesn't conform.

  3. Yes, you're probably right. Now that I think of it, from what I remember of Wheatley's work, she doesn't seem to have felt free to put much of her personal life into it.

    Still, Go, stoick bosom, go! is going to be my response to the next person who tells me to get over it already (whatever "it" may be).

  4. One final word: I had a dentist appointment today, nothing major, but it did involve things poking into my gums. And when the dentist said, "This won't hurt," it's a good thing that my mouth was too full to talk, because I almost called him a stoic bosom.

  5. It is quite a great phrase (and is transferable to many different situations and people!).