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Poets in Exile: The Piatts in the Queenstown Consulate, 1882-93

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 17, Number 1, Earrach/Spring 2013
pp. 81-97 | 10.1353/nhr.2013.0002

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Between 1882 and 1893, John James Piatt and his wife Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt were based in Queenstown (now Cobh), where John served as United States consul; he also served briefly in Dublin. Even before their Irish posting, John and Sarah were literary figures with established reputations that would extend beyond their lifetimes. A 1936 article described John as among "the best of American poets," and in 2001 Bernal Bennett wrote that Sarah is the "nineteenth-century American woman poet most appealing to readers to-day."

John was born in 1835 to John Bear Piatt and Emily Scott, farmers in Milton, Indiana. The pioneer world of Piatt's youth was marked by the westward movement of settlers, farmers, and mechanical invention. In 1853, he began writing poetry and prose. His first collection of poems, Poems of Two Friends (1859) was published in collaboration with William Dean Howells. "The Western Pioneer" from that collection opened with the line, "The bees are said to have ever swarmed westward before the steps of the whites"—a line that reflects his familiar pioneer world, and which betrays no interest in the then-current political events surrounding slavery and the threatened break-up of the federal union. In April 1861, the month that the Civil War began, John told his mother that his literary success was close and he would become "the only Piatt anywhere." But while he waited for literary success, John attained a clerical position in the treasury department through the offices of his fellow Ohioan Salmon P. Chase, the former governor who Lincoln had appointed as secretary of the treasury.

It was while working as an editor at the Louisville Journal that John encountered Sarah Morgan Bryan, who had submitted work for publication. They had much in common. She was born in 1836 in Fayette County, Kentucky, to parents who owned both land and slaves. Even more than John's family, the Bryans were close to the pioneer community; her parents were descendants of early settlers and her father was related to Daniel Boone. Following her mother's early death, Sarah and her sister had a transient upbringing, living with relatives throughout Kentucky. As a child, she wrote verses influenced by the British Romantic poets, particularly Scott, Byron, Coleridge, and Shelley. Her first published work appeared in the Galveston (Texas) News and in the New York Ledger in 1857. Much of her work at this time related to motherhood and children, usually examining social and cultural themes. Sarah's experience of slavery would emerge in her work later on, and when it did, her work demonstrated that she understood the contradiction of enjoying an idyllic childhood while participating in an iniquitous system.

John and Sarah married in 1861. The couple began work on the first of two joint volumes of poetry, The Nests at Washington (1864). By 1867, John had lost his job and the Piatts had settled at North Bend, Ohio, which became their home for the rest of their lives except for the eleven-year sojourn in Ireland. They had eight children, of whom an unnamed child died in 1873, Victor died in an accident in 1874, and Louis died in 1884. Although both poets published regularly, their earnings amounted to little. The Atlantic Monthly, the North American Review, and Century Magazine, prestigious publications in which the Piatts appeared, paid little or nothing to contributors. Nor did John succeed as editor of the Cincinnati Chronicle and the Cincinnati Commercial. In 1870 John resumed his federal career, serving as clerk and in 1871 librarian in the US House of Representatives. Throughout this period John published Western Windows and Other Poems (1869), Landmarks and Other Poems (1872), Poems of House and Home (1879) and Idylls and Lyrics of the Ohio Valley (1881).

By this point Sarah was, as one reviewer noted, "already widely known from her frequent contributions to the periodical literature of the day." In 1871 she published A Woman's Poems, and A Voyage to the Fortunate Isles appeared in 1874, which included almost fifty short poems "remarkable for their originality, quaintness of express, subtlety of thought and sweetness." In 1880, her Dramatic Persons and Moods appeared. John was, at...



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