Poems of Sue L. McBeth
In the East Liverpool Carnegie Library’s history room is a small, black ring-binder holding 60 leaves of 5 x 8.5-inch paper filled with the typed poetry of Sue L. McBeth. Beyond the poems themselves, there is no information about McBeth included with the volume. Whoever took the time to transcribe these poems into type (presumably from a manuscript), must have done so out of a desire to preserve them.
Some poems have headings that offer dates ranging from 1853 to 1859. It’s not clear whether these are composition dates, but if they are, Sue Law McBeth (1830-1893) would have been in her twenties when she wrote the poems.
McBeth came from a family of Scottish Presbyterian immigrants that settled in or near Wellsville, about two miles downriver from East Liverpool, Ohio. The family eventually produced two sisters, Kate and Sue, who spent most of their adult lives in the Indian Territories teaching Native Americans and attempting to convert them to Christianity.
Atop one poem is a title (or note) that reads, “Steubenville F.S. Sept. 20 1853,” referring to the Steubenville Female Seminary, founded in 1829 by Dr. Charles Clinton Beatty. Sue attended the school in the 1850s. The seminary “closed in 1898 after educating about 5,000 women” (Public Library of Steubenville).
Beyond the Carnegie Library’s possession of the typescript poetry collection, I have learned nothing as yet to connect Sue McBeth directly to East Liverpool. A reliable source of information on the missionary sisters is Kate and Sue McBeth: Missionary Teachers to the Nez Perce, a Web site sponsored by Idaho Humanities Council, the University of Idaho Library, and the John C. Smith Memorial Fund.
The Oklahoma Historical Society Web site offers a biographical sketch along with a few of Sue McBeth’s diary entries from 1860 and 1861.
The Kent State East Liverpool Digital Archive Project and Carnegie Library are working together to produce an e-book version of Poems written by Miss Sue L. McBeth. The page scan at left is a poem titled "Hypocracy," from the fourth page of Poems. The pages in the binder are not numbered, but with a few notable exceptions, they are placed in a rational sequence. (Click to enlarge.)
The poems are doors into the mind of an extraordinary woman. Most are standard devotional verses marking important occasions--marriages, deaths, holidays, illness. It's what people did before Hallmark. Many are written to or about specific friends, living and dead--for example, "A New Years Greeting to Adelin from Sue" and "To Miss Sallie E. Eldrige (dead) From Sue." To Miss M. Wallace, one of her seminary teachers, McBeth writes:
I would not wake one jarring note
To mingle with the tones that swell
From out the past.
But if the memory grieves thee not --
Remember one who passing well
Has learned to love thee -- and who oft
Will wander back to scenes where thou --
With placid brow -- and eye of thought --
With glad the picture even as now.
But within the conventional forms she observes, the young poet also throws knives, as in these lines to her married friend Jeannie Pacy:
A giddy thoughtless merry minx--
Is Jeannie--artless tease--
She never studies--never thinks--
But weaves a chain of endless links
Of music bells and pleasures pinks,
Her own dear self to please.
Then you run into poems like "Fragment of an incident in the life of Lord Byron," and "Address of Poetry to the Priestess of Science," or the angry "Hypocracy." Through the literary pretense and 19th-century poetic diction, there is an active young mind at work, thinking in poetry. Some of McBeth's poems have an edge that cuts across the centuries, as in this expression of spiritual depression and despair:
In this wide world alone -- alone --
No Mother, brother, sister none,
No friend to cheer my saddened soul,
And soothe the wounded spirit whole.
Long since (ah dark and dismal hour,
Even yet I feel thy icy power)
They bore my Father to the tomb --
Consigned his body to its gloom.
McBeth is no Emily Dickinson, but the poets did live at the same time, both born in 1830. Scholarly interest in McBeth's life among the Indians already is apparent, but these poems are from her formative years in the Ohio Valley, and they deserve further study.
__________________________________________________________Fig. 1. Steubenville Female Seminary: David Rumsey Map Collection
Fig. 2. Sue McBeth: Kate and Sue McBeth: Missionary Teachers to the Nez Perce