Frances Sargent Osgood Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Frances Sargent Osgood 1811-1850

American poet, essayist, and children's writer. Also wrote under the pseudonyms Kate Carol, Violet Vane, and Clarice.

Acknowledged by contemporary reviewers as one of the foremost sentimental poets, Osgood represented for many the Victorian ideal of the feminine poetess who explored themes of innocence, love, and romance chiefly through floral imagery and metaphors. She also gained notoriety for a scandalous literary alliance with Edgar Allan Poe, who published and rhapsodized over many of Osgood's poems in the periodicals that he edited. While scholarly interest in Osgood's oeuvre has been largely overshadowed by the analysis of the murky details surrounding her relationship with Poe, modern critics have begun to reexamine her verses as sophisticated and witty specimens that satirically—and sometimes even erotically—address the role of women as victims in a repressive patriarchal order.

Biographical Information

Osgood was born in Boston on June 18, 1811, to a wealthy merchant named Joseph Locke and his second wife, Mary Foster. She spent her early years in Hingham, Massachusetts. Biographers have speculated that Osgood likely received her formal education at home by private tutors, although there is a record of her attending the prestigious Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies in 1828. During this time, she also began writing poetry, some of which was published in the Boston periodical Juvenile Miscellany. In 1834, Osgood met portrait artist Samuel Stillman Osgood at the Boston Athenaeum while she was composing verses in the gallery. After a brief courtship, the two were married in 1835. Shortly after the wedding, the Osgoods traveled to London so that he could continue studying art. While there, she gave birth to their first child, Ellen. In the course of the next three years, the Osgoods became active members of London's high society. He enjoyed considerable success painting portraits for members of England's elite families and she published two poetry collections entitled A Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England (1838) and The Casket of Fate (1839). Upon returning to the United States in 1839, the Osgoods settled in Boston where she gave birth to a second daughter, May. In 1842 they moved to New York, and Osgood quickly became a prominent participant in the city's literary salons. During this period of creative stimulation, Osgood published a number of works, including 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 such prominent periodicals as the Broadway Journal, Graham's Magazine, and The Columbian Magazine.

Just as she was embarking on a promising career as a poet and literary contributor to many respected journals, Osgood experienced tumult in her personal life. Although there is little concrete evidence documenting Osgood's marriage, most scholars have speculated that the Osgoods separated in 1844, probably due to Samuel's infidelity. The following year, Osgood met Poe at a literary soirée, and the two became good friends. The intense literary courtship between the two poets—both of whom were married at the time—played out for the public in the pages of the journals edited by Poe and fueled scandalous gossip and speculation among the New York literati. Indeed, the exact nature of Poe and Osgood's relationship has remained a mystery. While some scholars have maintained that that the association was merely a platonic, intellectual exchange of ideas, others have speculated that Osgood shrewdly manipulated the scandal to promote her own career. Still other literary historians have suggested that the two poets had a brief love affair which produced an illegitimate child named Fanny Fay in 1846. The paternity of Osgood's third child is obscured by the fact that she and Samuel reconciled during this period. Further, the Osgoods moved from New York to Philadelphia in part to distance Frances from the rumors circulating among the literary salons. The remaining years of Osgood's life were plagued by death and misfortune: in 1847 Fanny Fay died; in 1848 Osgood became ill with tuberculosis; and in 1849 Poe died and Samuel left Frances again to seek his fortune in the California gold rush. After a long and debilitating struggle with tuberculosis, Osgood died on May 12, 1850. Soon after her death, Osgood's remaining two daughters succumbed to the disease as well.

Major Works

Although nineteenth-century reviewers generally esteemed the sentimental quality of Osgood's published poems, many of the verses have since been classified as cliché-ridden and mediocre examples of an artificially romantic literary tradition. Osgood's first contribution to this genre was a collection of 137 poems published in A Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England. Contemporary critics praised these verses for their innate lyricism, grace, and powerful floral imagery which compellingly evoked childlike innocence, and the uncertainty of courtship, among other related themes. Some reviewers, including Poe, singled out Osgood's blank-verse tragedy “Elfrida” as one of the most accomplished poems in the collection. The dramatic poem details a love triangle involving lust, betrayal, and ambition in which the heroine ultimately uses her bewitching beauty to become a queen. Osgood also edited and contributed poems to The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry, a gift book containing sumptuous color plates, whimsical descriptions of botanical items, and a floral dictionary. Critics have identified this work as a seminal contribution to the popular floral dictionary genre of the mid-nineteenth century in which the physical characteristics of flowers are codified and correlated to the social and sexual mores of the day. Indeed, many sentimental poets utilized these floral dictionaries as a reference source for the metaphors and images in their own poetry. Osgood's next major verse collection, Poems (1846), is generally considered a conventional examination of idealized love and romance; but some critics have suggested that the poet also reveals a more mature perspective on relationships, pessimistically focusing on betrayal, hypocrisy, and the painful aspects of love. Osgood's last major collection, also entitled Poems (1850), contains many new poems which explore the nature of womanhood in both idealistic and ironic terms. More than in her earlier works, Osgood here displays a conscious struggle to come to terms with the conflicting expectations and values associated with feminine behavior within a masculine social hierarchy. Many critics have contended that Osgood's increasingly rebellious poetic voice was not necessarily the result of artistic maturation; rather, the poet demonstrated such a capacity in many of the unpublished, privately circulated poems throughout her literary career. Indeed, in the poems which she read for literary salons but which she deemed improper for publication, Osgood unconventionally explored romantic relationships and feminine stereotypes, demonstrating a facility for sophisticated rhetorical constructs, a subversive predilection for satirical caricatures, and a worldly knowledge of erotic love.

Critical Reception

Osgood was one of the foremost literary celebrities of the 1840s, both for the publication of her poems in the popular magazines of the day and for her sensationalized association with Poe. Critics have been dubious about whether or not Poe really admired Osgood's poetry, despite the fact that he oversaw the publication of a number of her verses in the periodicals that he edited. In his own words, Poe praised Osgood in 1846 as an artist who is “ardent, sensitive, impulsive; the very soul of truth and honor; a worshiper of the beautiful, with a heart so radically artless as to seem abundant in art—universally respected, admired and beloved.” But critics such as John Reilly have pointed out that effusive assessments such as these about Osgood's overall artistry also reveal a certain degree or circumspection or ambiguity about the poems themselves. According to Reilly, “Poe wrote of Mrs. Osgood with great enthusiasm, but did so in terms which were unwittingly, or perhaps tacitly, an admission of her genuine mediocrity.” For the remainder of the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, critical interest in the nature of Osgood's relationship to Poe dominated any substantial analysis of her oeuvre. However, towards the end of the twentieth century, commentators began to assess the literary merits of Osgood's poetry as part of a broader reexamination of women writers in the nineteenth century. While most literary scholars have acknowledged that Osgood was a driving force behind the sentimental literature movement that produced highly conventional and clichéd love poetry, they also have maintained that she had no choice but to write within the narrow stylistic confines dictated by conservative Victorian notions of feminine propriety. Some critics have noted, however, that Osgood also privately circulated and recited poems at salon meetings which defied social convention and playfully satirized the very social and moral standards which she gamely upheld to become a published poet. As Joanne Dobson has written, “[although] Osgood did write in the ‘angelic’ or high sentimental mode, she also wrote in a mode of sheer mischief, destabilizing the underlying premises of the sentimental ethos—especially as it attends to relationships between the sexes—and wittily investigating in a most unangelic manner the play of eroticism and social forms.” For her part, Elizabeth Petrino has analyzed Osgood's exploration of sex and gender roles in the context of the numerous floral dictionaries which proliferated in the mid-nineteenth century. Focusing on The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry, Petrino has demonstrated how Osgood subversively employed floral definitions to critique rigid Victorian sex roles, to undercut socially defined behaviors, and to satirize the patriarchal subjugation of women.