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Frances Sargent Osgood (1811–1850)

The Indian Maid's Reply to the Missionary

Half earnest, half sportive, yet listening, she stood,
That queenly young creature, the child of the wood;
Her curving lips parted—her dark eyes downcast—
Her hands lock'd before her—her heart beating fast;
And around her the forest's majestic arcade,
With the pure sunset burning like fire through the shade:
He spake of the goodness, the glory of Him
Whose smile lit the heavens—whose frown made them dim.
And with one flashing glance of the eyes she upraised
Full of rapture impassion'd, her Maker she praised.
He spake of the Saviour, his sorrow, his truth,
His pity celestial, the wrong and the ruth;
And quick gushing tears dimm'd the gaze that she turn'd
To his face, while her soul on her sunny cheek burn'd.
Then he thought in his fond zeal to wile her within
The pale of the church; but as well might he win
Yon cloud that floats changefully on in the light,
A fawn of the forest, a star-ray of light,
As tame to his purpose, or lure from her race
That wild child of freedom, all impulse and grace.
She listens in sad, unbelieving surprise;
Then shakes back her dark, glossy locks from her eyes,
And with eloquent gesture points up to the skies.
At last, to awaken her fears he essays;
He threatens God's wrath if thus freely she strays.
Wild, sweet, and incredulous rang through the wood
The laugh of the maiden, as proudly she stood.
Soft, thrilling, and glad woke the echo around;
True nature's harmonious reply to that sound.
Then lowly and reverent answer'd the maid:—
'God speaketh afar in the forest,' she said,
'And he sayeth—'Behold in the woodland so wild,
With its heaven-arch'd aisle, the true church of my child.'

Frances Sargent Locke was born in Boston in 1811 to a prosperous mercantile family with a literary bent, including an older sister, Anna Maria Wells, who was also a published poet. The young Fanny Locke was discovered in her youth by writer and editor Lydia Maria Child, who published many of Fanny’s verses under the pen name of Florence. Frances met the widely traveled, and self-romanticizing, portrait artist Samuel Stillman Osgood in 1834, and he invited her to sit for her portrait. Married in 1834, the couple spent the next five years in England while Samuel pursued his career among the aristocracy there.

Osgood was a popular and versatile poet who wrote both in the high sentimental mode and in a mode of sheer mischief. A focus on children, flowers, and death earns her the designation of sentimental (and that in no reductive sense), but she was also a New York City sophisticate, welcome in the most exalted literary circles, and a close friend of Edgar Allan Poe. In Osgood’s published poetry she deals quite seriously with sentimental themes, issues of motherhood and of romantic love, writing about these central human concerns with both personal insight and poetic skill. On the other hand, in a group of “salon poems” composed for social occasions, she wittily destabilizes the underlying premises of the sentimental ethos. A contemporary reviewer claimed Osgood was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s equal as a poet but far superior in “grace and tenderness.” Dying of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine, Osgood did not have the opportunity to realize the full promise of that comparison. —Excerpted from the Heath Anthology of American Literature, 5th Ed.

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