Maria James (poet)

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Maria James (October 11, 1793 – September 11, 1868) was a Welsh-born American poet and domestic servant. Her poetry includes Ode on the Fourth of July, 1833.

Early years and education

Maria James was born in 1793, in Wales. She was about seven years old when she emigrated to the United States with her family,[1] landing at Dutchess County, New York, where her father worked at the slate quarries.[2]

She liked John Rogers' last advice to his children. She was also fond of reading the common hymnbook. The New Testament was her only school book. She heard Joseph Addison's paraphrases of the twenty-third psalm. She described this as the first time that she ever heard a good reader.[1]

Her parents moved again, and James found herself in a school where the elder children used the American Preceptor. She found herself entranced by the sounds of their reading of Timothy Dwight IV's "Columbia", the meaning of which she did not comprehend at the time.[1]


She was now ten years of age, and as an opportunity offered which her parents saw fit to embrace, she entered the family of Rev. Freeborn Garrettson,[2] in which she resided in till age seventeen, where, besides learning many useful household occupations, that care and attention was paid to her words and actions as was seldom to be met within such situations. She had before her some of the best models for good reading and good speaking; and any child, with a natural ear for the beautiful in language, would notice these things.[1]

The Bible in that home, as in her father's house, was the book of books, the heads of the family constantly impressing on all, that 'the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' and that to 'depart from iniquity is understanding.' Besides frequent opportunities of hearing instructive books read, her leisure hours were often devoted to one or the other of these works: first, the Female Mentor, comprising within itself a little epitome of elegant literature; two odd volumes of the Adventurer; Miss Hannah More's Cheap Repository; and Pilgrim's Progress. During a period of nearly seven years which she spent in this family, the newspapers were more or less filled with the wars and fightings of Europeans. Wells' imagination took fire.[1]

As she advanced toward womanhood, she shrunk from the nickname of poet, which had been awarded her: the very idea seemed the height of presumption. In her seventeenth year, she left this situation to learn dressmaking. She sewed neatly, but too slow to insure success. Her failure in this was always a subject of regret. After this, she lived some time in different situations, her employment being principally in the nursery. In each of these different families, she had access to those who spoke the purest English, also frequent opportunities of hearing correct and elegant readers -— at least she believed them such by the effect produced on her feelings.[1]

Although nineteen years had nearly passed away since her return to the home of her early life, she did not cease to remember with gratitude the kind treatment received from different persons at this period, while her attachment to their children has was not obliterated by time nor by absence.[1]

In 1833, Bishop Alonzo Potter, then one of the professors in Union College, was shown by his wife, who had just returned from a visit to Rhinebeck on the Hudson, the "Ode for the Fourth of July", and informed that it was the production of a young woman at service in the family of a friend there, whom he had often noticed on account of her retiring and modest manners, and who had been in that capacity more than twenty years. When further advised that these lines had been thrown off with great rapidity and apparent ease, and that the writer had been accustomed almost from childhood to find pleasure in similar efforts, the information awakened a lively interest, and led him to examine other pieces from the same hand, and finally to introduce them to the public notice, in a preface over his signature to the volume entitled Wales and other Poems, by Maria James, published in 1839.[3]

Potter's long introduction to the collection assures readers that Maria James "solaced a life of labour with intellectual occupations," and that "her achievements should be made known to repress the supercilious pride of the privileged and educated."[4] In this way, Potter vindicated, in an admirable manner, against the sneers of Johnson, the propriety of recognising the abilities of the humblest classes.[3]

With respect to some of her early poems, she recollected trying something in this way for the amusement of a little boy who was very dear to her. Except this, with a very few other pieces, no attempt of the kind was made until "The Mother's Lament", and "Elijah", with a number of epitaphs. Others early verses included "Hummingbird" and "The Adventure". In the summer of 1832, when she heard a reading of Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, by Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourrienne, it brough to her mind certain conversations which she heard in the early part of her life regarding Bonaparte. The poem was produced the following summer. In the year 1819, "The American Flag" appeared in the New York American, signed 'Croaker & Co.': this kindled up the poetic fires in her breast, which, however, did not find utterance until fourteen years afterward, in the "Ode on the Fourth of July, 1833". This appearing in print, some who did not know her very well inquired of others, 'Do you suppose she ever wrote it?' Being answered in the affirmative, it was imagined she must have had help.' "The Album" was begun and carried through without previous arrangement or design, laid aside when her mind was weary, and taken up again just as the subject happened to present itself. "Friendship" was produced in the same way. Many of the pieces were written from impressions received in youth, particularly the "Whippoorwill", the "Meadow Lark", the "Firefly", and others.[3]

James died in Rhinebeck, New York in 1868, age 74.[2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Griswold 1852, p. 66.
  2. ^ a b c Wilson & Fiske 1887, p. 399.
  3. ^ a b c Griswold 1852, p. 67.
  4. ^ James 1839, p. 29.


  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Griswold, Rufus Wilmot (1852). The Female Poets of America (Public domain ed.). H.C. Baird.
  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: James, Maria (1839). "Alonzo Potter, "Introduction"". Wales: And Other Poems (Public domain ed.). J. S. Taylor.
  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John (1887). Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography (Public domain ed.). D. Appleton.

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