Her Gift

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(This is an excerpt from the book Eliza by Karen Lynn Davidson and Jill Mulvay Derr.)

Some of Eliza’s early poems addressed subjects that were typical for the female poets of the day, such as friendship, home, and family. One was titled “Friendship,” another “Home, Charming Sound” (stanza 1 is quoted at the beginning of this chapter), another “To My Box-Wood Blossoms.” Other early poems, however, were lofty, high-minded verse patterned on such models as the British poets John Milton and Alexander Pope, with the most serious national or world events as their subjects. When Eliza learned of the Turkish conquest of Missolonghi, a city on the west coast of Greece that withstood the enemy bravely during the Greek fight for independence, she was moved to write an impassioned expression of sorrow, highlighting in part the heartbreak of the Grecian women:

Weep now; nor blush to weep, while ye lament
How bled the matron and the maid of Greece.
See with what anxious tenderness she plies,
Unmindful of the grief that swells her heart,
Some healing balm—some kind restorative
To save a husband, brother, or a sire,
On whose joint efforts hang the fate of Greece.

Often Eliza used a more familiar rhymed meter, even for a serious subject. An 1830 poem shows her strong feelings concerning justice and human rights. On December 8, 1829, in his first message to Congress, President Andrew Jackson strongly advocated the forced removal of the American Indians to a designated area west of the Mississippi. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate soon introduced Indian removal bills. Eliza was outraged. She wrote “The Red Man of the West,” voicing the plight of the Indians:

The Great Spirit, ’tis said, to our forefathers gave
All the lands ’twixt the eastern and western big wave,
And the Indian was happy, he’d nothing to fear,
As he rang’d o’er the mountains in chase of the deer:
Say then was he homeless? No, no his heart beat
For the dear ones he lov’d in the wigwam retreat.
But a wreck of the white man came over the wave,
In the chains of the tyrant he’d learn’d to enslave:
Emerging from bondage, and pale with distress,
He fled from oppression, he came to oppress!
Chas’d into environs, and no where to fly,
Too weak to contend, and unwilling to die,
Oh where will a place for the Indian be found?
Shall he take to the skies? or retreat under ground?

Experimenting always with different meters, voices, and topics, Eliza gradually built her personal and literary identity. As a young woman in her twenties, she addressed themes of faith, patriotism, responsibility, and alienation, and explored questions regarding oppression, gender roles, and life beyond death. All these topics would recur repeatedly in her work throughout her life.

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