Ann Eliza Schuyler Bleecker—one of America’s First Female Poets
March 23, 2018
One of the more fascinating people on the periphery of Peggy’s life is a distant relative, Ann Eliza Schuyler Bleecker—one of American’s first published female poets. Like the Schuyler sisters, Ann was born into the American Dutch upper class, and grew up enjoying the intellectual excitement of New York City. An avid reader and fan of classical poets such as Virgil, Ann started writing verse at an early age. At parties she’d be asked to recite her works or to compose impromptu poems. They were often witty and satiric, far more sophisticated than what many expected of a woman at that time, let alone a teenager.
At age 17, she married John Bleecker, a lawyer and “gentleman farmer,” who fortunately encouraged her writing, calling it “her genius.” They moved to Tomhannnock, a remote village 18 miles north of Albany and on the edge of the dense forests of New York’s frontier. Cut off from the urban social swirl to which she was accustomed, Ann’s poems changed in tone to pastoral, vivid descriptions of the American wilderness, tinged with a contemplative loneliness. She also wrote beautiful verse to her female friends, illustrating that affectionate sisterhood among women that Jane Austen so celebrated in her novels a few decades later.
When the Revolution came, Ann again shifted, capturing the tumult and fear of the war. And that is where she became a trailer-blazer in literature. Ann dared to cry out the agonies of loss—the first female poet to acknowledge and, therefore, raise female anguish to the legitimacy and dignity of grief that epic bards like Homer granted their male heroes.
Ann experienced it first hand.
When the British invaded New York from Canada (chapters four and five in PEGGY), Ann joined the hundreds of panicked New Yorkers fleeing south in front of Burgoyne’s advancing troops and his raiding parties burning outlying farms. Playing on settlers’ longstanding fears of local Indian tribes, Burgoyne incited some of the Iroquois to join the attacks, which further terrorized the Americans. Roads were jammed with desperate refugees, on foot and in carts, driving their livestock in front of them. In that morass, Ann’s baby daughter, Abella, caught and died of dysentery.
Her creative courage in the aftermath of her loss is astounding. In her poem, “Written in the Retreat from Burgoyne,” Ann managed to resoundingly eulogize her baby, even after also losing her mother and her sister on that terrible journey. Only Ann, her five-year-old daughter, and her husband—who was with the militia at the time of her flight—survived to return to a home that had been pillaged.
Penned as if Ann were talking to her infant, “Written in the Retreat from Burgoyne” opens a heartbreaking window to the tragic cost of war to refugee families facing exposure, hunger, dangerous terrain, and unsanitary water. It is breathtaking in its honesty:
Was it for this, with thee a pleasing load,
I sadly wander'd thro' the hostile wood;
When I thought fortune's spite could do no more,
To see thee perish on a foreign shore?
Oh my lov'd babe! my treasure's left behind,
Ne'er sunk a cloud of grief upon my mind;
Rich in my children---on my arms I bore
My living treasures from the scalper's pow'r:
When I sat down to rest beneath some shade,
On the soft grass how innocent she play'd,
While her sweet sister, from the fragrant wild,
Collects the flow'rs to please my precious child;
Unconscious of her danger, laughing roves,
Nor dreads the painted savage in the groves.
Soon as the spires of Albany appear'd,
With fallacies my rising grief I cheer'd;
'Resign'd I bear,' said I, 'heaven's just reproof,
'Content to dwell beneath a stranger's roof;
'Content my babes should eat dependent bread,
'Or by the labour of my hands be fed:
'What tho' my houses, lands, and goods are gone,
'My babes remain---these I can call my own.'
But soon my lov'd Abella hung her head,
From her soft cheek the bright carnation fled;
Her smooth transparent skin too plainly shew'd
How fierce thro' every vein the fever glow'd.
---In bitter anguish o'er her limbs I hung,
I wept and sigh'd, but sorrow chain'd my tongue;
At length her languid eyes clos'd from the day,
The idol of my soul was torn away;
Her spirit fled and left me ghastly clay!
Then---then my soul rejected all relief,
Comfort I wish'd not for, I lov'd my grief:
'Hear, my Abella!' cried I, 'hear me mourn,
'For one short moment, oh! my child return;
'Let my complaint detain thee from the skies,
'Though troops of angels urge thee on to rise.'
All night I mourn'd---and when the rising day
Gilt her sad chest with his benignest ray,
My friends press round me with officious care,
Bid me suppress my sighs, nor drop a tear;
Of resignation talk'd---passions subdu'd,
Of souls serene and christian fortitude;
Bade me be calm, nor murmur at my loss,
But unrepining bear each heavy cross.
'Go!' cried I raging, 'stoick bosoms go!
'Whose hearts vibrate not to the sound of woe;
'Go from the sweet society of men,
'Seek some unfeeling tyger's savage den,
'There calm---alone---of resignation preach,
'My Christ's examples better precepts teach.'
Where the cold limbs of gentle Laz'rus lay
I find him weeping o'er the humid clay;
His spirit groan'd, while the beholders said
(With gushing eyes) 'see how he lov'd the dead!'
And when his thoughts on great Jerus'lem turn'd,
Oh! how pathetic o'er her fall he mourn'd!
And sad Gethsemene's nocturnal shade
The anguish of my weeping Lord survey'd:
Yes, 'tis my boast to harbour in my breast
The sensibilities by God exprest;
Nor shall the mollifying hand of time,
Which wipes off common sorrows, cancel mine.
In HAMILTON AND PEGGY, we see this at a distance, in a scene where Peggy is caught in that storm surge of panicked refugees.
Four years after Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga, Ann's husband was overseeing his harvest, when he was ambushed and kidnapped by Canadians and local Tories. (His taking occurred a few days before a similar band invaded the Schuyler Mansion with the same intent of capturing Philip). Bleecker was released six days later, but Ann never quite recovered from the shock of his kidnapping—it was the final emotional blow the war dealt her. She died two years later at age 33.
Thirty-six of her wonderful poems survive, collected and published by her daughter.
You can read some of them here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Posthumous_Works_of_Ann_Eliza_Bleecker