Sharp, Isabella Oliver

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SHARP, Isabella Oliver

Born 1777, Cumberland County, Pennsylvania; died 1843

Daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Oliver, Esq.; married (James?) Sharp

Biographical data about Isabella Oliver Sharp can be found in the note "To the Editor," from "R.D." which prefaces Poems, on Various Subjects (1805), as well as in several of the poems themselves. Sharp's parents owned a house and farmlands, and her father was highly regarded in the community. He was learned in mathematics and the sciences, and his lessons "improv'd many a youth," as Sharp remembers in her poem "Inscribed to My Brothers." He took pains to instruct his own sons and also the sons of his neighbors, but he virtually neglected the education of his daughters. Sharp's father died around 1791, and her mother was left with a number of small children to raise. Eventually, the house and lands "passed to another hand."

"R.D." states that Sharp never received anything more than a "common english [sic] education." That is, she was taught to read and—just barely!—to write. Still, Sharp became a voracious reader. From her earliest years, hard work was required of her, and while she worked, she composed verses. "Composed on the Banks of the Conodoguinet" actually describes the composition process as it is taking place: while Sharp's hands are laboring to cleanse soiled garments in the river, her mind is busy turning those same clothes into a metaphor for the human soul, and that same river into an analogue for Christ's redemptive sacrifice. The hauntingly beautiful lines of this poem were among the many hundreds Sharp composed and "treasur'd" in her memory over the years until she found someone who could write well enough to transcribe them for her.

As she records in "To the Public," Sharp took an active and empathetic interest in the joys and sorrows of her friends and neighbors. A birth, a death, an illness, a wedding—all were grist for her poetic mill. Deeply read in divinity, Sharp continually sought to explore, as in her speculations "At the Request of Bn," "What strange contact binds / Material things to immaterial minds?" While planted as firmly on the shores of this phenomenal world as the feet of the washerwoman "on the banks of the Conodoguinet," most of Sharp's poems merge into the noumenal world as well.

Sharp was a popular poet in Cumberland County. She worked with pleasantly musical phrases and ingenious images. It is unfortunate that Sharp's hardworking rural life deprived her of the educational opportunities that might have enabled her to do more.