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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Social Realism Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (c. 1836-1919)

[7634] Anonymous, National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia (c. 1910-50), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-91935].

Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (1836-1919) A poet widely published in nineteenth-century America, Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt saw hundreds of her verses appear in newspapers and magazines, and she published fifteen collected volumes of her work. The complexity and subtlety of some of her poetry tended to trouble critics, however, who accused her of being “wayward” and “enigmatic.” Although she sometimes wrote within the genteel, sentimental tradition that dominated American women’s poetry in the nineteenth century, Piatt–to her critics’ dismay–also experimented with more challenging and allusive forms of expression. Piatt’s subtle and often ironic aesthetic went largely unappreciated until contemporary feminist literary critics led a reassessment of her importance. Today Piatt’s work is beginning to be recognized as a significant forerunner to the modernist poetry that emerged in the early twentieth century.

Sarah Piatt was raised in rural Kentucky and attended a women’s college there. She received a liberal arts education, with a particular focus on the classics and on romantic poetry. Her interest in poetry was strengthened by her marriage in 1861 to John James Piatt, himself a poet. The couple eventually had seven children and John James, or J. J., took a variety of editorial and government jobs to support his large family. Over the course of his career, Piatt moved his family several times, living in Washington, D.C., Ohio, and Ireland. After growing up in the South, moving to the North, and living in Europe, Sarah Piatt developed a sophisticated awareness of cultural differences and the relativity of one’s point of view, insights that permeate her poetry. With J. J. serving as editor and agent, Piatt published in many of the prestigious journals and magazines of the time and brought out a series of books. Despite her productivity, however, she and her husband both died in poverty.

Though Piatt’s work sometimes deals with conventional sentimental themes such as children, romance, and death, she often uses her poetry to self-consciously deflate sentimental conventions. Her later work is characterized by a dramatic realism that relies on dialogue to elucidate her complex and subtle meaning. Many of Piatt’s best poems do not rely on a single lyric voice but instead introduce multiple speakers (often children). This multitude of voices can be confusing to readers–an early reviewer complained that, by not making clear who is speaking and in what context, Piatt’s poems leave “much to be supplied by intuition and imagination.” But if engaging with Piatt’s work can sometimes feel like trying to solve a difficult riddle, most readers will find the rich, complex results to be worth the effort.

Teaching Tips

  • Many students will find “The Palace-Burner” difficult to penetrate because the context for the speaker’s musings may not be readily apparent to them and because the poem includes the voices of both its primary speaker and her son. Be sure to explain that the speaker is reflecting on a picture she and her son are looking at in a newspaper. The two of them discuss the pictured woman, who was a radical and a “palace-burner” during the political struggles in France in the 1870s. Have your students read the poem out loud and then work through it slowly as a class. Who is speaking? Which questions are asked by the primary speaker’s son? Which does she ask herself? Why does Piatt include these different voices in her poem without always clarifying who is speaking? In order to explain the “dramatic” quality of the poem, you might bring in one of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues (“My Last Duchess,” “Porphyria’s Lover,” or “The Laboratory” would be good choices). Ask students to think about the effect of these dramatic monologues in which the voice of the speaker is not always that of the poet. What kind of challenges does the distance among the poet, the speaker, and the speaker’s interlocutors pose for the reader? How do Piatt’s dramatic poems compare to Browning’s?
  • After reading and discussing “The Palace-Burner,” ask your students to choose a picture that they find particularly moving in a magazine or newspaper and then write a poem or reflection in which they explain the effect the picture has on them. Have volunteers share their poems with the class and discuss the challenges they experienced in writing this kind of piece.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Who are the characters in “The Palace-Burner”? Who is speaking? What is the “picture in the newspaper” mentioned in the subtitle? Context: How does the speaker in “A Pique at Parting” critique romantic conventions? How does her analysis of the power struggle between men and women compare to Lydia’s experience in Edith Wharton’s “Souls Belated”?
  2. Context: Examine the picture of Arlington National Cemetery featured in the archive. How does it compare to Piatt’s description of it in “Army of Occupation”? Why is Arlington such a powerful place for her?
  3. Exploration: Why do you think Piatt was largely ignored by literary critics until recently? Why do you think feminist critics find her appealing now? How do Piatt’s poems relate to the sentimental tradition within which many nineteenth-century women wrote? How do her poems anticipate the work of later American women poets, like Amy Lowell or H.D.? How do poems like Lowell’s “The Captured Goddess” or H.D.’s “Helen” compare to Piatt’s attempts to challenge traditional representations of women? How do later poets like Lowell and H.D. continue to wrestle with one of the problems that concerned Piatt–how to be a woman poet within a culture where women were perceived more as subjects for poetry than as writers of it?
  4. Exploration: Why do you think Piatt is included in this unit on social realism? In what way might her poetry be understood as “realist”?

Selected Archive Items

[1927] William M. Smith, [Untitled] (1865),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-B8171-7861].
This picture shows African American soldiers who comprised the band of the 107th Colored Infantry: one of the many contradictions of the Civil War was that African American soldiers fought for the Confederacy to protect the institution of slavery, and others fought for the Union, where they were denied equal treatment before the law. Of the many writers whose work was affected by the Civil War, poet Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt stands out for holding both the North and the South responsible for the war and its carnage. Though she lived in Union territory, her life and poetry were informed by the perspective of her southern childhood: her parents owned slaves, and she acknowledged her complicity in the forces that caused the devastation she described in her poems.

[7632] Keystone View Company, Burial of Victims of the Maine in their Final Resting Place, Arlington Cemetery, VA, Dec. 28, 1899 (1899),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-92665].
Photograph of caskets, draped with the American flag and lined in rows, ready for burial at the Arlington Cemetery in Virginia. Four million people visit the cemetery annually to pay tribute to war heroes, to attend funeral services, and to view headstones that tell America’s history.

[7634] Anonymous, National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia (c. 1910-50),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, [LC-USZ62- 91935].
Photograph of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, with the Memorial Amphitheater in the foreground. The amphitheater was dedicated in 1920 after a campaign for its construction by Judge Ivory G. Kimball, who wanted to have an assembling place for honoring defenders of America.

[9140] Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess” (1842),
courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” is a quintessential example of the poetic genre of the dramatic monologue. The first-person speaker is a duke who hints at the murder of his wife, even as he arranges for a new marriage.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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