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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Frances Sargent Locke Osgood

Frances Sargent Locke Osgood was a popular and versatile poet who wrote both in the high sentimental mode and in a mode of sheer mischief. A focus on children, flowers, and death earns her the designation of sentimental (and that in no reductive sense), but she was also a New York City sophisticate, welcome in the most exalted literary circles, and adept—as Edgar Allan Poe said of her—at literary espièglerie (roguishness). In Osgood’s published poetry she deals quite seriously with sentimental themes, issues of motherhood and of romantic love, writing about these central human concerns with both personal insight and poetic skill. On the other hand, in a group of “salon poems” composed for social occasions, she wittily destabilizes the underlying premises of the sentimental ethos. In her poetry of relations between the sexes, both published poems and manuscript salon verses, Osgood presents an urbane and sophisticated voice, quite unlike anything our traditional constructs of American literature have led us to expect from either women’s or men’s writing of the era. A contemporary reviewer claimed Osgood was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s equal as a poet but far superior in “grace and tenderness.” Dying of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine, Osgood did not have the opportunity to realize the full promise of that comparison.

Frances Sargent Locke was born in Boston in 1811 to a prosperous mercantile family with a literary bent, including an older sister, Anna Maria Wells, who was also a published poet. The young Fanny Locke’s school notebooks show evidence of considerable poetic talent, and she was “discovered” in her youth by writer and editor Lydia Maria Child, who published many of Fanny’s verses under the pen name of Florence, the first of many Osgood noms de plume, in her “Juvenile Miscellany.” Frances met the widely traveled, and self-romanticizing, portrait artist Samuel Stillman Osgood in 1834, and he invited her to sit for her portrait. Married in 1834, the couple spent the next five years in England while Samuel pursued his career among the aristocracy there.

The sophistication of Fanny Osgood’s poetic voice was fostered by this cosmopolitan experience. During the years in which they lived in London, Fanny and Samuel circulated among the social and intellectual elite; in 1838, she published A Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England there. As Poe, Osgood’s friend during the New York years, tells us, “the fair American authoress grew...into high favor with the fashionable literati and the literary fashionables of England.” Returning to American shores in 1839, Osgood seems to have imported into New York literary high life the wit and sparkle of the London intelligentsia. At the literary salons of Anne Lynch and Emma Embury, she became acquainted with well-known American writers and editors, among them Poe, Margaret Fuller, N. P. Willis, Grace Greenwood, and Horace Greeley.

By the time the Osgoods settled in New York, they had two daughters, Ellen and May. Osgood’s third child, Fanny Fay, was born in 1846, at a time when the marriage seems to have been less than stable. Some writers have speculated that during this period Osgood had a love affair with Poe, but convincing evidence does not, at this time, exist to prove such a claim. Osgood met Poe in 1845, and they quickly became friends. She socialized with Poe at literary salons, visited him and his wife, Virginia, at their home, and published a number of poems in the Broadway Journal, of which he was editor. In the pages of the Journal they conducted an open literary flirtation, but, as critic Mary DeJong has said, “For Osgood, writing itself was a kind of performance, and she reveled in drama as much as Poe did.” Their flirtatious poems, DeJong speculates, “define their roles as patron and protégé, artist and admirer—not the quality or depth of their emotions.”

During the 1840s Osgood was a much-revered popular poet. She thought of herself as a professional writer rather than as a literary artist and took full advantage of the many opportunities presented by a burgeoning print culture. Her work and circumstances embody both the opportunities and the constraints of the contemporary literary marketplace. Osgood published in every venue available to her—books, magazines, pamphlets, anthologies, newspapers. Her poems, including beautiful and poignant expressions of maternal love and impassioned articulations of heterosexual love and enthrallment, were widely sought after by magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book and Sartain’s Union Magazine. Although Osgood does not ever seem to have suffered the kind of dire economic hardship faced by some of her female literary contemporaries, she nonetheless depended on her literary income to support herself and her family; proceeds from her husband’s society portraits were evidently insufficient to maintain an affluent and comfortable New York City society life. Osgood lived with her children in rooms at the Astor Hotel, an elite address, but she claimed poverty; “I am poor,” she wrote in a published letter to Grace Greenwood in 1847, “and have others dependant upon my talents.” This regrettable circumstance, she says, forces her to “measure ‘thoughts that breathe and words that burn,’ like a rose-colored ribbon, by the yard-stick of a publisher!” And, indeed, while many of her published poems are idiosyncratic, moving, and skillful, a number of others do exhibit the hallmarks of having been written in haste and composed to meet editorial specifications and audience expectations.

At their best, Osgood’s published poems are either witty or powerfully emotional, skillfully employing, and bringing to vivid life, common literary conventions. With masterful versification, impressive range of subject matter, and compelling imaginative power, Osgood addresses gender politics, not always from a strictly feminist perspective; inscribes the delicate dilemmas of sexual temptation; investigates dynamics of celebrity and reputation; and explores the joys and griefs of motherhood. Her literary executor Rufus Griswold says of Osgood, “[s]he was...of the first rank of female poets,” and “in her special domain, of the Poetry of the Affections, she had scarcely a rival among women or men....”

Osgood seems to have seen no contradiction between her published verse and a group of more worldly verses she wrote to be shared with an intimate circle of friends—most likely at the salons she attended regularly. This vers de société, as Griswold calls it, includes satires, Valentines, billets-doux, and commentary on contemporary current events. In particular, Osgood’s “coterie” verses wittily investigate the play of eroticism and social forms, a subject seldom addressed by other writers of the era. Osgood’s salon poetry was, according to an obituary writer, produced for the “temporary gratification of her friends, and then thrown aside and forgotten.” Treasured in manuscript by friends and kept in draft form by Osgood herself, these poems reveal a far more complex nineteenth-century literary milieu, in terms of class and gender representations, than American literary history has commonly acknowledged.

The complex mechanics of literary reputation have been delineated by many scholars, and Frances Osgood, for any number of reasons, both personal and critical, has been obscured in the scholarly record. Until recently she has had no advocate. As DeJong has pointed out, Osgood lacks a book-length biography, a complete collection of her poems, and a published bibliography. In addition, Griswold, her editor, tells us that even the most complete compilation of Osgood’s poetry, the 1850 edition, contains less than half her acknowledged pieces. Much work remains to be done in order to recover this poet more fully, whose life and poetry significantly enrich our literary record and problematize several major literary historical paradigms, particularly those of gender and class. Osgood testifies to us, for instance, that a mid-nineteenth-century woman was capable of recognizing and dealing with sexual temptation and writing about it as well. She brings a new kind of critical respectability to sentimental poetry, treating its range of domestic, affectional topics with passion and skill. She reveals that the boundaries between British and American writing of the era were not as impermeable as has often been suggested. And, finally, she sketches a portrait of an upper-class, sophisticated, urban society seldom acknowledged in a literary history of the era long dominated by New England literati.
Joanne Dobson
Fordham University

In the Heath Anthology
The Maiden's Mistake
Ellen Learning to Walk (1838)
The Little Hand (1838)
Oh! Hasten to My Side (1843)
A Reply (1846)
Lines (1848)
Woman (1848)
Alone (1849)
Little Children (1849)
The Wraith of the Rose (c.1849)
To a Slandered Poetess (1849)
The Hand That Swept the Sounding Lyre (1850)
The Indian Maid's Reply to the Missionary (1850)

Other Works
The Casket of Fate (1839)

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Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio
Includes a short piece on Osgood by Fanny Fern.

A scanned portrait of Osgood from The Ladies Repository, February 1860.

Secondary Sources

Mary G. DeJong, "Her Fair Fame: The Reputation of Frances Sargent Osgood, Woman Poet," Studies in the American Renaissance, 1987

Mary G. DeJong, "Lines from a Partly Published Drama: The Romance of Frances Sargent Osgood and Edgar Allen Poe," in Patrons and Protegees, ed. Shirley Marchalonis, 1988

Joanne Dobson, "Sex, Wit, and Sentiment: Frances Osgood and the Poetry of Love," American Literature, 1993

Cheryl Walker, The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture Before 1900, 1982