Motherhood is priced of God, at price no man may dare to lessen or understand.Helen Hunt Jackson
Poppies On The Wheat
by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830 – 1885)
Helen Hunt Jackson’s poetry is filled with the loss she experienced in her life. By 1865, at age 25, Jackson had lost her first husband and two children to disease and accidents. She moved to Colorado Springs and a sanitarium seeking a cure for tuberculosis. There she met a wealthy banker and married. The final 20 years of her life she became devoted to the cause of improving the rights and conditions of Native Americans, after having met Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe from Nebraska at a lecture in Boston. Upset about the mistreatment of Native Americans, Jackson became an activist on their behalf, publicizing the government’s misconduct. She began circulating petitions, raising money, and writing letters to The New York Times on behalf of the Ponca. Jackson’s became so focused on this issue she was quoted as saying, “I would wake up in the morning and write 2,000 to 3,000 words, faster than I could write a letter, as if I could do anything else.” She would go on to write A Century Of Dishonor (1881) which describes the mistreatment of Native Americans by the American Government. In 1884 she shrewdly wrote a romance novel to popularize the issue among a broader audience in the novel Romana, which used the backdrop of romance to tell the plight of Native Americans in Southern California after the Mexican-American war for her heroine. The novel was a success and reprinted over 300 times. It attracted a large readership to the issues surrounding Native American rights.
“If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one hundredth part of what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for slaves I would be thankful for the rest of my life.”
Helen Hunt Jackson
Jackson obviously had sufficient wealth to travel, her opening line giving it away with the reference to Ancona. Poppies are not a frequent flower in the wheat fields of North America, but are in Europe and England. The poppies she is referring to come from a picturesque field in Italy to which she must have traveled. Both Jackson’s and Kemble’s poems deal with the brevity of life and use the metaphors of weeds in our own plot of land that we till. In Jackson’s case the poppy is the carefree interloper to remind us of the enjoyment of life’s pleasures, despite her losses, whereas Kemble’s weed is more poisonous, an “evil weed of woe” that casts its shade upon the productive soils of her youth. Both poems are a bit melodramatic and old fashioned for my tastes, but solid reminders of how the sonnet form has inspired writers over hundred of years in expressing their emotions and memories. One of the reasons I think the sonnet lends itself to theme’s of loss, is its relatively short. The sonnet allows the author to release and heal while not wallowing in past. Of the two sonnets, I enjoy Jackson’s more, with the optimism and the beauty of the red poppies a reminder that even in the solidarity of wheat’s goodness, it can’t quench the exuberance and defiance of the poppy to spice up life.
Thou Poisonous Laurel Leaf
by Frances Anne Kemble (1809 – 1893)
Thou poisonous laurel leaf, that in the soil
Of life, which I am doomed to till full sore,
Spring’st like a noisome weed! I do not toil
For thee, and yet thou still com’st darkening o’er
My plot of earth with thy unwelcome shade.
Thou nightshade of the heart, beneath whose boughs
All fair and gentle buds hang withering,
Why hast thou wreathed thyself around my brows,
Casting from thence the blossoms of my spring,
Breathing on youth’s sweet roses till they fade?
Alas! thou art an evil weed of woe,
Watered with tears and watched with sleepless care,
Seldom doth envy thy green glories spare;
And yet men covet thee—ah, wherefore do they so!