Labor by Frances Sargent Osgood

Frances Sargent Osgood

As we talked about in Poets Time Left Behind, Frances Sargent Osgood was a pretty popular poet in her lifetime, but her reputation was tarnished when she became embroiled in a scandal with Edgar Allan Poe. Wild rumors swirled that Poe was the the real daddy of her youngest baby, Fanny Fay. Frances’ husband, Samuel Stillman Osgood, said publicly that he was Fanny Fay’s father, but the rumors persist to this day that Poe was the child’s father and some still believe it to be so.

Frances herself was known affectionately as “Fanny” and she sometimes used the pseudonyms Kate Carol, Violet Vane and Clarice. While living in England with her husband, she published two poetry collections, “A Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England” in 1838 and “The Casket of Fate.” The Osgoods returned to America in 1839, where they lived in Boston until 1842. Moving to New York, Fanny became a well-known face in the city’s literary salons and she published a number of works: “The Poetry of Flowers” and “Flowers of Poetry” (1841); “Puss in Boots” and “The Marquis of Carabas” (1844); and “The Cries of New-York” (1846). She also contributed poems, essays, and short stories to, the Broadway Journal and Graham’s, and other magazines.

Edgar Allan Poe was quite taken with Mrs. Osgood, who was separated from her husband although still married, and uncharacteristically praised her work profusively. Indeed, Fanny herself called him the severest critic of the day so that made his praise of her work that much more valuable in her eyes. Poe’s wife, Virginia, seems to have encouraged the relationship between Fanny and Poe, knowing the end was near. However, the scandal proved too much for Mrs. Osgood. She terminated her friendship with Poe and reconciled with her husband temporarily, since he left to join the California Gold Rush. Poe died in 1849. Upon his return from California, Fanny’s husband found her in the final stage of tuberculosis. She passed away not even a year after Poe.

So was her poetry as wonderful as Poe thought or was he just schmoozing Mrs. Osgood? Well, one of her poems was apparently highly enough thought of to teach to 4th graders. It’s called “Labor” and  appears in an 1869 4th grade reader, 19 years after her death. It’s hard to imagine 4th graders liking this poem, then or now, but here it is, the way it appears in that book:


1. Labor is rest — from the sorrows that greet us;
Rest from all petty vexations that meet us,
Rest from the sin-promptings that ever entreat us,
Rest from world-sirens that lure us to ill.

Work — and pure slumbers shall wait on the pillow,
Work — thou shalt ride over Care’s coming billow;
Lie not down wearied ‘neath Woe’s weeping willow!
Work with a stout heart and resolute’ will!

2. Labor is health! Lo the husbandman reaping,
How through his veins goes the life-current leaping;
How his strong arm, in its stalwart pride sweeping,
Free as a sunbeam the swift sickle guides.
Labor is wealth — in the sea the pearl groweth,
Rich the queen’s robe from the frail cocoon floweth,
From the fine acorn the strong forest bloweth,
Temple and statue the marble block hides.

3. Droop not, though shame, sin, and anguish are round thee
Bravely fling off the gold chain that hath bound thee;
Look to yon pure heaven smiling beyond thee,
Rest not content in thy darkness — a clod!
Work — for some good, be it ever so slowly;
Cherish some flower, be it ever so lowly;
Labor! — all labor is noble and holy;
Let thy great deeds be thy prayer to thy God.

4. Pause not to dream of the future before us;
Pause not to weep the wild cares that come o’er us;
Hark how Creation’s deep, musical chorus,
Unintermitting goes up into Heaven!
Never the ocean-wave falters in flowing ;
Never the little seed stops in its growing;
More and more richly the rose-heart keeps glowing,
Till from its nourishing stem it is riven.

5. “Labor is worship!”—the robin is singing,
“Labor is worship!” the wild bee is ringing.
Listen! that eloquent whisper upspringing,
Speaks to thy soul from out nature’s great heart.
From the dark cloud flows the life-giving shower;
From the rough sod blows the soft breathing flower;
From the small insects, the rich coral bower:
Only man in the plan ever shrinks from his part.

6. Labor is life! — ’tis the still water faileth;
Idleness ever despaireth, bewaileth:
Keep the watch wound for the dark rust assaileth!
Flowers droop and die in the stillness of noon.
Labor is glory!—the flying cloud lightens;
Only the waving wing changes and brightens;
Idle hearts only the dark future frightens;
Play the sweet keys, wouldst thou keep them in tune!

By 1892, the same poem was still appearing in books for students. It appears in a book called “Selection for Memorizing” for Primary, Intermediate and High School Grades — only by now the first three stanzas have disappeared and the poem begins, unnumbered, with Stanza 4.

By 1914, only one stanza of the poem is included in “The Carter Intermediate Reader.” Click on the link to find out which one if you want to know.

Now you know more than all those kids in 1914 who probably thought that was the whole poem.

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