19th Century Women's Poetry

Mary Ashley Van Voorhis Townsend (1832-1901)

Mary Ashley Van Voorhis was born in Lyons, NY. Her marriage to Gideon Townsend resulted in her removal to New Orleans, a city with which she felt an increasing alliance and where she gained fame as a regional poet. Under the pen-name "Xariffa," she published at least six volumes of poetry, including Poems (1870), Xariffa's Poems (1881), Down the Bayou, and Other Poems (1882), and Distaff and Spindle (1882). Ashley Townsend was particularly interested in the sonnet form, although she wrote narrative poetry as well. She was selected to write the official poem for the New Orleans Exposition in 1884. She died in Galveston, Texas, in 1901.

As by the instrument she took her place,
The expectant people, breathing sigh nor word,
Sat hushed, while o'er the waiting ivory stirred
Her supple hands with their suggestive grace.
With sweet notes they began to interlace,
And then with lofty strains their skill to gird,
Then loftier still, till all the echoes heard
Entrancing harmonies float into space.
She paused, and gaily trifled with the keys
Until they laughed in wild delirium,
Then, with rebuking fingers, from their glees
She led them one by one till all grew dumb,
And music seemed to sing upon its knees,
A slave her touch could quicken or benumb.

Down the Bayou
The cypress swamp around me wraps its spell,
With hushing sounds in moss-hung branches there,
Like congregations rustling down to prayer,
While Solitude, like some unsounded bell,
Hangs full of secrets that it cannot tell,
And leafy litanies on the humid air
Intone themselves, and on the tree-trunks bare
The scarlet lichen writes her rubrics well.
The cypress-knees take on them marvellous shapes
Of pygmy nuns, gnomes, goblins, witches, fays,
The vigorous vine the withered gum-tree drapes,
Across the oozy ground the rabbit plays,
The moccasin to jungle depths escapes,
And through the gloom the wild deer shyly gaze.

Her Horoscope
'T is true, one half of woman's life is hope
And one half resignation. Between there lies
Anguish of broken dreams,--doubt, dire surprise,
And then is born the strength with all to cope.
Unconsciously sublime, life's shadowed slope
She braves; the knowledge in her patient eyes
Of all that love bestows and love denies,
As writ in every woman's horoscope!
She lives, her heart-beats given to others' needs,
Her hands, to lift for others on the way
The burdens which their weariness forsook.
She dies, an uncrowned doer of great deeds.
Remembered? Yes, as is for one brief day
The rose one leaves in some forgotten book.