Five Feminist Poems for National Poetry Month: “Songs for the People” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

My historical work on lesbian-feminism tends to cover work that happened in my lifetime, but with this selection of five poems to celebrate National Poetry Month, I am reaching farther back into history. The contemporary scene of feminist poetry is vibrant and engaging—and so is the history of feminist poetry. This series offers five poems by women poets born between 1861 and 1922. A longer history of poetry demonstrates how feminists send messages across the ages.

This final poem in the celebration of National Poetry Month returns to a poet from the nineteenth century and to language that may feel more remote and unfamiliar. Unlike Amy Lowell’s poem from last week, which focuses on the personal and the intimate, “Songs for the People” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a public poem with a powerful message that resonates with activists today.

Born in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland, to free African American parents, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a prolific journalist and poet as well as an abolitionist and suffragist. In “Songs for the People,” Harper invokes the idea of the poet as a song-maker and imagines making “songs for the weary,” for children and “for the poor and aged.” Harper imagines the alchemy of poetry and song as ending war and crime, making people’s” hearts tender” and filling “the world with peace.”

A student of poetry, Harper uses rhythm and rhyme in this poem. The lines are generally in tetrameter, with four beats, or strong emphases, per line. The rhyme scheme rhymes the second and fourth line of each quatrain.

Together, the rhyme and the rhythm evoke the music that Harper imagines in the poem, bolstering people in the struggle for justice and peace. For contemporary readers, “Songs for the People” remains meaningful and powerful.

Songs for the People

Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.

“Songs for the People” appears in the 1895 Poems.




Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. She's currently the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal, and a regular book reviewer for the Lambda Book Report and Calyx. Julie's research has appeared or is forthcoming in Southern CulturesJournal of Lesbian StudiesAmerican PeriodicalsWSQFrontiers and other journals; she is the author of the poetry collections AvowedLilith’s DemonsSisterhood and Handmade Love and the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.