Literary legacies: recovering the poetry of harriet beecher stowe

by Nancy Lusignan Schultz, Ph.D. / July 2016

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) is best known as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and as a prolific writer: her Collected Works, published in 1896, ran to sixteen volumes.  She was also, for a time, a Massachusetts writer: one of her homes, known as “Stowe House,” is now owned by Phillips Academy in Andover, and she is buried in the Academy's cemetery. While Stowe’s fiction and non-fiction have received substantial scholarly attention, her poetry has been overlooked.  Stowe wrote an unknown number of poems, and very little scholarship has focused on them.  As one scholar, Mary De Jong, dryly observed in 1996,  “Stowe was not known primarily as a poet."  My preliminary research has encouraged me to pursue writing a scholarly introduction for a collection of Stowe’s verse.  

Half a century ago, in 1967, Collected Poems of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edited with Indices, by John Michael Moran, Jr. (1906-1995), was published by Transcendental Books in Hartford, CT.  It was reprinted the same year in The Emerson Society Quarterly: A Journal of the American Renaissance.  An independent scholar, Moran worked as an accountant for forty-five years.  In his brief foreword, Moran observed that while Stowe’s poetry had attracted some attention during her lifetime, it is “now neglected.”   Moran was not willing, he says, to “defend…her Muse,” but desired to “set in order her small corner in nineteenth-century poetry.”  This corner seems to have gathered dust for half a century, since I have yet to find scholarly articles fully devoted to Stowe’s poetry.  Moran’s collection ran one hundred pages and contains fifty-nine poems, dating from about 1840 until the time of her death in 1896, with notes about the sources, mainly from the Stowe Center Library.   Since 1967, massive digitization of archival materials has made a more comprehensive search for her poems possible. Fifty years after Moran’s publication, it is time for a reappraisal of the poetry of this significant American writer.

While scholars have not closely examined Stowe’s poetry, some important scholarship has been done on Stowe’s use of the hymn form.  Like many nineteenth century women poets, including Emily Dickinson, Stowe worked within the common hymn meter. Stowe’s best-known hymn, “Still, Still with Thee,” was originally published in The Independent in 1852, reproduced in her brother Henry Ward Beecher’s successful hymnal, The Plymouth Collection (1855), and then in her own volume of Religious Poems (1867). Stowe’s work on hymns is also overdue for a reappraisal within the larger context of her poetic oeuvre.   She was, of course, well positioned to write hymns and religious poetry.  Daughter, sister, and wife of prominent clergymen, she also became a significant evangelical voice with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Any consideration of Stowe’s poetry, then, must comprehend the intense spirituality that drove so much of her writing.  The nineteenth century millennial cultural context, with its emphasis on spiritual improvement, is key to understanding her religious poems.

One significant thread in Stowe’s poetry is her aesthetic response to Catholic art, especially following her travels to Italy.  Given her Calvinist upbringing, and the notorious anti-Catholicism of her father, Lyman Beecher, author of the polemical A Plea for the West (1835), as well as of her brother, Edward Beecher, who penned The Papal Conspiracy Exposed (1855), this exploration is, for her time and culture, fairly radical. The idea expressed in her Italian novel, Agnes of Sorrento (1862) of “a secret, invisible bond” between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is repeated Stowe’s poetic calls for a similar repurposing of Italian Catholicism. Stowe’s work on the borderline of Protestantism and Catholicism, one of the most fraught religious tensions of her day, can provide important models for today’s struggles over religious differences.  

Another dimension of this project will be situating Stowe’s poetry in its transatlantic contexts, and more broadly, tracing its translation into world languages. In a presentation at the 2016 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I examined several of Stowe’s poems on the subject of slavery.  Stowe’s little known poem, “Caste and Christ” (1852, and out of print in the U.S. since 1853) was reprinted at least seven times in the United Kingdom and New Zealand during the 1850s, and published in a dual language edition in Glasgow, Scotland, in Gaelic and English, in 1859. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into over sixty languages, and I expect to find multiple translations of “Caste and Christ.” The wide digitization of archival material and the availability of exciting new digital tools such as text mining will augment Stowe’s fifty-year-old, and incomplete, poetry collection, and bring her work into wide availability in the twenty-first century.

Stowe’s poetic opus is significant for what it reveals about nineteenth century attitudes toward such things as spirituality, religion, death, and social change.  In an 1886 letter to Charles Edward Stowe, Stowe recalls that as an adolescent, she was “very much interested in poetry, and it was my dream to be a poet.”  During this time, she wrote her verse drama, “Cleon.” In her “Essay on Poetry,” Stowe writes, “The power of feeling is necessary for all that is noblest in man, yet involves the greatest risk.”  For Stowe, poetry is, like prayer, an opening of heaven’s doors of light, “when all its knowledge, its purity, its bliss, rises on the eye and passes into possession of the mind.”  Though much of Stowe’s poetry can be classified as sentimental, there is also a complexity that rewards explication.  Her poetry takes up themes such as abolition, classical history, and philosophy.  She also wrote whimsical verses for children, an understudied area of nineteenth century women’s writing.  Stowe experimented with form and technique, writing sonnets, occasional poems, and long meditations in a rich and varied body of work.

Moran provided an important start to this compilation of Stowe’s poetry, and helped set in order this one small corner, yet declared his unwillingness to “defend… her Muse.”  I stand ready, and am eager to do it. 

Nancy Lusignan Schultz joined the English Department at  Salem State University in 1983. Her scholarship interrogates the intersection of literature, history, and religion. Schultz's expertise is in the history of U.S. Catholicism, American literature, and American Studies, and she has also done extensive work on the history of Salem, Massachusetts.  She earned her B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts and her Ph.D. from Boston College. Schultz is the author of the award-winning Fire and Roses: The Burning of the Charlestown Convent, 1834 (Free Press, 2000), and Mrs. Mattingly's Miracle: The Prince, the Widow, and the Cure that Shocked Washington City (Yale UP, 2011 and the reprint edition of 2014). Her newest book, with Beth L. Lueck and Sirpa Salenius, is Transatlantic Conversations: Nineteenth-Century American Women's Encounters with Italy and the Atlantic World, University of New Hampshire Press (December 2016).  With Dane Anthony Morrison, she is the co-editor of Salem: Place, Myth, and Memory, now published in a second edition with updated preface  (April 2015).   Currently, she is working on an edition of the collected poems of Harriet Beecher Stowe.