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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

1825–1911

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born on September 24, 1825, in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised by her aunt and uncle. A poet, novelist, and journalist, she was also a prominent abolitionist and temperance and women's suffrage activist. She traveled to multiple states to lecture and give speeches about these issues. 

In May 1866, she delivered the speech, "We Are All Bound Up Together" at the National Women's Rights Convention in New York, sharing the stage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. "You white women speak here of rights," she said. "I speak of wrongs."

With Margaret Murray Washington, the wife of Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, and other prominent African American women, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president in 1897.

She authored numerous books, including the poetry collections Forest Leaves (1845) and Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), the novel Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), and several short stories. Before marrying Fenton Harper, a widower, with whom she had a daughter, she worked at Union Seminary in Ohio, where she taught sewing.

She died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on February 22, 1911. 

By This Poet

17

Songs for the People

Let me make the songs for the people,
   Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
   Wherever they are sung.

Not for the clashing of sabres,
   For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
   With more abundant life.

Let me make the songs for the weary,
   Amid life's fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
   And careworn brows forget.

Let me sing for little children,
   Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
   To float o'er life's highway.

I would sing for the poor and aged,
   When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
   Where there shall be no night.

Our world, so worn and weary,
   Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
   Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.

Music to soothe all its sorrow,
   Till war and crime shall cease; 
And the hearts of men grown tender
   Girdle the world with peace.

Bible Defence of Slavery

Take sackcloth of the darkest dye,
   And shroud the pulpits round!
Servants of Him that cannot lie,
   Sit mourning on the ground.

Let holy horror blanch each cheek,
   Pale every brow with fears;
And rocks and stones, if ye could speak,
   Ye well might melt to tears!

Let sorrow breathe in every tone,
   In every strain ye raise;
Insult not God's majestic throne
   With th' mockery of praise.

A "reverend" man, whose light should be
   The guide of age and youth,
Brings to the shrine of Slavery
   The sacrifice of truth!

For the direst wrong by man imposed,
   Since Sodom's fearful cry,
The word of life has been unclos'd,
   To give your God the lie.

Oh! when ye pray for heathen lands,
   And plead for their dark shores,
Remember Slavery's cruel hands
   Make heathens at your doors!

Learning to Read

Very soon the Yankee teachers 
    Came down and set up school; 
But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,— 
    It was agin' their rule. 

Our masters always tried to hide 
    Book learning from our eyes; 
Knowledge didn't agree with slavery—
    'Twould make us all too wise. 

But some of us would try to steal 
    A little from the book, 
And put the words together, 
    And learn by hook or crook. 

I remember Uncle Caldwell, 
    Who took pot-liquor fat 
And greased the pages of his book, 
    And hid it in his hat. 

And had his master ever seen 
    The leaves up on his head, 
He'd have thought them greasy papers, 
    But nothing to be read. 

And there was Mr. Turner's Ben, 
    Who heard the children spell, 
And picked the words right up by heart, 
    And learned to read 'em well. 

Well, the Northern folks kept sending 
    The Yankee teachers down; 
And they stood right up and helped us, 
    Though Rebs did sneer and frown. 

And, I longed to read my Bible, 
    For precious words it said; 
But when I begun to learn it, 
    Folks just shook their heads, 

And said there is no use trying, 
    Oh! Chloe, you're too late; 
But as I was rising sixty, 
    I had no time to wait. 

So I got a pair of glasses, 
    And straight to work I went, 
And never stopped till I could read 
    The hymns and Testament. 

Then I got a little cabin—
    A place to call my own— 
And I felt as independent 
    As the queen upon her throne.