What is one of Alice Dunbar Nelson's poems that is famous and why it is famous?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of Dunbar-Nelson's most famous poems is "I Sit and Sew," which is a poem that is well known because it explores the position of women during war time as they have to sit back at home and engage in various domestic tasks that are useless, whilst thinking about their menfolk and the danger that they face on the battlefield. The poem is written from the perspective of a woman who desires nothing more than to go and help the soldiers and tend to their needs, but because of her position as a woman, and the way that society viewed women at the time, she has to face her own entrapment in the domestic sphere, and do nothing more than "sit and sew." Note how the frustration of the speaker is expressed in the second stanza:

I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.
 
It is no accident that in the first line of this stanza the activity of sitting and sewing is juxtaposed with the speaker's heart "aching with desire." Even though she recognises the terrors of war, and describes the batlefield as "that holocaust of hell," the desire of the desire of the speaker to go and help the wounded and tend to them is clear and evident. However, note how the stanza ends with the use of the verb "must." In spite of her great desire to help, she has no option but to sit and sew. This poem is therefore famous because it explores the frustrations of women as they are forced to sit back home and do nothing whilst their menfolk are endangering their lives and suffering and dying on the battlefield. The frustration and rage of all women in a patriarchal world that refuses to allow them to risk themselves in the same way as it does men is therefore explored.
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