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Elizabeth Oakes-Smith               TEI-encoded version

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

by Rufus Wilmot Griswold

[In The Female Poets of America (New York, NY, US: J. Miller, 1873), pp. 177-182: ]


This accomplished and popular author was born in a pleasant country town about twelve miles from the city of Portland, in Maine. Descended on her father's side from Thomas Prince, one of the early Puritan governors of the Plymouth colony, and claiming through the Oakses, on her mother's side, the same early identification with the first European planters of our soil, Mrs. OAKES-SMITH may readily be supposed to have that characteristic which is so rarely found among us, Americanism; and her writings in their department may be regarded as the genuine expression of an American mind.

At the early age of sixteen, Miss Prince was married to Mr. Seba Smith, at that time the editor of the leading political journal of his native state, and since then well known to his countrymen as the original "Jack Downing," whose great popularity has been attested by as score of imitators. The embarrassed affairs of Mr. Smith (who, himself a poet, partook with a poet's sanguineness of temper in that noted attempt to settle the wild lands of Maine, which proved so disastrous a speculation to some of the wealthiest families of the state) first impelled Mrs. Oakes-Smith to take up her pen to aid in the support of her children. She had before that period, indeed, given utterance to her poetic sensibilities in several anonymous pieces, which are still much admired. But a shrinking and sensitive modesty forbade her appearing as an author; and though, in her altered circumstances, when she found that her talents might be made available, she did not hesitate, like a true woman, to sacrifice feeling to duty, yet some of her most beautiful prose writings still continue to appear under nommes de plumes, with which her truly feminine spirit avoids identification.

Seeking expression, yet shrinking from notoriety; and with a full share of that respect for a just fame and appreciation which belongs to every high-toned mind, yet oppressed by its shadow when circumstance is the impelling motive of publication, the writings of Mrs. Oakes-Smith might well be supposed to betray great inequality; still in her many contributions to the magazines, it is remarkable how few of her pieces display the usual carelessness and haste of magazine articles. As an essayist especially, while graceful and lively, she is compact and vigorous; while through poems, essays, and criticisms, (for her industrious pen seems equally skilful and happy in each of these departments of literature,) through all of her manifold writings, indeed, there runs the same beautiful vein of philosophy, viz.: the truth and goodness of themselves imparts a holy light to the mind, which gives it a power far above mere intellectuality; that the highest order of human intelligence springs from the moral and not the reasoning faculties.

One of her most popular poems is The Acorn, which, though inferior in high inspiration to The Sinless Child, is by many preferred for its happy play of fancy and proper finish. Her sonnets, of which she has written many, have not been as much admired as The April Rain, The Brook, and other fugitive pieces, which we find in many popular collections. I doubt, indeed, whether they will ever attain the popularity of these "unconsidered trifles," though they indicate concentrated poetical power of a very high, possibly of the very highest order. Not so, however, with The Sinless Child. Works of bad taste will often captivate the uncultivated many; works of mere taste as often delight the cultivated few; but works of genius appeal to the universal mind.

The simplicity of diction, and pervading beauty and elevation of thought, which are the chief characteristics of The Sinless Child, bring it undoubtedly within the last category. And why do such writings seize at once on the feelings of every class? Wherein lies this power of genius to wake a response in society? Is it the force of high will, fusing feeble natures, and stamping them for the moment with an impress of its own? or is it that in every heart, unless thoroughly cor-


rupted by the world -- in every mind, unless completely encrusted by cant, there lurks an inward sense of the simple, the beautiful, and the true; an instinctive perception of excellence which is both more unerring and more universal than that of mere intellect. Such is the cheering view of humanity enforced in The Sinless Child, and the reception of it is evidence of the truth of the doctrine it so finely shadows forth. "It is a work," says a discriminating critic, "which demands more in its composition than mere imagination or intellect could supply;" and I may add that the writer, in unconsciously picturing the actual graces of her own mind, has made an irresistible appeal to the ideal of soul-loveliness in the minds of her readers. She comes before us like the florist in Arabian story, whose magic vase produced a plant of such simple, yet perfect beauty, that the multitude were in raptures from the familiar field associations from childhood which it called forth, while the skill of the learned alone detected the unique rarity of the enchanting flower.

An analysis of The Sinless Child will not be attempted here, but a few passages are quoted to exhibit its graceful play of fancy and the pure vein of poetical sentiment by which it is pervaded. And first, the episode of the Step-Mother:

     You speak of Hobert's second wife
               A lofty dame and hold:
     I like not her forbidding air,
               And forehead high and cold.
5     The orphans have no cause for grief,
               She dare not give it now,
     Though nothing but a ghostly fear
               Her heart of pride could bow.
     One night the boy his mother called:
10               They heard him weeping say --
     "Sweet mother, kiss poor Eddy's cheek,
               And wipe his tears away!"
     Red grew the lady's brow with rage,
               And yet she feels a strife
15     Of anger and of terror too,
                At the thought of that dead wife.
     Wild roars the wind, the lights burn blue,
               The watch-dog howls with fear;
     Loud neighs the steed from out the stall:
20               What form is gliding near?
     No latch is raised, no step is heard,
               But a phantom fills the space --
     A sheeted spectre from the dead,
               With cold and leaden face!
25     What boots it that no other eye
               Beheld the shade appear?
     The guilty lady's guilty soul
               Beheld it plain and clear!
     It slowly glides within the room,
30               And sadly looks around --
     And stooping, kissed her daughter's cheek
               With lips that gave no sound!
     Then softly on the stepdame's arm
               She laid a death-cold hand,
35     Yet it hath scorched within the flash
               Like to a burning brand;
     And gliding on with noiseless foot,
               O'er winding stair and hall,
     She nears the chamber where is heard
40               Her infant's trembling call.
     She smoothed the pillow where he lay,
               She warmly tucked the bed,
     She wiped his tears, and stroked the curls
               That clustered round his head.
45     The child, caressed, unknowing fear,
               Hath nestled him to rest;
     The mother folds her wings beside --
               The mother from the blest!

It is commonly difficult to select from a poem of which the parts make one harmonious whole; but the history of The Sinless Child is illustrated all through the cabinet pictures which are scarcely less effective when separated from their series than when combined, and the reader will be gratified with a few of those which best exhibit the author's manner and feeling:

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

     With downy pinion they enfold
50               The heart surcharged with wo,
     And fan with balmy wing the eye
               Whence floods of sorrow flow;
     They bear, in golden sensers up,
               That sacred gift, a tear --
55     By which is registered the griefs
               Hearts may have suffered here.
     No inward pang, no yearning love
               Is lost to human hearts --
     No anguish that the spirit feels,
60               When bright-winged Hope departs.
     Though in the mystery of life
               Discordant powers prevail;
     That life itself be weariness,
                And sympathy may fail:
65     Yet all becomes a discipline,
               To lure us to the sky;
     And angels bear the good it brings
               With fostering care on high.
     Though human hearts may weary grow,
70               And sink to toil-spent sleep,
     And we are left with solitude,
               And agony to weep:
     Yet they with ministering zeal
               The cup of healing bring,
75     And bear our love and gratitude
               Away, on heavenward wing;
     And thus the inner life is wrought,
               The blending earth and heaven --
     The love more earnest in its glow
80               Where much has been forgiven!


Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

     The tender violets bent in smiles
               To elves that sported nigh,
     Tossing the drops of fragrant dew
               To scent the evening sky.
85     They kissed the rose in love and mirth,
               And its petals fairer grew;
     A shower of pearly dust they brought,
               And o'er the lily threw.
     A host flew round the mowing field,
90               And they were showering down
     The cooling spray on the early grass,
               Like diamonds o'er it thrown;
     They gemmed each leaf and quivering spear
               With pearls of liquid dew,
95     And bathed the stately forest tree
               Till his robe was fresh and new.

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

     For oft her mother sought the child
               Amid the forest glade,
     And marveled that in darksome glen
100               So tranquilly she stayed.
     For every jagged limb to her
               A shadowy semblance hath
     Of specters and distorted shapes,
               That frown upon her path,
105     And mask her with their hideous eyes;
               For when the soul is blind
     To freedom, truth, and inward light,
               Vague fears debase the mind.

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

     'Tis the summer prime, when the noiseless air
110               In perfumed chalice lies,
     And the bee goes by with lazy hum,
               Beneath the sleeping skies:
     When the brook is low, and the ripples bright,
               As down the stream they go,
115     The pebbles are dry on the upper side,
               And dark and wet below.
     The tree that stood where the soil’s athirst,
               And the mulleins first appear,
     Hath a dry and rusty colored bark,
120               And it leaves are curled and sere;
     But the dogwood and the hazel-bush
               Have clustered round the brook --
     Their roots have stricken deep beneath,
               And they have a verdant look.
125     To the juicy leaf the grasshopper clings,
               And he gnaws it like a file;
     The naked stalks are withering by,
               Where he has been erstwhile.
     The cricket hops on the glistering rock,
130               Or pipes in the faded grass;
     The beetle's wing is folded mute,
               Where the steps of the idler pass.

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

     "Dear mother! In ourselves is hid
               the holy spirit-land,
135     where Thought, the flaming cherub, stands
               with its relentless brand:
     we feel the pang when that dread sword
               inscribes the hidden sin,
     and turneth everywhere to guard
140               the paradise within.

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

     Each tiny leaf became a scroll
               Inscribed with holy truth,
     A lesson that around the heart
               Should keep the dew of youth;
145     Bright missals from angelic throngs
               In every by-way left --
     How were the earth of glory shorn,
               Were it of flowers bereft!
     They tremble on the alpine height;
150               The fissured rock they press;
     The desert wild, with heat and sand,
               Shares, too, their blessedness:
     And whosoe'er the weary heart
               Turns in its dim despair,
155     The meek-eyed blossom upward looks,
               Inviting it to prayer.

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

     A holy smile was on her lip
               Whenever sleep was there;
     She slept, as sleeps the blossom, hushed
160               Amid the silent air.

Recently Mrs. Smith has turned her attention to the field which next to the epic is highest in the domain of literary art, and it is anticipated by those who have examined her tragedies that her success as a dramatic poet will secure for her a fame not promised by any of her previous achievements. The Roman Tribute, in five acts, refers to a familiar period in the history of Constantinople when Theodosius saved the city from being sacked by paying its price to the victorious Attila; and the subject suggests some admirable contrasts of rude integrity with treacherous courtesy, of pagan piety with the craft of a nominal Christianity, still pervaded by heathen prejudice while uncontrolled by heathen principle. The play opens with the spectacle of the frivolous monarch jesting with his court at their uncouth enemies, and exulting at the happy thought of buying them off with money. Then appears Anthemius, who had been absent, raising levies for the defence of the city, indignant at the cowardly peace which makes the Roman tributary to the Hun, and -- a soldier, a statesman, and a patriot -- he determines to retrieve the national honor. Perplexed as to the best means of doing this, he sees that the whole government must be recast. Hitherto Theodosius and his sister had between them sustained its administration, with Anthemius as prime minister. The princess had conceived for him an attachment, and would have thrown herself and the purple into his arms; but he has no sympathy with her passion, and is intent only upon the emancipation of the em-


pire by placing her alone in the possession of the crown, and sacrificing Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius, who is rapidly growing in the popular favor. Outraged as a woman and a queen, Pulcheria offers to adjust state affairs by marrying the barbarian Attila, and Anthemius seemingly acceded to the plan, resolving to destroy the Hun at the bridal. But Attila rejects the proposal, and his answer is thus reported by Anthemius to the mistress:

     The Hun strode up and down his tent, and swore
     The plan was worthy of Attila himself --
     Then laid his finger to his brow, and, thus --
     Gods what a progeny might spring such veins conjoined!
165     But she, like Attila, loves pomp and power --
     Mine, with a kingly but barbaric flow:
     She, keen in mystery of subtle thought,
     I, making records with the sword and blood.

Anthemius, influenced entirely by considerations of a public nature, at first resolves upon the destruction of Eudocia, but disgusted with the masculine energy and cruel craft of Pulcheria, as well as subdued by the gentler virtues of the suffering queen, tries to save her life and place her upon the throne. He is persevering in the one purpose of saving the empire, and to accomplish this, proceeds to the camp of Attila, with the design of slaying him in the midst of his followers; but the plot is betrayed by Helena, who trembles for the life of her lover Manlius, the friend and companion of Anthemius; and disappointed here, he next resolves that she shall die at the banquet prepared by the court, ostensibly in honor of the barbarian king, but in reality to poison him. The generous nature of Anthemius is touched by the hardy simplicity and truthful magnanimity of the rude warrior, and he dashes the poisoned chalice aside and dares him to single combat, in which the brave and patriotic minister is killed. The following extract gives a portion of the last scene:

     Bear with me: we have fallen upon evil times.
170Attila, thou art a soldier, bred in the camp --
For idle pastime hunting the wild boar,
With hound and spear and sound of bugle-horn;
In wantonness you march to Rome, or here:
Thy palace by the Danube bravely shows
175With reeking rafters, horns, and skins, and shields.

[interrupting him.

     And men, stout men, true, and a thousand strong, and bold.
Behold our blazoned walls -- purple and gold!
Wine not from tusk of boar, or horn of deer,
But blushing golden in the golden vase --


180A fair picture, proud Roman -- goodly walls,
With hollow faith -- men curled and perfumed!
     Attila, we have fallend upon evil times:
Listen! In that rude wooden home of thine hound [sic]
There's not the meanest serf would wrong his
185By mixing poison with his food -- there's not --
     No, by the eternal gods! thou'rt worthy,
Roman, to be one of us.

[waving his hand.

     The most useless, the most old and outworn beast
That human hand hath trifled with in love,
190Receives his death by honorable wound,
Nor dies like a poor reptile in his hole.

[Dashes the cup from him and draws his sword.

If thou'rt God’s fate, show thy credentials now.
Honor to thy rude service: thy barbaric faith --
Here stand -- thou for thy skin-clad hordes, and I
195For Rome!

There is a striking and not unnatural contrast in the character of the two queens. Pulcheria is haughty, revengeful, intelligent, and imaginative. Remorseless in the pursuit of an object, and unflinching in the most daring action, she is yet so much a woman as to love passionately -- almost tenderly -- and when evil follows her policy, haunted in secret by shapes of conscience, which, to her excited and powerful imagination, take tangible forms and set her path, she meditates the death of Eudocia:

It seemed I heard a dirge, the sound of wo --
Wo, wo! it said. Was it Eudocia's voice?
How my heart beats, and its perturbed play
Hath conjured sounds too wildly like its own --

[EUDOCIA enters, unobserved, and pronounces her name softly

200Who called? -- the slightest sound grows fearful to me.
Aye, thus it is, that we in our poor pride
By our earth-serving senses are beguiled;
Our overweening self shapes any sound
To invocation of our name, and we
205Recoil as 't were a summons from the dead.


     The child starts from his innocent pillow
And answers with a smile, for he believes
The angels called him with their sweet rose lips.

[EUDOCIA retires.

     She is gone, and with her my good angel
210I shall be haunted by the blackest fiends.
We have sat embowered in friendly converse:
Avaunt! what dost thou say, thou gibbering imp
Hark! I have slumbered with thee until now --
A nameless, shapeless, wingless, couchant thing,
215Within the filmy vesture of the soul,
Until thy evil hour evoked me forth.
Oh God! I dare not pray, and this within:
She lives! no sheeted ghost hath leave to walk,
And curdle up my blood with its dead stare.

Fearful to sacrifice Eudocia at once, she entangles her in the meshes of court craft till she is finally destroyed, and Pulcheria


lives to enjoy her state alone. Eudocia is the reverse of the empress, gentle, affectionate, and trustful; the force of her character is evolved solely through the tenderness for her child. Beloved by Theodosius, she is disgusted at his imbecile sensuality, while her graces have won upon the barbarian heart if Bleda, the brother of Attila, who would gladly win her to himself and usurp the throne. Eudocia is a woman, but one steady in her devotion to duty. Through this partiality of Bleda, Pulcheria is able to work the downfall of the queen. She is gone to the house of her father, Leontius, who is a philosopher, where Bleda has also gone to learn the usages of philosophy of a more polite people. Here he is taken ill, and Eudocia, partly in waywardness and partly in admiration for his character, insists upon playing the leech. Pulcheria brings Theodosius, who finds her kneeling by the couch. She is thrown into prison; thence she escapes to the chamber of her husband, designing to kill him in revenge for her wrongs, but, overcome with pity, she turns away, and dies of overwrought grief in the arms of Anthemius, who has tried in vain to save her. The following is a part of her interview with Bleda:

220     Perchance the priest would best become thy case.
     A priest! I do abhor the murmuring tribe
Thine air bespeaks thee gentle as thy sex:
Art thou not one of those, once sacred held
As priestess of a shrine? The ancient gods
225Whom our forefathers worshipped in their strength,
It is not well to spurn: if such art thou,
A secret will be held most sacred by thee.
     Nay, mistake me not.
     Thou need'st not fear; I do respect thine [office
230     It is enough; thy leech is unknown to thee.

[starting and taking hold of her veil.

     By the gods -- that voice!
     Our art is learned by dames of gentle blood,
Who sit with patient toil and lips contract,
If so they may relieve one human pang.
235The ghastly wound appals us not, nor yet
The raging fury of the moonstruck brain;
Not wrinkled hags are we, with corded veins,
Croaking with spells the midnight watches through,
But some are fair as she, the vestal mother.
240     And such art thou, might I but cast aside
This envious veil; thy voice is crystalline,
Like water moss-incrusted in its flow!
     I will hear thee, prince -- such tale as may [befit
A woman's ear.


245     Now, Bleda, shape thy speech:
Power and love both urge thee to the goal!


I have made my way with trusty sword and shield,
Nor falsehood known -- there is no other crime.
But thou, all passionless, cold, and serene --
250Thy truth, like drops preserved in cubes of stone,
For drinking of the gods , can know no change.


     Thanks, thanks for words so high.
     I am sick of love -- love of a dame
Whose dovelike eyes have robbed me of all rest.
255The world is in the market, and all bid:
Then why not Bleda, urged less by pride than love!
I would become a Christian; the meanest knight
Who doth her service, should his office yield
To me a prince, might I but win one smile.
260The fair Eudocia --


     Lift not thy aspect here; thou [talkest treason!


     She listens. I can hear the beating
This can not, must not be a dream!


Eudocia loathes the sensual, weakling, dotard
265Emporer of Rome: she should cast the bondage off,
And for herself and child assure the reins.


     I can not lift my knees or I would [hence.


Thy tale -- I must away.
     'Tis told: I love Eudocia! and thou --
270     Thy words are madness!


And yet they steal
Like dew into the parched bud, and lure
My aching, vacant heart to maddening bliss.
     Eudocia must be saved, and who but Bleda
Will lift a finger for the rescue?
275     Nothing can be done; she and Rome are [dead!
     Is human will so important and vain?
Shall we see the wolf with fang upon the lamb,
Nor stir to aid? the vulture tear the dove,
And we forbear the shaft? No, by the fates!


280     Such are God's children: 'tis their doom, my lord.
     And we are made avengers of their doom.

[EUDOCIA points to a ring on the finger of the Prince.

Such ills admit of no redemption -- none!
Behold this circlet: lightly worn as 'tis,
It hath not failed to leave its scar behind.
285We can not raze the traces of the past;
Heal up the jagged wound, and leave no seam;
Tread down the burning ploughshare with our feet,
And feel ourselves unscathed: it is our doom,
And we by patient sufferance keep our souls.

Then follows the surprise of the court, in which she defends herself with gentle dignity, but is disgraced and imprisoned. Pulcheria visits her and leaves a dagger, and the rooms ajar; and she proceeds to the chamber of Theodosius, determined to revenge her wrongs:

290     The stillness of the room is most terrible!
I wish that he would move.

[She lifts the dagger and approaches the couch.

Oh, the long, long eternal sleep! He stirs! now --
No, he sleeps. 'Tis pitiful: the jaw adown;
The eyes, like sunken and encased balls,
295Shut in from speculation; the thin locks,
All wantoned by the wind, do mock at them!
Helpless and sleeping with his folded hands --

[She turns away.

Oh, I am glad to mark there is no line


To win on human love -- nor any shows
300Nor prints of grand old worth to plead for him;
No imperial majesty is there --
No lion-like rebuke, uncurbed by sleep,
To shame me for the deed that I will do.

[Returns and bends over him.

A haggard, pallid, weak, bad man asleep!
305Oh, weakness! thou hast thy power: a pity grows
Too terrible upon me; it shields thee
More than love; it pleads amid these whitening [locks!

Then follows her interview with her child, and final burst of feeling, in which she expires. To her child she says:

     Boy, thou wilt be a man anon, and learn
Hard, cruel, manlike ways: thou wilt break hearts,
310And think it brave pastime; thou wilt rule men,
And for the pleasure of thy petty will
Make pools of boood, and top thy pikes with heads;
Burn cities and condemn the little ones
To bleed and die within their mother's arms!


315     I will never be so vile; I will [be brave
And merciful as thou hast taught me.


     Wilt thou, pretty dear? Thou art a brave boy.
Wilt thou always love me? Look here into mine eyes:
My own brave boy, when men shall evil speak,
320Defame and curse me. Wilt thou forget to love?
     Never, my brave boy; and when evil tongues
Shall make thy mother’s name a blush, wilt thou,
Mine own dear child, wilt thou believe?
325     Never!
     My boy, dost thou remember thy poor dove,
Thy white-winged dove, which the fell hawk pur[sued,
And sprinkled all the marble with his blood?


     my poor, dear dove!
330     Aye, thine innocent dove!
Listen, child! In the long hereafter years,
Wilt thou remember me as that poor dove,
Hawked down and done to death by cruel hands?
Think this, and God himself will bless thee!

To Anthemius, who urges her to speak the word, and he will avenge her and raise her to the throne, she says:

335     That little word would yawn a gulf beneath my [feet.
No more: that ready danger told its bad tale,
But I have closed the well of blackness up --
Have seen the pitying angel pleading
In the locks of him, the weak and unloved one,
340Till my uplifted dagger fell. I wept
Tears of unmingled pity -- aching tears!
Empire has long since faded from my thought:
The nearer view of an eternal world
Makes my poor, injured name a nothingness;
345A mother's love alone survives the wreck.

The reverse of these painful scenes is the love of Manlius and Helens, in which the simple affections and every-day perceptions take the place of more profound emotions. The character of Petrus gives opportunity for quaint humor as well as efficient advancement of the plot.

Mrs. Oakes-Smith's next work was Jacob Leisler, a tragedy. Its general character will be inferred from its title. There is not perhaps in American history a finer subject for dramatic illustration than the revolution in New York in 1860, but hitherto it had failed of attention from any author of adequate abilities. The story is in some respects like that of Massaniello, but Leisler was a gentleman, and was never, like the Neopolitan, made "drunk with power," but was all through the important scenes of his elevation, administration, and overthrow, a calm, sagacious, and brave man, equal to anything within the scope of lawful action or experience -- suggesting possibilities that might be demanded for the common welfare. The interest of the play turns largely upon a striking underplot of domestic life which much affects and hastens the political denoument. The heroine, Elizabeth Howard, is an original and noble creation, and the vicissitudes of her life give occasion for displays of lofty sentiment and careful analysis of the heart, in scenes where tenderness becomes pathos, devotion sublimity, and the illustrations of a passionate fancy kindle upon the confines of imagination. In England she ahs been married to a man named Sloughter, from whom, for reasons developed in the play, she has separated and fled to America, where she keeps the secret of her early history, and has for some time been happily married to Leisler, when -- he meantime having become the people's governor -- she hears that Sloughter has arrived on the coast to demand the seals of the province for the crown. The following scene here succeeds, an interview between Elizabeth and an old and confidential servant:

Elizabeth and Hannah.

     Nay, it must be told: he might hear of it
In the market-place, or on the battlefield.
Leave me, my good Hannah.
     Oh, dearest madam! you are so still --
350     Leave me -- it were best.


How mournfully, how yearningly have I
Longed for thy presence, velvet-footed Peace!
The drudging housewife singing at her toil
I have most envied; and the market dame,
355Content with her small gains, and the cheer
Homely but hearty of the wayside boor,
Provokes me to a spleen. Oh, thou lowly
Common flesh, braced by the rosy, sweet-breathed [morn,
Could yet but see the ruby-girdled heart,
360How would ye shrink with dread, and bless the lot
Of honest toil!......
I do forget the secret of my grief.

[Enter LEISLER, hurriedly.

     My sweet wife, thou art fit to wear a crown!
I'll give thee what is better: thou dost rule
365Him who rules the people by their own free choice.
Look up, dearest! I am the people's king --
Not king -- nay, God forbid, in this great land! --
But what ails thee, sweet? these times oppress thee.

[Sees the letter.

A letter? well, put it by -- I'll none of it;
370I shall be much abroad -- shall see thee less --
So we shall seize the present bliss as sure.
How beautiful thou art, and yet so pale,
So very sad! What is it, love?
     The vase of life is rarely garland-crowned.
375     Nay, dearest, thou dost think me ambitious,
And tremblest lest the household altar dim.
     Nay, fill thee with great thoughts, and me forget.
     Thou dost reproach me love; it can not be.
     Dost love me, Leisler?
380     Love thee, Bess? To doatingness, to madness!
     Because that I am fair, and true, and good?
     A very angel; nay, better, and all, all woman!
     Dost thou love me, Leisler?
     My own wife, thou knowest I do love thee.
385     I love to hear thee say it: I will remember.
     Thou art ill; thy hands cold -- thy cheek so pale!
These times are too much for thee.
     Dost thou love me, Leisler?
     Ah, dear Bess, thou art ill. Dost love me?
390     Love thee? words have no meaning to my deep love!
It hath purged me from the weakness of my sex,
And made me new create in thee. love thee?
I had not lived until I knew thee!
Love thee? Oh -- oh -- oh!

[Throws herself into his arms.

395     My wife, my love, what has moved thee thus?
     Ah, the letter! shall I tell it thee?
     Yes -- let me know the worst.
     The worst?
     Yes, the worst: it can not touch our love.
400     Touch our love?
     Nay, the letter --
     I have a friend, who was once exceeding fair.
They tell me she is wan and changed now.
Poor thing! she broke the heart of him she loved:
405And she did love so well—as I love thee!


     My poor Bess! do not tell it now.
     I must tell it thee. well, she was wedded,
A simple child, with childhood's vacant heart.
The days wore on; the night succeeded day;
410And she did loathe him in her very soul,
And loathed herself to such vile bondage held.
She left him!
     The tale should not be in thy mouth, sweet wife.
     She did not love another --
415     Had she not felt the stirring of a life.
Within her own? small, pleading, upward hands,
Of piping voice steal to a mother's heart?
     Oh, never, never! I did know her well.
She would have died sooner than leave her child
420To stranger hands; nay, more than his, had lived --
In bitterness had cherished life for it;
Not all the deadening miseries that wait
On constrained love -- not all the tortured felt
By th' recoiling nerve and shrinking sense --
425Not all the blight and famine of the soul
Had moved her to forget a mother's love.
     'Tis a sad tale, Bess; think no more of it.
     That is not all. Years passed, and she did love --
     Talk no more of her; we can but pity.

[drawing back.

430     This is not all: she buried up the past;
She loved and was beloved, and held the secret still.
     She was infamously perjured.
     She married him she loved --
     No more of the vile adultress!
435     Leisler, Leisler, I am that woman!


     Alas! she has gone mad! -- true!
My fond wife!
     Would God it were madness, but 'tis true!

[LEISLER stagger to one side; she throws herself at his feet.

Oh, I have killed thee -- killed thee! Speak to me,
440Curse me -- stab me to the heart -- but look not thus!
See here!

[Opens her bosom.

to die by thy hand were joy indeed;
I'll kiss the dagger's point, and kiss thy hand --
And forfeit heaven itself, if, ere I die,
Thou wilt but smile and kiss me once again!

There were in this tragedy several scenes of great power, among which are that in which Elizabeth poisons her child, and that in which she discovers herself to the husband whom she had abandoned, to plead for the life of the husband by whom she has herself been cast off, abhorred and contemned.

The prose writings of Mrs. Oakes-Smith -- for the most part printed in magazines and other miscellanies -- are characterized by qualities similar to those which mark her poetry. Her most elaborate performances are the Western Captive, a novel, published in 1842, and her last work, recently issued by Putnam, with illustrations by Darley, entitled The Salamander, a Legend for Christmas, purporting to be by "Ernest Helfenstein," a name under which she has frequently written.

The great and peculiar merits of Mrs. Oakes-Smith are so fully illustrated in what has been remarked in the preceding pages, and in the liberal extracts that are here given form her works, that little remains to be added upon the subject. In the drama, in the sonnet, and in miscellaneous poems of imagination and fancy, she was vindicated her right to a place among the first poets of her sex.

Date: 1873 (Coding Revisions: 06/20/2005). Author: Rufus Griswold (Coding Revisions: Zach Weir).
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