“Geeking Out” over Forest Leaves

Michael Stancliff
Arizona State University

Three days. That seemed a long time to devote to one slim volume in a survey course. Nonetheless, I felt the breadth of the survey offered a rich context for reading Frances Ellen Watkins’ Forest Leaves. How might this addition change the version of a tradition I set out to present? I was excited about what my students and I might learn about early century African American literature and culture, about Harper herself, and about the larger enterprise of literary history. My enthusiasm became something of a running joke over the course of our three-day lesson. Johanna Ortner’s story of “recovery” had me, as my students said, “geeking out” over Forest Leaves.  I trust my teacher-readers here will share that excitement.

I typically teach this survey with an emphasis on the African American abolitionist tradition, ending with works from the early twentieth century that both carry on and attempt to break from that earlier tradition. We go only far enough into the Harlem Renaissance (officially, the terrain of the second half of the survey) to consider the trajectories of the abolitionist tradition moving into the twentieth century.  My primary goals in this course—beyond the generic “coverage” aim of the survey course—are to highlight the African American creation of a radical democratic idiom and culture; as has been observed by scholars, the comprehensive egalitarian ethic of the national revolutionary ethic comes down to us as the invention of African American writers who reimagined the more circumscribed code of liberty pronounced by white “Founding Fathers.” In addition, I bring our attention continually back the cultural work at the intersection of aesthetic and rhetorical practice in African American literature at which we find roots of what we now call critical race theory and intersectional analysis. Finally, I challenge students to reckon with the contemporary relevance of African American abolitionism as a movement all the more resonant in the moment of Black Lives Matter. How Forest Leaves would figure into this project, I had no clear idea.

I gave students an overview of our three-day lesson, and asked them to read the biographical information for Harper provided at Common-Place, as well as Ortner’s and at least one of the other accompanying essays. These essays provide a rich sense of the initial reception of Forest Leaves among scholars of African American literature. My excitement is sincere but nonetheless a performative gambit as I welcomed them into the that process of reception. At the end of each day pouring over Forest Leaves, I saluted students, “Thank you for being part of this important work!”
Writing is central to my pedagogy, as is collaborative work, and so preparing to teach Forest Leaves, I knew I would engage students with these methods. Students engaged in the writing and collaborative exercises as a process of inquiry, of thinking critically on the page and as a shared undertaking. Midterm and final essays would give students a chance for more sustained, formal response. What I hoped for was robust generative thinking, and the following reflection aims to capture some sense of the result.

Day One: What Kind of Poems are These?

I wanted students to read Forest Leaves on its own terms before beginning the work suggested by the excellent essays accompanying it at Common-Place, that is, reading it in relation to the work of Harper’s early century contemporaries and reading it in relation to Harper’s subsequent work. What are the central concerns of this volume? How do the poems speak to one another? What are its repetitions and anomalies? What are its stylistic gambits? As an effort towards a holistic approach (or as close as is allowed in the break-neck pace of the survey course), I presented the students with a tentative breakdown of the volume’s poems by type. Given the time, I would prefer to let students undertake this grouping exercise on their own, but the demands of the survey require shortcuts. Categorization for its own sake was not necessarily important, but it did offer a way to immediately introduce many of the formal features of the poems. This is the breakdown I presented:

  • Devotional poems
    • “That Blessed Hope”
    • “I Thirst”
    • “The Dying Christian”
    • “Crucifixion”
    • “The Presentiment”
  • Biblical narrative poems
    • “Haman and Mordecai”
    • “Ruth and Naomi”
    • “For She Said If I May But Touch Of His Clothes I Shall Be Whole”
  • Love poems and other secular poems
    • “Farewell, My Heart Is Beating”
    • “Let me Love Thee”
    • “Yearnings for Home”
    • “An Acrostic”
  • Anti-slavery poems
    • “Ethiopia”
    • “Bible Defense of Slavery”
  • Other poems of moral instruction
    • “He Knoweth Not the Dead Are There”
    • “To A Missionary”
    • “A Dream”
    • “The Felon’s Dream”
    • “A Dialogue”
    • “The Soul”

I selected one poem from each of these categories to discuss in the large group, suggesting that each typified formal, rhetorical, and thematic elements of the larger group. “Farewell, My Heart is Breaking” evokes human suffering, of heartbreak at the loss of a loved one, in a secular mode, with no cry for help or comfort to god. Like the other poems in this group, it explores strong feeling without any rationalizing gesture towards the divine. Students found it to typify what struck them to be a largely mournful volume. I introduced “That Blessed Hope” as a contrast, pointing out the depth of hope and faith in the devotional poems. Not everyone accepted my moderating suggestion, pointing out that the “hope” of the poem was provisional. In the fifth stanza, the speaker of the poem seems to ask god for the strength to “love this blessed hope,” some intervention to “nerve and bear…up” the heart in its effort to “cling” to that hope (8).  Any time students contradict me (from the basis of textual evidence), I feel we’re on a productive path, even if I don’t know yet where it leads.

“Haman and Mordecai” initiates Harper’s career-long engagement with the Book of Esther. This poem makes the signature moves of what I classed as the biblical narratives of Forest Leaves. I didn’t take the time to establish much context beyond what is provided in the helpful footnotes. Some students found the plot to be macabre, and others read it, in the spirit of Purim, as a poem of deliverance and salvation. “Ethiopia,” with the “Bible Defense of Slavery,” explicitly abolitionist, nonetheless work very differently, as students mulling over these categories were quick to point out.                    

Students were surprised that so few of the poems (at least in my designations) explicitly addressed slavery. Again, some pushed back, arguing, I think reasonably, that given the rarified abolitionist milieu of Harper’s upbringing and education, the question of slavery could not be ruled out solely on the basis that no explicit references appeared. Insightfully, students pointed out that the structures of feeling—of hope, despair, loss, release—and polemical elements of “Ethiopia” and “Bible Defense of Slavery” were consistent with many of the other poems. The careful, credible reading of “Haman and Mordecai” staged by some students convinced others that it was a parable for the deliverance of slaves. Surely, several argued, “The Felon’s Dream,” a poem about captivity and collapsing fantasies of freedom, should be considered as a composition entangled in the slavery question. In any case, I was pleased students found the devastating conclusion of the poem to be moving and thought provoking. How do we read the poem’s final foreclosure on hope? Why must the felon’s freedom remain a dream that “mock’[s] his yearning heart” (26)?

It seems to me the very imperfection and maybe clumsiness of categorization proved to be generative, as the exercise prompted students to think carefully about both the volume as a whole and the composition of each poem in relation to the others. Sensing the rising resistance to my categories, I asked students to suggest alternate categories, they made interesting choices, for example. Some argued that the biblical narrative poems might be grouped with other poems that had strong narrative elements; students suggested “A Dialogue” and “The Felon’s Dream” might be accordingly re-categorized.  Students also suggested “Poems of Longing” as a category, recognizing as they did the sense of loss in many of the poems. “Poems of Death” was put forward as a category, which led to an interesting conversation about the various representation of deaths in the poems: physical death (as in “Haman and Mordacei”); moral or spiritual death (as in “He Knoweth Not That the Dead are There); and death and rebirth or transcendence (as in “The Dying Christian” and “I Thirst”). One student argued, with warrant, for a “Poems of Femininity” category in which a biblical poem like “Ruth and Naomi” could be considered in relation to “Ethiopia,” in which Africa is personified as a liberated woman. The narrative of “Haman and Mordecai” similarly features a woman doing political and rhetorical work that makes a crucial difference. “The Dying Christian” depicts the beautiful death of a woman whose faith carries her gloriously into heaven. Finally, several students agreed that a category for “Dream and Fantasy Poems” might be merited.

Nearly all the poems, it was decided by consensus, could be classed as “Poems of Powerful Emotion,” and though this arguably paints with overly-broad brush strokes, it led to some interesting reading and discussion. What is the experience of emotion in these poems? What kind of language is used to evoke feeling? What is the lexicon of feeling in Forest Leaves? In response to these questions, which I posed, students noted that “joy” seemed always to be connected to spiritual experience (as in “The Soul” and “To a Missionary). Anger, students judged to be a powerful force when likewise channeled spiritually (as in “The Bible Defense of Slavery”). Both righteous anger and godly joy feature in the judgement-day poem, “A Dream.” Subjects of grief, sorrow, heart break in the poems students found to be represented always as worthy of sympathy and kindness, a simple and yet insightful observation, I would say. There was near consensus that “Farewell, My Heart is Beating” was not, in fact, a love poem but a poem of Harper’s own grief over losing her mother. Several students voiced their discomfort with the sympathetic ministrations directed towards “heathens” in both “To a Missionary and “The Bible Defense of Slavery.” This led to an interesting conversation about the limits of sympathy in the literature and politics of reform. One student noted the humanizing images of Africans in “Ethiopia” (“’Neath sheltering vines and stately palms, / shall laughing children play, / And aged sires with joyous psalms, / Shall gladden every day.”) as a stark contrast. This in turn led another student to argue that “Ethiopia” imagined a Christianized Africa, claiming that those happy children and joyously singing “sires” had been converted.

I let this conversation about feeling go without trying to direct it in any particular direction because I knew, as I discuss below, that the question of feeling would be important in our final meeting.

Day Two: Forest Leave in its Moment

In preparation for our second day with Forest Leaves, I asked students to review their notes on the abolitionist work we had read earlier in the semester, texts including Phyllis Wheatley’s poems, Maria Stewart’s “Boston Lecture” and selections from Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality. David Walker’s Address to Colored Citizens of the World, Henry Highland Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves of the United States,” George Moses Horton’s poems, Frederick Douglass’ first autobiography, and Linda Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. I also assigned some informal online writing (we use Blackboard at our institution) prompting them to think back on our central points of focus discussing the abolitionist work of the first part of the century, and to trace connections with the poems of Forest Leaves (See Online Writing Prompt).

How might we read these poems, for example, as consistent with the “constitutive address” of black nationalism, the simultaneous calling together and invention of an African American people? Did we find the kind of scathing critiques of Christian hypocrisy we’d encountered in Walker and Douglass? Did Harper write in the prophetic voice of the jeremiad warns the nation of its morally wayward course? Did Harper, like her contemporaries, read abolitionist principles and precedents in the bible? Could we find in these poems the didactic moral perfectionism of early black nationalists, the instruction of a radical self-discipline? Did Harper speak from the ethic of “republican motherhood” on the model of Stewart or Wheatley? Did we see her practicing, perhaps even theorizing what we might recognize as early African American feminism?

Thus prompted, the students were generally successful in making links between Forest Leaves and other, early-century work. Before class time, I responded to their online writing, underscoring insights and posing additional questions. In class, I organized the students in collaborative work groups and asked them to follow up on the connections they made in their writing.

A majority of the students had written about the strong connections between “Bible Defense of Slavery” and the sustained critique of “the slaveholder’s religion” in many works we had read, particularly, Douglass 1845 Narrative of An American Slave. “Ethiopia,” we decided, rang with the kind of prophetic certainty familiar from Maria Stewart’s essay and oration. This poem also claims a trans-Atlantic link that speaks interestingly to Wheatley’s self-positioning as “an Ethiop” and looks forward to the diasporic ethos of early twentieth century writers like Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. In the first weeks of the course, I had referred “the abolitionist bible” in general reference to the intertextual, biblical applications and re-workings of the early tradition. Students returned to their sense from two meetings earlier of “Haman and Mordecai” as an abolitionist allegory in verse poetry form. One student noted astutely that Forest Leaves did not make the kinds of references to Exodus, which we had seen so often in other, early-century work. Of course, I let them know that in 1869, Harper would write a book-length poem retelling the story of Moses (Moses: A Story of the Nile) as well as a novel drawing heavily on its plot and abolitionist ethic (Minnie’s Sacrifice).

If explicit protest against slavery is minimal in Forest Leaves, the didactic elements of reform cultural certainly are not. Indeed, the radical self-discipline of early black nationalist discourse, the characterological perfectionism, is much in evidence. Poems like “A Dialogue” illustrate the will to exemplify that exemplary discipline of the moral self. Picking up a thread of conversation that began with Wheatley, we agreed that poems like ”He Knoweth Not the Dead are There” carry forward the ethic of republican motherhood that proved to be such important political and rhetorical ground for feminists in the early national period across race lines.

In the last ten minutes of our second class-meeting, I assigned Harper poems from the 1850s, 60s, and 70s, including those first appearing in Forest Leaves later to be revised and included in other volumes. As Ortner points out—usefully for teachers—the Forest Leave versions can be read as first drafts. I sent them off with two questions to focus their reading: First, considering the later poems with those of Forest Leaves, how would you account for Harper’s development as a poet? Second, how do revisions of poems from Forest Leaves published in later volumes change the overall meaning? As always, I asked them to be specific, to be ready to support their responses by pointing to specific textual detail.

Putting together this three-day lesson plan, it occurred to me that students might get tired of the book or of Harper, so I was pleased that they seemed interested and energized as they went off to prepare for our third and final day.

Day Three: Forest Leaves and/in Harper’s Canon

I planned to use the first half of class to discuss Harper’s later poems with reference to Forest Leaves, and to talk specifically about the revisions in the second half. Immediately, I saw that I should have devoted a class period to each, extending to a four-day lesson. Students were fascinated by the later poems and what they saw—quite rightly—as the development of a powerful political poet.

Students observed first that in the later work, Harper seemed to develop as a writer of narrative poems, an element of her work they had recognized in Forest Leaves. “The Slave Mother” and Harper’s recasting the story of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin heroine, “Eliza Harris” in particular captured their imagination. Students saw clearly now Harper’s penchant for developing sentimental, political heroines, and again, could reinforce this insight by sharing with them the novels she would write in the 1860s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, all of which feature characters that are indeed prefigured in the earlier work.

Students were interested to see that Harper returned to the Book of Esther in the 1870 poem, “Vashti.” What they took to be the implicit feminist politics of “Hamman and Mordacei” found full-throated expression in the later poem.  In addition, bonds Queen Vashti shares with all the “women of Persia” generalizes as a broad social ethic the familial love and commitment dramatized in “Ruth and Naomi.” The work of Hazel Carby, Claudia Tate, and Anne duCille encourage just such a perspective on ostensibly domestic relations, values, and emotions as allegory and material resource for political organization. Encouraging a brief inventory of what they had read, I suggested that, to be sure, Harper’s poetry and fiction were populated by political heroines who carried the sign of her own commitment as an activist and that of the movements to which she lent her pen and her voice.

Most interesting to me (I suppose because I am doing some research along in this area) was our return to our discussion of feeling / emotion / affect in the poetry. We talked much about the direct appeal and other strategies of the poems intended to move readers, either to action or moral transformation. Students recognized that Harper turned more and more to poems of direct address in the decades following Forest Leave, an appropriate strategy, they reasoned, for a poet increasingly devoted to abolitionism and women’s rights. I pushed a bit here, asking students to think beyond a strictly persuasive paradigm.  Speakers in these poems (and characters in the narrative poem) have powerful emotional experience. How are emotions experienced in these poems? What are the causes and outcomes of emotions? How do they impact bodies? Again, my own research interests motivated the questions I posed to students.

The verb “nerve,” which appears across Harper’s canon, launched our discussions of feeling in her work. Students noticed the word in “That Blessed Hope” (“My heart is a fragile thing, / Will you not nerve and bear it up?”). The word struck the students, as the verb form was unfamiliar to them, and as throughout the lesson, we consulted the Oxford English Dictionary. I stressed the mix of physiological and emotional meaning in its etymology, asking again, how does emotion impact bodies? A student struck by “Songs for the People” (1897) offered that “thrill” seemed synonymous with this usage of “nerve.” We had decided that in the earlier poem, the power to “nerve” a heart and a body rested in faith, but in the later poem, poetry itself possessed the power to “thrill the hearts of men” (Foster 371). Students saw clearly enough that the poems of Forest Leaves featured many people in need of the encouragements of faith and / or poetry. Like any sentimental literature, people’s fates depended on the right feeling of others.

Underscoring this insight, I directed then to Harper’s most well-known abolitionist poems, in which, I suggested, physical sensations are inseparable from moral sensations. “Eliza Harris” and “The Slave Mother” both feature reader figures, bystanders to the action of the poems, respectively, a mother escaping slavery, carrying her child across the ice floes of the Ohio River, and a mother and child being separated at a slave auction. The heroic mother in “Eliza Harris,” leaping the ice floes, pursued by dogs, is “nerv’d by despair and strengthened by woe” (Foster 61). How do “despair” and “woe” strengthen, I asked? Much semi-scientific discussion of “fight or flight” followed, but what of the bystander in the poem? How might they connect with the affective experience of Eliza’s flight? Discussion of “The Slave Mother” moved us forward (from my perspective). The first lines of the opening stanzas present an interrogative litany, questioning readers: “Heard you that shriek /…Saw you those hands, sadly clasped— / …Saw you the sad, imploring eye?” (Foster 58-59). I suggested to the students that these were not idle questions, but a challenge, an inquiry and intervention into the affective status of those who might consider slavery in the abstract but resist or ignore the lived experience of those in its maw. The bereft mother’s cries “Disturb the listening air,” not just sound to be interpreted but a material entity confronting listeners (Foster 59). Poetry for Harper, like faith in god, not only moves people in the right direction, it joins them as subjects of feeling. Animated myself, I told them that Harper is a poet of profound empathy, of fellow feeling and mutual understanding that manifests in our very tissues. “Bury Me in a Free Land” (1864) carries this thinking about an intersubjective, rhetorical, emotional, poetic, “thrill” to an extreme. This speaker of this poem imagines that even beyond the grave, she will register the emotional experience of enslaved people, will hear their suffering even in death (Foster 177-178).

Cutting this conversation short with regrets (and mental notes to allot more time the future), I shifted our focus to Harper’s revisions, grouping students and assigning each a poem and its revision and asking them to return to our guiding question about the effects of revision. I told them further that each group would collaboratively write a short paper on Harper’s revision practice (to be started in class and finished on Google Docs). Complaints came quickly. It turns out, many felt the changes were often too minor to merit a writing assignment. My encouragement to work together to pool their critical-reading resources was met with some grumbles and eye roles. Given that at least one student in each group had a laptop, I encouraged them pull up the Oxford English Dictionary at the university library site, and to read carefully at the lexical level.

After a few minutes, one group began talking animatedly about a stanza removed and a stanza moved further down in the 1854 re-publication of “The Dying Christian.” Why remove the explicit longing for meeting Jesus in the afterlife? Was it to broaden the appeal by making a bit less zealous? With this stanza gone, what then was the spiritual center of the poem?

Students in a different group agreed that “The Revel,” Harper’s 1854 revision of “He Knoweth Not That the Dead Are There” (with the original title retained as an epigraph) had been revised to put a much finer point on a temperance polemic. The plausible reference to alcohol in the first version—“Like the asp’s seductive venom”—becomes specific in the revision—“The wine cup’s sparkling glow / Blends with the viands rare / There’s revelry and show, / But still, the dead are there!” (Foster 65). In their collaborative writing, students pushed passed this simple if quite plausible reading of intention. Why add “viands” to the cautionary tale? The students reasoned that the caution was not simply against alcohol but a more general overinvestment in or befuddlement by the senses, against excessive sensory pleasures. In my comments on their writing, I affirmed this reading and suggested comparing it to the kinds of moral sensations we had discussed on the second day of our lesson. In addition, the students noted that “viands rare” suggested a refined cuisine, which they found noteworthy. Clearly, they reasoned, Harper intended readers to imagine the dangers of upper-class revels; the poem seems to evoke the “show” of an elegant event rather than a beer hall. Readers of Harper’s novel, Sowing and Reaping, serialized in the Christian Recorder in 1876-77, will catch the insight of this observation.

Harper revised “’I Thirst’” and included the poem in her 1872 Sketches of a Southern Life. The students noticed that Harper put the title in quotes but wondered what was being quoted. I suggested a reference to Jesus’s last moments on the cross as depicted in the book John 19:28. With this bit of information, one student suggested we would have to reclassify the poem as a biblical narrative, albeit a New Testament, narrative fragment. Others suggested the line “My heart is weary let me go” might still be any individual longing for heaven. One suggested that if there was an ambiguity, it served to make a connection between Jesus’ suffering on the cross and human suffering. Wouldn’t this be a radical suggestion? Blasphemous? The revised version complicates these questions quite a bit. The original three stanzas appear as “First Voice,” and three additional stanzas appear as “Second Voice,” so that what had been a plea to god for peace or release becomes a plea that garners a response. This responding voice speaks, we might assume, under the auspices of an added epigraph from Romans 10:8: “The Word is nigh thee, even unto thy heart.” In this poem, we might at least provisionally infer the Apostle Paul preaching the immanent presence of Christ among the faithful. The voice responds to the longing of the first voice, citing scripture as warrant for peace and wholeness in life and not simply beyond. In other words, if Christ is in our hearts, we too, like the incarnational Jesus, embody “the word” which is “made flesh.”

I asked this group how the Reconstruction context of the revised “I Thirst” might influence their reading, but the students were unsure. In their writing, however, they suggested that the hopeful second voice amended the grief and resignation of the antebellum first voice. To bolster this claim, the group made reference to all of the early expressions of longing for death’s release and Christian eternity as the theology of the slave era. By this logic, the affirmation of the second voice—“Within, in thee is the living font / Fed from the springs above”—suggested that after emancipation, the 13th and the 14th Amendments, African Americans did possess or embody the greater power of democratic rights. And / or, the second voice encouraged the speaker of the first voice to live on, to struggle in this new phase of political journeying. This overly sanguine take on Reconstruction didn’t worry me as the second half of the survey puts the disappointments of post-emancipation reversals and disappointments front and center.

The group assigned “Saved by Faith,” the 1854 revision of “For She Said If I May But Touch Of His Clothes I Shall Be Whole,” found themselves at a dead end from the start. The new title, they reasoned, but a finer point on the biblical message (in this way making an interesting parallel with the revised “I Thirst). However, nothing else in the poem had changed, except some of the punctuation, one student noted. Better read those punctuation changes carefully, I advised (cue guffaws and head shakes). They struggled but made interesting suggestions about emphases added with exclamation marks; here the poet adds force and emotion to the exchange between Jesus and ill woman who touches the hem of his robe and it healed, retelling the story from Matthew 9:20-22. Opinions differed on changing of several commas and semi-colons. Some read changed emphasis in the re-punctuated sentences, and others thought Harper was simply revising to bring her poems towards more standard English grammar.

In general, the collaboratively written papers were successful. The students made no grand claims, but rather, per the assignment instructions, noticed details and suggested plausible rationales for revision. Some groups had to dig deep when revisions from one version to another were minimal, and I hope that the challenge fostered new resources for reading creatively. One of my favorite comments from the papers employed a lesson from our first day on Forest Leaves. How can we understand the impact of a revision unless we understand the context of the later book as a whole?

Tentative Conclusions

I will run this three-day unit again the next time I teach the survey. Though too soon to reach firm conclusions, I think it was successful based solely on the level of student engagement. A number students chose to write about Harper for the midterm essay, and many wrote insightfully about Forest Leaves. Informally polling students at the semester’s end about the highlights of the course, many pointed to our extended unit on Harper. The categorizing heuristic proved to be generative, providing students with a lens to study Forest Leaves as a volume on its own terms. Students did good work particularly reading the poems in relation to one another.

Studying re-published revisions of Forest Leaves poems turned out to be one of the most productive exercises in close reading that I can remember. Based on this success, I’ve begun to develop a similar plan (for a different class) in approaching the editorial and revision processes of John Greenleaf Whittier’s late-career collected works. When I do return to Forest Leaves in the classroom, I might take the time to consider it in relation to her late-career biblical poems. To me, “Haman and Mordacei” and “Ruth and Naomi” read as quite accomplished, not simple experiments that anticipate more mature work. I would also like to follow up on the students’ sense that Forest Leaves is a book largely about death. Poems about death pervade Harper’s canon, and it would be worth the time to see how the figuration of death changes over time, as Harper ages and as the country moves through and beyond Reconstruction. How do poems imaging the world the dying depart? What reforms are imagined in the evocation of the afterlife? What hurts are healed in the transformation of death?

Finally, the writing exercises—both individual and collaborative—worked well from my perspective. The students generated ideas that led to interesting directions in conversation, and a number of them built on this writing in the essays they wrote later in the semester. As I suggested earlier in this reflection, I didn’t feel any need for us to arrive at firm conclusions about the place of Forest Leaves in African American literary history or in Frances Harper’s canon. As a field, we are not at that stage of things yet, and so the work will continue.