Piatt, Sarah (Morgan) Bryan
PIATT, Sarah (Morgan) Bryan
Born 11 August 1836, Lexington, Kentucky; died 2 December 1919, Caldwell, New Jersey
Wrote under: Sarah M. B. Piatt, "A Woman"
Daughter of Talbot and Mary Spiers Bryan; married John J.Piatt, 1861; children: seven, two of whom died young
Sarah Bryan Piatt was related through her mother to the earliest settlers of Kentucky, including Daniel Boone. At the age of three, Piatt moved to Versailles, Kentucky, where her mother died five years later. Piatt was raised by her maternal grandmother, a well-to-do slave-owner, and educated at the fashionable Henry Female College.
Soon after her marriage to a poet, Piatt moved to Georgetown, Virginia, where her husband was appointed to a clerkship which he held for the next six years. In 1867 they moved to North Bend, Ohio, where they built a house overlooking the Ohio River. In 1870 John Piatt, appointed librarian to the House of Representatives, returned to Washington, where his family joined him each winter. Piatt went to live in Queenstown, Ireland, in 1882 after her husband was appointed consul in Cork. During this sojourn, she became acquainted with a wide circle of literary people.
Soon after the Piatts' return from Ireland in 1894, their home was destroyed by fire. Though the house was later rebuilt, this misfortune signaled the onset of financial reverses from which they never recovered. Piatt bore seven children, two of whom died tragically. Their deaths form the subject matter and references of many of Piatt's poems, particularly those written during the earlier part of her career.
Thoroughly steeped in the traditional Southern woman's role, she was devoted to domesticity and to the instruction of her children, and never spoke to anyone about her writing. It was only through the efforts of her husband, it seems, that Piatt's work appeared in print. Of her 18 volumes of poetry, the two earliest were written in collaboration with her husband. Later volumes focus on the death of children and others, on disillusion with life and living, and to some extent on nature and the Civil War. Poems for and about children form another grouping. Piatt's interest in children elicited comment from many critics, especially Edmund Stedman, who pointed out that she had "a special gift for seeing into a child's heart." In addition to formal collections, Piatt contributed to many periodicals, among them the Atlantic Monthly and Scribner's.
If there is any difference between Piatt's early and late poems, it is in the direction of greater formal flexibility and greater awareness of the world outside. As the deaths of her two children receded in time, Piatt became less introspective. Her stay in Europe no doubt helped turn her toward less subjective themes. Some critics commented on Piatt's simplicity and "daintiness," a term so often applied to women poets. Several critics, Howells among them, commented on the universality of subject matter of the poems in relation to women's lives; Emerson Venable called the poems "sometimes deeply tragic."
Piatt's reputation was considerable, although much smaller than her husband's. Whittier quoted from her work; Stedman called her America's "best-known Western poetess." Some English critics believed her "hard to surpass on either side of the Atlantic." Piatt's melancholy tone and modesty of scope were doubtless rooted in the female literary conventions of her time. Her poems express once again the unhappiness of a woman of talent and intelligence restricted by her role as the wife of another poet, who received acclaim and satisfaction that was denied her.
The Nests at Washington, and Other Poems (with J. J. Piatt, 1864). A Woman's Poems (1871). A Voyage to the Fortunate Isles, Etc. (1874). Poems in Company with Children (1877). That New World, and Other Poems (1877). Dramatic Persons and Moods, and Other New Poems (1880). An Irish Garland (1884). The Children Out-of-Doors (with J. J. Piatt, 1885). Selected Poems (1885). Child's World Ballads (1886). In Primrose Time: A New Irish Garland (1886). Child's World Ballads, Second Series (1887). The Witch in the Glass, and Other Poems (1889). An Irish Wildflower (1891). An Enchanted Castle, and Other Poems (1893). Pictures, Portraits, and People in Ireland (1893). Poems (1894).
Howells, M., Life in Letters of William Dean Howells (1928). Stoddard, R. H., et al., Poet's Homes (1877). Townsend, J. W., Kentucky in American Letters (1913). Tynan, K., Twenty-Five Years: Reminiscences (1913).
AW. CAL. LSL. NAW (1971). NCAB. The Part Taken by Women in American History (1912).
Ohio State Archeological and Historical Quarterly (Jan. 1936).
—VIRGINIA R. TERRIS