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Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2013, Volume 34

"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864

Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
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Complete Issue: The Anglo-African (30 January 1864)
Frances E. W. Harper, "The Dying Mother" The Anglo-African (30 January 1864): [1]View Poem Image
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Come closer to me, husband![2] Now the aching leaves my breast; But my eyes are dim and weary, And to-night I fain would rest. Clasp me closer to your bosom Ere I calmly sleep in death; With your arms enfolded round me I would yield my parting breath.
Bring me now my darling baby— God's own precious gift of love; Tell her she must meet her mother In the blessed world above. When her little feet grow stronger, To walk life's paths untrod, That earnest, true and hopeful She must lay her hands on God.
Tell my other little children They must early seek His face— That His love is a strong tower, And His arms a hiding-place. Tell them—but my voice grows fainter— Surely, husband, this is death. Tell them that their dying mother Blessed them with her latest breath.


  1. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911), activist, orator, and writer. Born Frances Ellen Watkins in Baltimore, Maryland, Harper was raised by her aunt and schoolmaster uncle after the death of her parents. She received a rigorous education at the Reverend William Watkins's Academy for Negro Youth and took part in antislavery activities with his family. In her midtwenties, she taught in Ohio and Pennsylvania. She pledged herself to the antislavery movement in response to the death of a free black man whom Maryland authorities had arrested and sent into slavery for the crime of entering the state. In 1854, she began to lecture for the Maine Anti-Slavery Society. Her Poems of Miscellaneous Subjects appeared in the same year (the first of ten volumes of poetry published between 1854 and 1901). In November 1859 she championed militant abolitionist John Brown as "the hero of the nineteenth century" (William Still, The Underground Rail Road [Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872], 762).
    Harper continued to lecture with great success until late 1860, when she married Fenton Harper, a widower with three children. The family moved to a farm in Grove City, Ohio, where Harper managed their domestic life and wrote for the antislavery press. The Christian Recorder of September 27, 1862, printed her criticisms of Lincoln in late September 1862: "The President's dabbling with Colonization just now, suggests to my mind the idea of a man almost dying with a loathsome cancer, and busying himself about having his hair trimmed according to the latest fashion." The Emancipation Proclamation raised her hopes, and she returned to the platform to speak on "the President's Proclamation." "I know that all is not accomplished," she told William Still, "but we may rejoice in what has been already wrought,—the wondrous change in so short a time" (766). Her poems appeared in the Anglo-African, the Free Nation, and other newspapers. As "a form of public speech addressed to concrete, empirically identifiable others" (Paula Bernat Bennett, Poets in the Public Sphere: The Emancipatory Project of American Women's Poetry, 1800—1900 [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003], 5), these pieces represent a continuation of her mission as a lecturer. The newspaper served as another platform.
    Fenton Harper's death precipitated a financial crisis in May 1864: the contents of the family home were seized by creditors. Harper returned to the lecture circuit and "turned her attention to Reconstruction, temperance, education, moral reform, and women's rights" (Shirley Wilson Logan, 'We Are Coming': The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999], 48). She and Edmonia Highgate were the only women to address the National Convention of Colored Men in the fall of 1864. After the war, she lectured throughout the South. Her first serialized novel, Minnie's Sacrifice, appeared in 1869. After the publication of Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), she helped found the National Association of Colored Women (1896).
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  2. The stanzas describe a "good death" in the tradition of the ars moriendi. In mid-nineteenth-century America, such a death required the bedside presence of family members and the utterance of precious last words, as well as the manifestation of signs of the dying person's salvation (Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War [New York: Knopf, 2008], 10–11). These beliefs and conventions persisted during the Civil War, even as the distant deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers challenged established rituals of grief and mourning.
    Convinced of an afterlife in heaven, Harper's mother provides consolation and instruction in her last moments; the lyric comprises a dramatic form of didactic devotional literature. Lines 11 and 12 ("Tell her she must meet her mother / In the blessed world above") suggests that childbirth may have caused the speaker's death (emphasis added).
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