A Heritage Month long read that exemplifies Bermudian resilience
“Bermudian Resilience” being the theme of Heritage Month this year, I take the opportunity to recommend to readers a rather wonderful (and certainly very apt) long poem called Sarah Simon, by the once-famous American poet-novelist Hervey Allen, which was published in the United States in 1929 as a limited-edition book (and of which I last year produced a small, not-for-sale, scholarly edition, chiefly for giving to a few libraries here and overseas). Last I checked, the poem itself was freely available to read on a couple of internet poetry websites, although strictly speaking I believe that it remains subject to Allen's widow's copyright for another few years.
Whether people read Sarah Simon on the web or in book form doesn’t matter greatly. My point is that people, especially Bermudians, should read it, not least as it has, I think, an excellent claim to being the finest work of literature ever written about Bermuda: a remarkable work, not merely for the charming qualities of its writing, but because it is a biography-in-verse of a Bermudian — a Black woman, indeed, whose true identity is unknown (Allen cloaked her in a pseudonym, although I imagine that someone who combines a taste for Bermudian genealogy and for being a literary detective might well — working from all the clues in the poem — be able to frame a plausible hypothesis as to who “Sarah” actually was).
Allen himself, valuing the universal attributes of Sarah’s story, was content not even to mention Bermuda as the setting — although it clearly is Bermuda — let alone to reveal Sarah’s true identity, saying (in his preface) that “As I was moving about this world I chanced to light upon an island far removed from any continent where in certain sequestered places still lingered, as it were in patches, a primordial charm. In one of these places on that island there dwelt a woman alone — for she had long outlived all to whom she belonged or who belonged to her — so old, so noble and so wise in her still vigorous self-sufficing that no poet could refrain from celebrating her character and the remarkable life-experience through which she had passed and over which she had triumphed.”
Sarah’s story is very much one of resilience: a young woman whose fisherman husband is lost at sea; who struggles mightily to complete the cottage he had begun, and to furnish and equip it with her handicrafts; who by keen observation and patient experiment gains a mastery of horticulture and plant-lore, and thereby achieves an unusual degree of self-sufficiency more generally; who bravely rescues a shipwrecked ship’s-master during a hurricane, and then lives with him as man and wife, enabling him to recover from the traumatic loss of his wife and children; a woman who then raises the further children sired by him on her, prior to his never returning from a voyage (rumour accusing him of deserting her for an heiress in Demerara); who later suffers the alienation from her of her children, who, through further external happenstance, are initiated by Anglo-Saxon education into the greedier ways of the wider world; but above all, a woman who overcomes her ordeals, eventually attaining that wise old age during which the poet came to know and admire her — and to write the splendid poem through which we today may also know and admire her.
JONATHAN LAND EVANS