Smith, Sarah Pogson
SMITH, Sarah Pogson
Born circa 1790, Woodside House, Essex, England; died death unknown, in Charleston, South Carolina
Wrote under: "A Lady"
Daughter of John and Ann Wood Pogson; married Judge Peter Smith
Very little is known about Sarah Pogson Smith's life. The date of her arrival in Charleston, South Carolina was recorded there on her tombstone, but the date on the original stone was nearly indecipherable and may have been 10 May 1788 or 1793. She was the daughter of a planter of St. Kitts, West Indies, and his second wife, from Sussex, England. At some point, Smith was married to Judge Peter Smith of Peterboro, New York, by whom, if we are to regard the introduction to her Essays (1818) as autobiographical, she had one son and more than one daughter. Colonel Alston Deas, a relative who restored the tombstone and who has corresponded with this contributor, states Smith was "noted for her witty and sometimes caustic conversation," and that she "lived with her sister, Mrs. William Blamyer…in later life." William S. Kable has firmly established Smith's claim to the Essays, previously attributed in error to Maria Henrietta Pinckney; he has also published evidence supporting the attribution to Smith of The Female Enthusiast (1807).
The Female Enthusiast, a five-act drama, offers a sympathetic portrayal of Charlotte Corday, who killed the demagogue Marat during the French Revolution. The play explores the moral reasons that might impel a "good" girl from a respectable, upper-middle class home to commit a political assassination. While Smith has relied quite heavily on Shakespeare for various stylistic devices, The Female Enthusiast is a remarkably capable apprentice piece.
Essays, Religious, Moral, Dramatic, and Poetical is a random and extensive collection of Smith's writings. The first section consists of seven essays that champion Christian virtue and criticize a variety of moral and religious failings. By far the most interesting is Essay Seven, in which Smith very effectively castigates the fanaticism and vanity of "Camp-Meeting" (revivalist) preachers and laments the fatuousness of their followers.
The second section consists of three five-act plays. In "The Young Carolinians; or, Americans in Algiers," various young Americans en route to Europe are captured by pirates and sold in Algiers. While much is made of the sufferings of these "Christian slaves" at the hands of their cruel and cunning Mohammedan captors, Smith does briefly acknowledge that the captives themselves come from a slave-based economy. The play concludes happily, with the repatriation of all the principal captives. Far less happy is "A Tyrant's Victims," a tragedy about Agathocles, the self-made king of Syracuse, whose "soaring ambition" and overweening selfishness play havoc with multitudes; but ironically, Agathocles himself escapes unscathed. Three young English girls, heroines of "The Orphans," are defrauded by their guardian and cast out unprotected into the world. Fortunately, they are rescued by their hearty, sea-going brother, who arrives back in England just in time.
The third section consists of several poems on such subjects as friendship, virtuous conduct, love, and bereavement. A recurrent theme is the mutability of the "shadow" things of earth and the permanence of the heavenly reward promised to the believing Christian.
The 13 long poems of Daughters of Eve (1826) tell colorful tales set in several lands at different stages of human history; most are loosely bound by the theme of human, and especially female, suffering. As Smith reminds the reader in the 13th poem, it was "Woman," the "first Transgressor " who bore Christ, and "Woman" who first saw Him after the Resurrection. The afflicted Christian "Daughters of Eve," represented by the needy deaf-mutes in the book's first poem, and the non-Christian "Daughters of Eve," symbolized by the innocent pagan girls so cruelly "degraded" and slaughtered in the second poem, pass through various permutations and emerge as America's regenerate "virtuous Daughters" in the final lines of the concluding poem.
In the heroic couplets of Smith's 1133-line poem The Arabians, her poetic gifts reach their full fruition. In splendidly fluid lines, rich in ingenious imagery, exotic scenery, and powerful emotional appeal, Smith recounts the conversion to Christianity of Abdallah and Sabat, two young Arabs of virtuous character and noble family, and the martyrdom of one.
Not only were many of Smith's works intended to inspire right conduct, but the proceeds from these works were frequently applied to good causes, although Smith herself was probably much in need of income. Thus, Daughters of Eve helped to educate and care for "the indigent deaf and dumb"; Zerah (1837) laid the cornerstone for a church; the first edition of The Arabians provided essential aid for two "important Institutions" in Charleston, while a later edition helped to fund a "Seamen's floating Church." If the record of Smith's life remains incomplete, the record of her benevolence endures. But it is her considerable achievement as a writer that is Smith's chief claim to modern scholarly consideration.
Deas, A., Information on Sarah Pogson Recorded in the Files of the Charleston Library Society (n.d.). Kable, W. S., "South Carolina District Copyrights: 1794-1820," in Proof: The Yearbook of American Bibliographical and Textual Studies 1 (1971).
South Carolina Historical [and Genealogical] Magazine (1903-1934).
—JEANETTE NYDA PASSTY