Carmichael, Sarah E(lizabeth)
CARMICHAEL, Sarah E(lizabeth)
Born 1838, Setauket, New York; died 10 November 1901, SaltLake City, Utah
Also wrote under: S. E. Carmichael, Miss S. E. Carmichael
Daughter of William and Mary Ann Carmichael; married Jonathan M. Williamson, 1866 (died 1882)
Converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Williamson's family joined the Mormons at Nauvoo, Illinois, and in 1850 moved to Salt Lake City, where her father worked as a carpenter. Despite frontier hardships and the absence of public schools, Williamson gained an education and began writing poetry. Her objection to polygamy, then practiced by the Latter-Day Saints, and her marriage to an army doctor of non-Mormon background, alienated her, to some extent, from the local community. Not long after her marriage, Williamson experienced a severe mental decline, the cause of which is unknown. Although she lived on for more than 30 years, her career as a poet was over. Widowed in 1882, Williamson spent her last years in a mental hospital. She had no children.
Williamson's first signed poem, "Truth," appeared in the Deseret News on 10 March 1858. The Mormon newspaper published more than 50 of her poems during the next eight years. Her poetry also appeared in the Daily Union Vedette, published at Camp Douglas, where her future husband was stationed, and the Woman's Exponent, a feminist newspaper edited and published by Mormon women. Because so much of her poetry was published in newspapers, the full extent of her work may never be known.
The early poems of Williamson do not emphasize a distinctively Mormon subject matter. Often homiletic in character, the verses treat friendship, love, integrity, writing, Indian pride, and similar topics from a humanistic, nonsectarian point of view. Even in the poem "Pharoah" (Deseret News, 30 March 1859), where man's dependent relationship to God is explored, she avoided heavy-handed parallels between the exodus of the Israelites and that of the Mormons. And in a rare poem on a Mormon subject—"Brigham Young" (Deseret News, 17 October 1860)—Williamson retained control over her topic, refusing to be overawed by his power, as were some of her contemporaries. The result is a poem that praises but is not cloying.
By the early 1860s, Williamson had won local recognition for her efforts, and community leaders called on her for occasional verse. Most of the praise she received was uncritical, although Edward W. Tullidge, Utah editor, writer, and historian, saw her as a genius whose powers of improvisation carried her to the heights, although patient shaping and reworking could not "justly be accredited among her higher poetic gifts and graces."
Williamson's career was short, but her powers did mature. She began to see her subjects in dramatic terms, using conflict, contrast, and irony in an increasingly sophisticated way. Three poems published in the Deseret News, "The Daughter of Herodias" (22 October 1862), "Esau's Petition" (11 March 1863), and the "Feast of Lucrezia Borgia" (6 May 1863), reveal a growing command of her art.
Williamson's advancing skill eventually brought her recognition outside of Utah. William Cullen Bryant anthologized "The Stolen Sunbeam," retitling it "The Origin of Gold" (A Family Library of Poetry and Song, 1878). Another anthologizer, May Wentworth, included Williamson's poems "A Christmas Rhyme" and "Sorrow" in her collection (Poetry of the Pacific, 1867). There have been claims that Williamson's poems were often reprinted without credit by the Eastern press.
Williamson was profoundly moved by the Civil War, about which she wrote vivid, dramatic poems, including her best-known poem, "President Lincoln's Funeral" (Poems, 1866). The elegy attracted national recognition; it was reprinted and read many times at public functions. Its expression of grief achieves a solemn dignity that, reportedly, pleased Mrs. Lincoln.
Williamson's only book of poetry, Poems, was published in San Francisco to favorable reviews. The slim volume of 26 poems received similar notice in the East. Included in the collection are several of her best descriptive poems: "Moonlight on the Wasatch" and the haunting "April Flowers," which seems to foreshadow her mental collapse in these lines: "Pale, blighted flowers, the summer time /Will smile on brighter leaves /They will not wither in their prime /Like a young heart that grieves." Williamson's friends arranged for the book's publication and sale. The proceeds of almost $600—considerable for the time—were to be used to finance the poet's further education at Vassar, a project that her marriage and mental decline prevented.
Of the many women and men in Utah who wrote poetry in the 19th century, Williamson stands above all. She avoided the common faults of sentimentality, didacticism, and dogmatism to produce poems of genuine merit that, despite changing literary fashion, can be read with some pleasure today.
Selby, C., Sarah Elizabeth Carmichael (M.A. thesis, University of Utah, 1921).
Relief Society Magazine (Sept. 1928). Salt Lake Tribune (16 Feb. 1836, 8 Mar. 1936). Utah Historical Quarterly (Winter 1975). Western Galaxy (May 1888).
—MIRIAM B. MURPHY