Talk about reinvention! Frances Anne Kemble‘s first brush with fame came on the London stage in 1829, when the 20-year-old daughter of a famed theatrical family took the stage as “Fanny Kemble.”  Three years later, in a tour of the United States, Kemble met and fell in love with Philadelphia landowner Pierce Maese Butler, who was smitten as much by her talent as poet and diarist as by her beauty.  Her first reinvention, perhaps, was as an author: she made waves with her Journal of Frances Ann Butler, in which she gave a frank assessment of Americans as “the most extravagant people in the world.”

The poet, whose family were scions of of British abolitionism, turned her insightful eye on slavery starting in 1836, when Butler inherited a plantation in Georgia. Kemble stayed in her marriage until 1839, and more than twenty years later published in England Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, which included not only her own observations but her memories of some little-recorded voices: the enslaved women she lived with. By then, the U.S. Civil War was in full swing, and Kemble’s book is sometimes given partial credit for the fact that the United Kingdom never officially recognized the Confederacy.

We may revisit Kemble next year, with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Meanwhile, the poems below are from her earlier days. Delight in a glimpse of Europe and listen to the river whose quarries furnished the stone for much of Philadelphia.


Night in her dark array
Steals o’er the ocean,
And with departed day
Hushed seems its motion.
Slowly o’er yon blue coast
Onward she’s treading,
‘Till its dark line is lost,
‘Neath her veil spreading.
The bark on the rippling deep
Hath found a pillow,
And the pale moonbeams sleep
On the green billow.
Bound by her emerald zone
Venice is lying,
And round her marble crown
Night winds are sighing.
From the high lattice now
Bright eyes are gleaming,
That seem on night’s dark brow
Brighter stars beaming.
Now o’er the bright lagune
Light barks are dancing,
And ‘neath the silver moon
Swift oars are glancing.
Strains from the mandolin
Steal o’er the water,
Echo replies between
To mirth and laughter.
O’er the wave seen afar
Brilliantly shining,
Gleams like a fallen star
Venice reclining.

To the Wissahickon

My feet shall tread no more thy mossy side,
When once they turn away, thou Pleasant Water,
Nor ever more, reflected in thy tide,
Will shine the eyes of the White Island’s daughter.
But often in my dreams, when I am gone
Beyond the sea that parts thy home and mine,
Upon thy banks the evening sun will shine,
And I shall hear thy low, still flowing on.
And when the burden of existence lies
Upon my soul, darkly and heavily,

James Peale, View of the Wissahickon (1830).

I’ll clasp my hands over my weary eyes,
Thou Pleasant Water, and thy clear waves see.
Bright be thy course for ever and for ever,
Child of pure mountain springs, and mountain snow;
And as thou wanderest on to meet the river
Oh, still in light and music mayst thou flow!
I never shall come back to thee again,
When once my sail is shadowed on the main,
Nor ever shall I hear thy laughing voice
As on their rippling way thy waves rejoice,
Nor ever see the dark green cedar throw
Its gloomy shade o’er the clear depths below,
Never, from stony rifts of granite gray
Sparkling like diamond rocks in the sun’s ray,
Shall I look down on thee, thou pleasant stream,
Beneath whose crystal folds the gold sands gleam;
Wherefore, farewell! but whensoe’er again
The wintry spell melts from the earth and air;
And the young Spring comes dancing through thy glen,
With fragrant, flowery breath, and sunny hair;
When through the snow the scarlet berries gleam,
Like jewels strewn upon thy banks, fair stream,
My spirit shall through many a summer’s day
Return, among thy peaceful woods to stray.

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