Morton, Sarah Wentworth (Apthorp)

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MORTON, Sarah Wentworth (Apthorp)

Born August 1759, Boston, Massachusetts; died 14 May 1846, Quincy, Massachusetts Wrote under: Constantia, Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton, Philenia

Daughter of James and Sarah Wentworth Apthorp; married Perez Morton, 1781; children: six

Sarah Wentworth Morton was the scion of two influential, wealthy early New England families. She had a thorough education, evidenced in the literary quality of her verses. When the Revolution started, Morton's family was accused of Tory loyalties, but she expressed strong patriot sentiments in her post-Revolutionary verse. In 1781 she married Harvard graduate Perez Morton, a patriot lawyer during the Revolution and a prominent figure in state government in the republic's early years. During their early married life, Morton and her husband headed Boston's socialites and remained leading figures in Massachusetts' social and political life. Five of their six children lived to maturity, but all died before Morton. In 1788 Perez had an affair with Morton's sister, Frances, ending in her sister's suicide. This affair appeared fictively in the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy; or, The Triumph of Nature (1789), by William Mill Brown. Morton and her husband led the fight for repeal of Massachusetts' antitheater laws in 1793, subscribing to Boston's first theater. Morton supported the earliest American abolitionist groups. In later life she was a patron to young writers.

Morton's subject matter is wide-ranging. Her earliest poems are sentimental plaints or elegies filled with neoclassic devices. Her post-1800 works are mainly occasional poems. Themes throughout focus primarily on moral and political issues. In much of her work, Morton speaks through a languishing, affected female persona, whose sentimental sufferings are suffused with the soft glow of flowery diction. Morton's interest in sentimental neoclassicism also appears in "Ode to Mrs. Warren," a notable example of one early American female poet praising another. In her concern for female attitudes and behavior, Morton was a "Sappho," the woman's poet.

However, Morton was also an "American" poet, for she wrote verse about the new nation's ideological issues. Her best works in this vein demonstrate a well-developed social and moral conscience, independent thought, and notable poetic scope.

Morton's poem "Beacon Hill" (Columbian Centinal, 4 December 1790), written in neat neoclassic couplets, celebrates the sacred, solemn events that transpired on Boston Hill during the Revolution. With revisions and enlargements, this poem reappeared as Beacon Hill: A Local Poem, Historic and Descriptive, Book I (1797). Here Morton tries to revitalize and mythologize the revolutionary era. The poem's introductory section reviews early events: Warren's death, Bunker Hill, Washington's camp at Cambridge. The central section discusses the "natural, moral, and political history" of the colonies. Book One closes with a shepherd-soldier figure defending "his hereditary farm," while the prophetic Columbian muse bears the message of "Equal Freedom" around the earth. Although thoroughly nationalistic in this work, Morton also presents a critique of Southern slavery.

Morton's "sister" poems, Ouâbi; or, The Virtues of Nature: An Indian Tale in Four Cantos (1790) and The Virtues of Society: A Tale Founded on Fact (1799), show further interest in moral and social issues. They exemplify her mixed vision of the sentimental-domestic and historical-heroic. Ouâbi, perhaps the first American "Indian" poem, discusses a contemporary problem: the survival of simple American virtues beset by luxury and sophistication. The Virtues of Society, a spin-off of the failed epic Beacon Hill, is a romantic tale based on an incident in the American Revolution.

My Mind and Its Thoughts, in Sketches, Fragments, and Essays (1823) is Morton's only work to appear under her real name. It consists of numerous aphorisms, short essays, and poems—some previously published and rewritten, others new to print. Her "Apology" explains that she made the collection to ease her distress (her son had recently died). The book is a curious mixture of the public and private, the patriotic and sentimental, summarizing Morton's life interests.

Morton was quite popular in the 1790s, but she outlived the vogue for her neoclassical style and post-Revolution themes. Her last book was praised nostalgically, not for innate achievement. Her reputation as a poet died with her.

Bibliography:

Evans, C., American Bibliography (1912). Field, V. B., Constantia: A Study of the Life and Works of Judith Sargent Murray (1931). Otis, W. B., American Verse, 1625-1807: A History (1909). Pearce, R. H., The Savages of America (revised edition, 1953). Pendleton, E., and M. Ellis, Philenia: Life and Works of Sarah Wentworth Morton (1931). Watts, E. S., The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1943 (1977). Westbrook, A. G. R., and P D. Westbrook, The Writing Women of New England, 1630-1900 (1982).

Reference works:

AA. CAL. DAB. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

—JACQUELINE HORNSTEIN

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