Bolton, Sarah T(ittle Barrett)

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BOLTON, Sarah T(ittle Barrett)

Born 18 December 1814, Newport, Kentucky; died 4 August 1893, Indianapolis, Indiana

Daughter of Jonathan B. and Esther Pendleton Barrett; married Nathaniel Bolton, 1831

Sarah T. Bolton published her first poem at the age of fourteen and continued writing during most of her life. During her travels, including four trips to Europe, she was a voluminous letter writer, and she twice tried her hand at fiction (one novel was written when she was sixteen and then destroyed; in her last year, she returned to the form, beginning a religious novel). But her preferred form was verse, and it was as a poet that she achieved fame. Although she was versatile in her use of poetic forms and sometimes inventive in rhyming, her poetry today seems to be characterized by its sentimentality, triteness, and excesses of diction, while her rhythms often approach doggerel.

A number of Bolton's poems deal with places visited on her European travels (for example, "A Day at Ouchy, on Lake Leman," "Leaving Switzerland," and "To the Arve at Its Junction with the Rhone"). She apotheosized such political and literary heroes as Charles George Gordon, the Girondists, veterans of the Mexican War, Edgar Allan Poe, Hawkeye Burdette (a contemporary comic writer), and John Howard Payne (writer of "Home Sweet Home"). She also composed many poems to and about friends. Still other poems praised frontier life and pioneers. "Indiana," which compares the state favorably to many storied places, was formerly extremely popular throughout that state.

Bolton's most interesting poems today, however, are those which reveal her awareness of injustice and her hatred of oppression. A number of poems touch on the need for political freedom; and she created many pathetic portraits of the poverty-stricken, especially children. She argued against capital punishment in "The Doomed Anarchists" and praised those such as Martin Luther who have had the courage to defy received opinion.

Her most frequent tones are indignation (in the poems of social protest), sentimentality (in narrative poems), rhapsodic praise (in poems on places and on nature), and happy idealism (in poems on pioneers and Indiana, and in those in which she predicts the future). Bolton's personal philosophy seems to have been to trust in God and live for the joy of the day but uncomplainingly accept life's disappointments ("When It Rains, Let It Rain"). She was also a supporter of women's rights. Her best known poem, "Paddle Your Own Canoe," argues for a sturdy independence and self-trust.

In her lifetime, Bolton was much praised. Her fellow Hoosier writers Lew Wallace and James Whitcomb Riley thought highly of her work, and William Cullen Bryant included "Left on the Battlefield," a trite and extremely sentimental poem, in his selection of the 50 finest war poems ever written. In 1941, a plaque honoring her was placed in the rotunda of the Indiana capitol building. Almost completely forgotten today, in her life and work Bolton epitomized the contradictions of an intelligent and thoughtful woman of the 19th-century Midwest who was a child of the frontier and a world traveler, who managed to hold concurrently both radical and conventional ideas, and who achieved success and fame while never being considered unwomanly.

Other Works:

Poems (1865). The Life and Poems of Sarah Tittle Bolton (1880). Songs of a Life-Time (1892). Paddle Your Own Canoe and Other Poems (1897).

Bibliography:

Downing, O. I., Indiana's Poet of the Wildwood (1941). Wallace, L., "Sketch of Mrs. Sarah Tittle Bolton" in Paddle Your Own Canoe and Other Poems (1897).

Reference Works:

American Women (1897). A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors (1858-1871). Dictionary of American Biography. National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892 et seq.). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971).

Other reference:

"The Life of Sarah T. Bolton" in The Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton (1880). Impressions of Indiana: Sarah T. Bolton. (audiocassette, 1993).

—MARY JEAN DEMARR