Sarah Wentworth Morton, poems, late 1700s
Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton was such a popular poetess in her day that she earned the moniker “American Sappho.” If you have read any Sappho, you will understand the magnitude of that compliment. As a native Bostonian, Morton’s poems contain distinctly American subject matter. I read just two of her poems, the epic Ouabi and her most remembered work The African Chief.
The African Chief is a stridently anit-slavery poem. Morton laments the death of a captured African chief.
Ouabi is an epic poem in four cantos. The story is essentially that of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot if Lancelot were a strapping young European who abandons society to wander in the North American wilderness and is taken in by a kind, wise and powerful Indian chief. The Lancelot figure then of course falls in love with the chief’s lovely bride. Drama ensues. Morton’s compassionate yet romanticized view of Native Americans is certainly out of date and may be why this poem has been largely forgotten. However, she writes incredibly beautiful verse. Her meter and rhyme are impeccable and unlike Freneau, the last poet reviewed on this blog, she achieves lovely style without needing to twist her sentences into Yoda-like syntax.
A Quote from Ouabi:
Her limbs were straighter than the mountain pine,
Her hair far blacker than the raven’s wing;
Beauty had lent her form the waving line,
Her breath gave fragrance to the balmy spring.
You might like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if:
- you like epic poems.
- you are interested in 18th century attitudes toward minorities.
You might not like the poetry of Sarah Wentworth Morton if
- you are offended by 18th century attitudes toward minorities.
Final thoughts: Morton writes beautiful poetry. Her subject matter is controversial and whether you find her perspective refreshing (she’s obviously in favor of better treatment of minorities) or offensive, her poems are certain to arouse some uncomfortable feelings.