Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A New Word

For my Modern European Women Writers class today we talked about a poet named Felicia Heman.

Did you know she wrote a hymn in the hymnbook? Or that she outsold most male poets during the apex of her popularity (like Wordsworth)? I didn't. I had never even heard of her before yesterday when I sat down to read her work. And even yesterday, her work didn't seem to spark anything within me.

Until we talked about this poem in class this afternoon:

A song for Israel's God!-Spear, crest, and helm,
Lay by the billows of the old Red Sea,
When Miriam's voice o'er that sepulchral realm
Sent on the blast a hymn of jubilee;
With her lit eye, and long hair floating free,
Queen-like she stood, and glorioius was the strain,
E'en as instinct with the tempestuous glee
Of the dark waters, tossing o'er the slain.

A song for God's own victory!- Oh, thy lays,
Bright poesy! were holy in their birth:-
How hath it died, they seraph note of praise,
In the bewildering melodies of earth!
Return from troubling bitter founts-return,
Back to the life-springs of thy native urn.

This is a poem about Moses' sister Miriam as derived from two verses in Exodus 15.
20 ¶And aMiriam the bprophetess, the csister of Aaron, took a dtimbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.
 21 And Miriam answered them, aSing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.
"Ok, biblical sonnets are fascinating, Rebekah, but where is this going?" I'm sure you're asking. There is a point, just stay with me. See, the thing about Felicia Heman, is that the reason she was wildly popular in her day is the same reason she's been forgotten and ignored in the modern era. Her celebrity became her curse. She was a women who stood for moral values. She was guardian of home and hearth. A defender of faith, values, and virtue. Her poetry seems the perfect image of the Victorian "angel in the home" and feminine sentimentality. And so her strengths were deemed weaknesses by second wave feminism. Yes, here, a surface reading of part of her biblical sonnet series on women from the scriptures, it may seem that Heman is no more than a sentimental female writer. But there is so much much more than that here.
In the first stanza, Miriam stands as a model of female leadership, equal to men, she is the women example of a prophet poet (by the way, I learned today that the words for prophet and poet are the same in Hebrew, pretty cool huh?). But the second stanza is what I find most intriguing. In this stanza, Miriam cries out to poetry (poesy in her words), asking it to return to its holier birth. She's calling for a return to virtue. Does that sound familiar?
"It seems Heman was a person we don't have a word for. A Christian Romantic Feminist, it seems," is what my professor said today. And that resonated in me. Deep. The more I read my textbook for my intro to Women's Studies class, the more I know I'm not a feminist. There's too much I don't agree with: the disrespect for all establishment, the lack of religion, an attitude of doubt about everything when I really believe that faith is so much more rewarding. But on the other hand I can't abide the fact that I personally know several women who've been sexually assaulted, that rape is being used as a weapon of war, that millions of girls all over the world still don't have access to education because it's not "important" for them to be literate. So what am I?
I don't know. But, at the advice of a friend, maybe I'm going to make up my own word for what I am, for what Felicia is, for what my friends are. And then someday, when Felicia Heman is being taught as widely as she should be, they'll know what to call her.

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