SOJOURNER TRUTH, THE LIBYAN SIBYL
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Many years ago, the few readers of radical Abolitionist papers
must often have seen the singular name of Sojourner
announced as a frequent speaker at Anti-Slavery meetings, and as
travelling on a sort of self-appointed agency
through the country.
I had myself often remarked the name, but never met the
individual. On one occasion, when
our house was filled with
company, several eminent clergymen being our guests, notice was
brought up to me that Sojourner
Truth was below, and requested an
interview. Knowing nothing of her but her singular name, I went
to make the interview short, as the pressure of
many other engagements demanded.
When I went into the room, a tall, spare form arose to meet me.
She was evidently a full-blooded African, and though
now aged and
worn with many hardships, still gave the impression of a physical
development which in early youth must
have been as fine a specimen
of the torrid zone as Cumberworth's celebrated statuette of the
Negro Woman at the Fountain.
Indeed, she so strongly reminded me
of that figure, that, when I recall the events of her life, as she
to me, I imagine her as a living, breathing
impersonation of that work of art.
I do not recollect ever to
have been conversant with any one who
had more of that silent and subtle power which we call personal
this woman. In the modern Spiritualistic
phraseology, she would be described as having a strong sphere.
form, as she rose up before me, is still vivid to my
mind. She was dressed in some stout, grayish stuff, neat and
though dusty from travel. On her head, she wore a bright
Madras handkerchief, arranged as a turban, after the manner
race. She seemed perfectly self-possessed and at her ease,--in
fact, there was almost an unconscious superiority,
with a solemn twinkle of humor, in the odd, composed manner in
which she looked down on me. Her whole
air had at times a gloomy
sort of drollery which impressed one strangely.
"So this is YOU," she said.
"Well, honey, de Lord bless ye! I jes' thought I'd like to come
an' have a look at ye.
You's heerd o' me, I reckon?" she added.
"Yes, I think I have. You go about lecturing, do you not?"
honey, that's what I do. The Lord has made me a sign unto
this nation, an' I go round a'testifyin', an' showin' on
sins agin my people."
So saying, she took a seat, and, stooping over and crossing her
her knees, she looked down on the floor, and appeared to
fall into a sort of reverie. Her great gloomy eyes and her
face seemed to work with some undercurrent of feeling; she sighed
deeply, and occasionally broke out,--
Lord! O Lord! Oh, the tears, an' the groans, an' the moans!
I should have said that
she was accompanied by a little grandson
of ten years,--the fattest, jolliest woolly-headed little specimen
that one can imagine. He was grinning and showing his
glistening white teeth in a state of perpetual merriment, and
this moment broke out into an audible giggle, which disturbed the
reverie into which his relative was falling.
looked at him with an indulgent sadness, and then at me.
"Laws, Ma'am, HE don't know nothin' about it--HE don't.
seen them poor critters, beat an' 'bused an' hunted, brought in
all torn,--ears hangin' all in rags, where
the dogs been a'bitin'
This set off our little African Puck into another giggle, in which
seemed perfectly convulsed.
She surveyed him soberly, without the slightest irritation.
you may bless the Lord you CAN laugh; but I tell you, 't
wa'n't no laughin' matter."
By this time I thought
her manner so original that it might be
worth while to call down my friends; and she seemed perfectly well
the idea. An audience was what she wanted,--it
mattered not whether high or low, learned or ignorant. She had
to say, and was ready to say them at all times, and to any
I called down Dr. Beecher, Professor Allen,
and two or three other
clergymen, who, together with my husband and family, made a
roomful. No princess could
have received a drawing-room with more
composed dignity than Sojourner her audience. She stood among
and erect, as one of her own native palm-trees waving
alone in the desert. I presented one after another to her,
"Sojourner, this is Dr. Beecher. He is a very celebrated
he?" she said, offering her hand in a condescending manner,
and looking down on his white head. "Ye dear lamb, I'm
see ye! De Lord bless ye! I loves preachers. I'm a kind o'
are?" said Dr. Beecher. "Do you preach from the Bible?"
"No, honey, can't preach from de Bible,--can't
read a letter."
"Why, Sojourner, what do you preach from, then?"
Her answer was given with a solemn
power of voice, peculiar to
herself, that hushed every one in the room.
"When I preaches, I has jest one
text to preach from, an' I always
preaches from this one. MY text is, 'WHEN I FOUND JESUS.'"
"Well, you couldn't have a better one," said one of the ministers.
She paid no attention to him, but stood
and seemed swelling with
her own thoughts, and then began this narration:--
"Well, now, I'll jest have to
go back, an' tell ye all about it.
Ye see, we was all brought over from Africa, father an' mother an'
I, an' a lot
more of us; an' we was sold up an' down, an' hither
an' yon; an' I can 'member, when I was a little thing, not bigger
this 'ere," pointing to her grandson, "how my ole mammy would
sit out o' doors in the evenin', an' look up at the stars
groan. She'd groan an' groan, an' says I to her,--
"'Mammy, what makes you groan so?'
"'Matter enough, chile! I'm groanin' to think o' my poor
children: they don't know where
I be, an' I don't know where they
be; they looks up at the stars, an' I looks up at the stars, but I
can't tell where
"'Now,' she said, 'chile, when you're grown up, you may be sold
away from your mother an' all your
ole friends, an' have great
troubles come on ye; an' when you has these troubles come on ye,
ye jes' go to God, an'
He'll help ye.'
"An' says I to her,--
"'Who is God, anyhow, mammy?'
"An' says she,--
"'Why, chile, you jes' look up DAR! It's Him that made all DEM!"
"Well, I didn't mind much
'bout God in them days. I grew up
pretty lively an' strong, an' could row a boat, or ride a horse,
or work round,
an' do 'most anything.
"At last I got sold away to a real hard massa an' missis. Oh, I
tell you, they
WAS hard! 'Peared like I couldn't please 'em,
nohow. An' then I thought o' what my old mammy told me about
an' I thought I'd got into trouble, sure enough, an' I wanted to
find God, an' I heerd some one tell a story about
a man that met
God on a threshin'-floor, an' I thought, 'Well an' good, I'll have
a threshin'-floor, too.' So
I went down in the lot, an' I
threshed down a place real hard, an' I used to go down there every
day, an' pray an' cry
with all my might, a-prayin' to the Lord to
make my massa an' missis better, but it didn't seem to do no good;
says I, one day,--
"'O God, I been a-askin' ye, an' askin' ye, an' askin' ye, for all
this long time, to
make my massa an' missis better, an' you don't
do it, an' what CAN be the reason? Why, maybe you CAN'T. Well,
shouldn't wonder ef you couldn't. Well, now, I tell you, I'll
make a bargain with you. Ef you'll help
me to git away from my
massa an' missis, I'll agree to be good; but ef you don't help me,
I really don't think I can
be. Now,' says I, 'I want to git away;
but the trouble's jest here: ef I try to git away in the night, I
see; an' ef I try to git away in the daytime, they'll see
me, an' be after me.'
"Then the Lord said to me,
'Git up two or three hours afore
daylight, an' start off.'
"An' says I, 'Thank 'ee, Lord! that's a good thought.'
"So up I got, about three o'clock in the mornin', an' I started
an' travelled pretty fast, till, when the
sun rose, I was clear
away from our place an' our folks, an' out o' sight. An' then I
begun to think I didn't
know nothin' where to go. So I kneeled
down, and says I,--
"'Well, Lord, you've started me out, an'
now please to show me
where to go.'
"Then the Lord made a house appear to me, an' He said to me that I
to walk on till I saw that house, an' then go in an' ask the
people to take me. An' I travelled all day, an' didn't
the house till late at night; but when I saw it, sure enough, I
went in, an' I told the folks that the Lord
sent me; an' they was
Quakers, an' real kind they was to me. They jes' took me in, an'
did for me as kind as ef
I'd been one of 'em; an' after they'd giv
me supper, they took me into a room where there was a great, tall,
an' they told me to sleep there. Well, honey, I was
kind o' skeered when they left me alone with that great white
'cause I never had been in a bed in my life. It never came into
my mind they could mean me to sleep in it.
An' so I jes' camped
down under it, on the floor, an' then I slep' pretty well. In the
mornin', when they came
in, they asked me ef I hadn't been asleep;
an' I said, 'Yes, I never slep' better.' An' they said, 'Why, you
been in the bed!' An' says I, 'Laws, you didn't think o'
such a thing as my sleepin' in dat 'ar' BED, did you?
heerd o' such a thing in my life.'
"Well, ye see, honey, I stayed an' lived with 'em. An' now
look here: instead o' keepin' my promise an' bein' good, as I told
the Lord I would, jest as soon as everything
got a'goin' easy, I
FORGOT ALL ABOUT GOD.
"Pretty well don't need no help; an' I gin up prayin.' I
there two or three years, an' then the slaves in New York were all
set free, an' ole massa came to our home to
make a visit, an' he
asked me ef I didn't want to go back an' see the folks on the ole
place. An' I told him I
did. So he said, ef I'd jes' git into
the wagon with him, he'd carry me over. Well, jest as I was goin'
to git into the wagon, I MET GOD! an' says I, 'O God, I didn't
know as you was so great!' An' I turned right round an'
the house, an' set down in my room; for 't was God all around me.
I could feel it burnin', burnin', burnin'
all around me, an' goin'
through me; an' I saw I was so wicked, it seemed as ef it would
burn me up. An' I said,
'O somebody, somebody, stand between God
an' me! for it burns me!' Then, honey, when I said so, I felt as
somethin' like an amberill [umbrella] that came between me
an' the light, an' I felt it was SOMEBODY,--somebody that stood
me an' God; an' it felt cool, like a shade; an' says I,
'Who's this that stands between me an' God? Is it old Cato?'
was a pious old preacher; but then I seemed to see Cato in the
light, an' he was all polluted an' vile, like me;
an' I said, 'Is
it old Sally?' an' then I saw her, an' she seemed jes' so. An'
then says I, 'WHO is this?'
An' then, honey, for a while it was
like the sun shinin' in a pail o' water, when it moves up an'
down; for I begun
to feel 't was somebody that loved me; an' I
tried to know him. An' I said, 'I know you! I know you!
you!'--an' then I said, 'I don't know you! I don't know you! I
don't know you!' An' when I
said, 'I know you, I know you,' the
light came; an' when I said, 'I don't know you, I don't know you,'
it went, jes'
like the sun in a pail o' water. An' finally
somethin' spoke out in me an' said, 'THIS IS JESUS!' An' I spoke
with all my might, an' says I, 'THIS IS JESUS! Glory be to
God!' An' then the whole world grew bright, an' the trees
waved an' waved in glory, an' every little bit o' stone on the
ground shone like glass; an' I shouted an' said,
praise to the Lord!' An' I begun to feel such a love in my soul
as I never felt before,--love
to all creatures. An' then, all of
a sudden, it stopped, an' I said, 'Dar's de white folks, that have
an' beat you an' abused your people,--think o' them!'
But then there came another rush of love through my soul, an' I
out loud,--'Lord, Lord, I can love EVEN DE WHITE FOLKS!'
"Honey, I jes' walked round an' round in a dream.
Jesus loved me!
I knowed it,--I felt it. Jesus was my Jesus. Jesus would love me
always. I didn't
dare tell nobody; 't was a great secret.
Everything had been got away from me that I ever had; an' I
thought that ef
I let white folks know about this, maybe they'd
get HIM away,--so I said, 'I'll keep this close. I won't let any
"But, Sojourner, had you never been told about Jesus Christ?"
"No, honey. I hadn't
heerd no preachin',--been to no meetin'.
Nobody hadn't told me. I'd kind o' heerd of Jesus, but thought he
like Gineral Lafayette, or some o' them. But one night there
was a Methodist meetin' somewhere in our parts, an'
I went; an'
they got up an' begun for to tell der 'speriences; an' de fust one
begun to speak. I started, 'cause
he told about Jesus. 'Why,'
says I to myself, 'dat man's found him, too!' An' another got up
an I said, 'He's found him, too!' An' finally I said,
'Why, they all know him!' I was so happy! An' then
this hymn": (Here Sojourner sang, in a strange, cracked voice, but
evidently with all her soul and might,
mispronouncing the English,
but seeming to derive as much elevation and comfort from bad
English as from good):--
'There is a holy city,
A world of light above,
Above the stairs and regions,*
Built by the God of Love.
"An Everlasting temple,
And saints arrayed in white
There serve their great Redeemer
And dwell with him in light.
"The meanest child of glory
Outshines the radiant
But who can speak the splendor
Of Jesus on his throne?
"Is this the man of sorrows
Who stood at Pilate's bar,
Condemned by haughty Herod
And by his men of war?
"He seems a mighty conqueror,
Who spoiled the powers below,
And ransomed many captives
From everlasting woe.
"The hosts of saints around him
work of grace,
The patriarchs and prophets,
And all the godly race,
"Who speak of fiery trials
And tortures on their way;
They came from tribulation
To everlasting day.
"And what shall be my journey,
How long I'll stay below,
Or what shall be my trials,
Are not for me to know.
"In every day of trouble
I'll raise my thoughts on high,
I'll think of that bright
And crowns above the sky."
* Starry regions.
I put in this whole hymn, because Sojourner, carried away with her
own feeling, sang it from beginning to end
with a triumphant
energy that held the whole circle around her intently listening.
She sang with the strong barbaric
accent of the native African,
and with those indescribable upward turns and those deep gutturals
which give such a wild,
peculiar power to the negro singing,--but
above all, with such an overwhelming energy of personal
the hymn seemed to be fused in the furnace of
her feelings and come out recrystallized as a production of her
is said that Rachel was wont to chant the "Marseillaise" in a
manner that made her seem, for the time, the very spirit
impersonation of the gaunt, wild, hungry, avenging mob which rose
against aristocratic oppression; and in like manner,
singing this hymn, seemed to impersonate the fervor of Ethiopia,
wild, savage, hunted of all nations, but
burning after God in her
tropic heart, and stretching her scarred hands towards the glory
to be revealed.
den ye see, after a while, I thought I'd go back an' see de
folks on de ole place. Well, you know, de law had passed
culled folks was all free; an' my old missis, she had a daughter
married about dis time who went to live in Alabama,--an'
she do but give her my son, a boy about de age of dis yer, for her
to take down to Alabama? When I got
back to de ole place, they
told me about it, an' I went right up to see ole missis, an' says
have you been an' sent my son away down to Alabama?'
"'Yes, I have,' says she; 'he's gone to live with your
"'Oh, Missis,' says I, 'how could you do it?'
"'Poh!' says she, 'what a fuss
you make about a little nigger!
Got more of 'em now than you know what to do with.'
"I tell you, I stretched up. I felt as tall as the world!
"'Missis,' says I, 'I'LL HAVE MY SON BACK
"'YOU will, you nigger? How you goin' to do it? You ha'n't got
"'No, Missis,--but GOD has,--an' you'll see He'll help me!'--an' I
turned round an' went out.
but I WAS angry to have her speak to me so haughty an' so
scornful, as ef my chile wasn't worth anything. I said
to God, 'O
Lord, render unto her double!' It was a dreadful prayer, an' I
didn't know how true it would come.
"Well, I didn't rightly know which way to turn; but I went to the
Lord, an' I said to Him, 'O Lord, ef I
was as rich as you be, an'
you was as poor as I be, I'd help you,--you KNOW I would; and, oh,
do help me!' An'
I felt sure then that He would.
"Well, I talked with people, an' they said I must git the case
before a grand
jury. So I went into the town when they was
holdin' a court, to see ef I could find any grand jury. An' I
round the court-house, an' when they was a-comin' out, I
walked right up to the grandest-lookin' one I could see, an' says
"'Sir, be you a grand jury?'
"An' then he wanted to know why I asked, an' I told him
it; an' he asked me all sorts of questions, an' finally he says to
"'I think, ef you pay
me ten dollars, that I'd agree to git your
son for you.' An' says he, pointin' to a house over the way, 'You
'long an' tell your story to the folks in that house, an' I
guess they'll give you the money.'
"Well, I went,
an' I told them, an' they gave me twenty dollars;
an' then I thought to myself, 'Ef ten dollars will git him, twenty
will git him SARTIN.' So I carried it to the man all out,
"'Take it all,--only be sure
an' git him.'
"Well, finally they got the boy brought back; an' then they tried
to frighten him, an' to make
him say that I wasn't his mammy, an'
that he didn't know me; but they couldn't make it out. They gave
him to me,
an' I took him an' carried him home; an' when I came to
take off his clothes, there was his poor little back all covered
scars an' hard lumps, where they'd flogged him.
"Well, you see, honey, I told you how I prayed the Lord to render
her double. Well, it came true; for I was up at ole missis'
house not long after, an' I heerd 'em readin' a letter
to her how
her daughter's husband had murdered her,--how he'd thrown her down
an' stamped the life out of her, when
he was in liquor; an' my ole
missis, she giv a screech, an' fell flat on the floor. Then says
I, 'O Lord, I didn't
mean all that! You took me up too quick.'
"Well, I went in an' tended that poor critter all night.
out of her mind,--a-cryin', an' callin' for her daughter; an' I
held her poor ole head on my arm, an' watched
for her as ef she'd
been my babby. An' I watched by her, an' took care on her all
through her sickness after that,
an' she died in my arms, poor
"Well, Sojourner, did you always go by this name?"
'deed! My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of
bondage, I left everything behind. I wa'n't goin'
to keep nothin'
of Egypt on me, an' so I went to the Lord an' asked Him to give me
a new name. And the Lord gave
me Sojourner, because I was to
travel up an' down the land, showin' the people their sins, an'
bein' a sign unto them.
Afterwards I told the Lord I wanted
another name, 'cause everybody else had two names; and the Lord
gave me Truth, because
I was to declare the truth to the people.
"Ye see some ladies have given me a white satin banner," she said,
out of her pocket and unfolding a white banner, printed
with many texts, such as, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the
unto all the inhabitants thereof," and others of like nature.
"Well," she said, "I journeys round to camp-meetins, an'
folks is, an' I sets up my banner, an' then I sings, an' then
folks always comes up round me, an' then I preaches
to 'em. I
tells 'em about Jesus, an' I tells 'em about the sins of this
people. A great many always comes
to hear me; an' they're right
good to me, too, an' say they want to hear me agin."
We all thought it likely;
and as the company left her, they shook
hands with her, and thanked her for her very original sermon; and
one of the
ministers was overheard to say to another, "There's
more of the gospel in that story than in most sermons."
stayed several days with us, a welcome guest. Her
conversation was so strong, simple, shrewd, and with such a droll
of humor, that the Professor was wont to say of an
evening, "Come, I am dull, can't you get Sojourner up here to talk
little?" She would come up into the parlor, and sit among
pictures and ornaments, in her simple stuff gown, with
travelling-shoes, the central object of attention both to parents
and children, always ready to talk or to
sing, and putting into
the common flow of conversation the keen edge of some shrewd
what do you think of Women's Rights?"
"Well, honey, I's ben to der meetins, an' harked a good deal. Dey
me for to speak. So I got up. Says I,--'Sisters, I a'n't
clear what you'd be after. Ef women want any
rights more 'n dey's
got, why don't dey jes' TAKE 'EM, an' not be talkin' about it?'
Some on 'em came round me, an'
asked why I didn't wear Bloomers.
An' I told 'em I had Bloomers enough when I was in bondage. You
see," she said,
"dey used to weave what dey called nigger-cloth,
an' each one of us got jes' sech a strip, an' had to wear it
Them that was short got along pretty well, but as for
me"--She gave an indescribably droll glance at her long limbs
then at us, and added,--"Tell YOU, I had enough of Bloomers in
Sojourner then proceeded to give
her views of the relative
capacity of the sexes, in her own way.
"S'pose a man's mind holds a quart, an'
a woman's don't hold but a
pint; ef her pint is FULL, it's as good as his quart."
Sojourner was fond of singing
an extraordinary lyric, commencing,--
"I'm on my way to Canada,
That cold, but happy land;
The dire effects of Slavery
I can no longer stand.
O righteous Father,
Do look down on me,
And help me on to Canada,
Where colored folks are free!"
The lyric ran on to state, that, when the fugitive crosses the
"The Queen comes down unto the shore,
With arms extended wide,
To welcome the poor fugitive
Safe onto Freedom's side."
In the truth thus set forth she seemed to have the most simple
But her chief delight was to talk of "glory," and to sing hymns
whose burden was,--
"O glory, glory, glory,
Won't you come along with me?"
when left to herself, she would often hum these with great
delight, nodding her head.
On one occasion, I
remember her sitting at a window singing and
fervently keeping time with her head, the little black Puck of a
meanwhile amusing himself with ornamenting her red-and-
yellow turban with green dandelion-curls, which shook and trembled
her emotions, causing him perfect convulsions of delight.
"Sojourner," said the Professor to her, one day, when
he heard her
singing, "you seem to be very sure about heaven."
"Well, I be," she answered, triumphantly.
"What makes you so sure there is any heaven?"
"Well, 'cause I got such a hankerin' arter it in
here," she said,--
giving a thump on her breast with her usual energy.
There was at the time an invalid in
the house, and Sojourner, on
learning it, felt a mission to go and comfort her. It was curious
to see the tall,
gaunt, dusky figure stalk up to the bed with such
an air of conscious authority, and take on herself the office of
with such a mixture of authority and tenderness. She
talked as from above,--and at the same time, if a pillow needed
or any office to be rendered, she did it with a strength
and handiness that inspired trust. One felt as if the dark,
woman were quite able to take up the invalid in her bosom,
and bear her as a lamb, both physically and spiritually.
was both power and sweetness in that great warm soul and that
At length, Sojourner,
true to her name, departed. She had her
mission elsewhere. Where now she is I know not; but she left deep
To these recollections of my own I will add one more anecdote,
related by Wendell Phillips.
of the power of Rachel to move and bear down a whole
audience by a few simple words, he said he never knew but one
human being that had that power, and that other was
Sojourner Truth. He related a scene of which he was witness.
was at a crowded public meeting in Faneuil Hall, where Frederick
Douglas was one of the chief speakers. Douglas
describing the wrongs of the black race, and as he proceeded, he
grew more and more excited, and finally ended
by saying that they
had no hope of justice from the whites, no possible hope except in
their own right arms. It
must come to blood; they must fight for
themselves, and redeem themselves, or it would never be done.
was sitting, tall and dark, on the very front seat,
facing the platform; and in the hush of deep feeling, after
sat down, she spoke out in her deep, peculiar voice, heard
all over the house,--
"Frederick, IS GOD DEAD?"
The effect was perfectly electrical, and thrilled through the
whole house, changing as by a flash the whole
feeling of the
audience. Not another word she said or needed to say; it was
It is with a
sad feeling that one contemplates noble minds and
bodies, nobly and grandly formed human beings, that have come to
cramped, scarred, maimed, out of the prison-house of bondage.
One longs to know what such beings might have become, if
to unfold and expand under the kindly developing influences of
It is the theory of some writers, that to the African is reserved,
in the later and palmier days of the earth, the
harmonious development of the religious element in man. The
African seems to seize on the tropical fervor
and luxuriance of
Scripture imagery as something native; he appears to feel himself
to be of the same blood with those
old burning, simple souls, the
patriarchs, prophets, and seers, whose impassioned words seem only
grafted as foreign
plants on the cooler stock of the Occidental
I cannot but think that Sojourner with the same culture
spoken words as eloquent and undying as those of the African Saint
Augustine or Tertullian. How grand
and queenly a woman she might
have been, with her wonderful physical vigor, her great heaving
sea of emotion, her power
of spiritual conception, her quick
penetration, and her boundless energy! We might conceive an
African type of
woman so largely made and moulded, so much fuller
in all the elements of life, physical and spiritual, that the dark
of the skin should seem only to add an appropriate charm,--as
Milton says of his Penseroso, whom he imagines
"Black, but such as in esteem
Prince Memnon's sister might beseem,
Or that starred Ethiop queen
To set her beauty's praise above
But though Sojourner Truth has passed away from among us as a wave
of the sea,
her memory still lives in one of the loftiest and most
original works of modern art, the Libyan Sibyl, by Mr. Story,
attracted so much attention in the late World's Exhibition.
Some years ago, when visiting Rome, I related Sojourner's
to Mr. Story at a breakfast at his house. Already had his mind
begun to turn to Egypt in search of a type
of art which should
represent a larger and more vigorous development of nature than
the cold elegance of Greek lines.
His glorious Cleopatra was then
in process of evolution, and his mind was working out the problem
of her broadly developed
nature, of all that slumbering weight and
fulness of passion with which this statue seems charged, as a
is charged with electricity.
The history of Sojourner Truth worked in his mind and led him into
recesses of the African nature,--those unexplored
depths of being and feeling, mighty and dark as the gigantic
of tropical forests, mysterious as the hidden rivers and
mines of that burning continent whose life-history is yet to be.
A few days after, he told me that he had conceived the idea of a
statue which he should call the Libyan Sibyl.
subsequently, I revisited Rome, and found the gorgeous Cleopatra
finished, a thing to marvel at, as the creation
of a new style of
beauty, a new manner of art. Mr. Story requested me to come and
repeat to him the history of
Sojourner Truth, saying that the
conception had never left him. I did so; and a day or two after,
he showed me
the clay model of the Libyan Sibyl. I have never
seen the marble statue; but am told by those who have, that it was
far the most impressive work of art at the Exhibition.
A notice of the two statues from the London "Athenaeum"
supply a description which I cannot give.
"The Cleopatra and the Sibyl are seated, partly draped, with the
characteristic Egyptian gown, that gathers about
the torso and
falls freely around the limbs; the first is covered to the bosom,
the second bare to the hips. Queenly
Cleopatra rests back against
her chair in meditative ease, leaning her cheek against one hand,
whose elbow the rail
of the seat sustains; the other is
outstretched upon her knee, nipping its forefinger upon the thumb
though some firm, wilful purpose filled her
brain, as it seems to set those luxurious features to a smile as
whole woman 'would.' Upon her head is the coif, bearing in
front the mystic uraeus, or twining basilisk of sovereignty,
from its sides depend the wide Egyptian lappels, or wings, that
fall upon her shoulders. The Sibilla Libica
has crossed her
knees,--an action universally held amongst the ancients as
indicative of reticence or secrecy, and of
power to bind. A
secret-keeping looking dame she is, in the full-bloom proportions
of ripe womanhood, wherein
choosing to place his figure the
sculptor has deftly gone between the disputed point whether these
women were blooming
and wise in youth, or deeply furrowed with age
and burdened with the knowledge of centuries, as Virgil, Livy, and
say. Good artistic example might be quoted on both sides.
Her forward elbow is propped upon one knee; and to keep
secrets close, for this Libyan woman is the closest of all the
Sibyls, she rests her shut mouth upon one closed
palm, as if
holding the African mystery deep in the brooding brain that looks
out through mournful, warning eyes, seen
under the wide shade of
the strange horned (ammonite) crest, that bears the mystery of the
Tetragrammaton upon its upturned
front. Over her full bosom,
mother of myriads as she was, hangs the same symbol. Her face has
a Nubian cast,
her hair wavy and plaited, as is meet."
We hope to see the day when copies both of the Cleopatra and the
Libyan Sibyl shall adorn the Capitol at Washington.
SOJOURNER TRUTH, THE LIBYAN SIBYL
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Atlantic Monthly 11 (April 1863): 473-481.