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  4. Infelix by Adah Isaacs Menken

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Where is the promise of my years;
    Once written on my brow?
Ere errors, agonies and fears
Brought with them all that speaks in tears,
Ere I had sunk beneath my peers;
    Where sleeps that promise now?

Naught lingers to redeem those hours,
    Still, still to memory sweet!
The flowers that bloomed in sunny bowers
Are withered all; and Evil towers
Supreme above her sister powers
    Of Sorrow and Deceit.

I look along the columned years,
    And see Life’s riven fane,
Just where it fell, amid the jeers
Of scornful lips, whose mocking sneers,
For ever hiss within mine ears
    To break the sleep of pain.

I can but own my life is vain
    A desert void of peace;
I missed the goal I sought to gain,
I missed the measure of the strain
That lulls Fame’s fever in the brain,
    And bids Earth’s tumult cease.

Myself! alas for theme so poor
    A theme but rich in Fear;
I stand a wreck on Error’s shore,
A spectre not within the door,
A houseless shadow evermore,
    An exile lingering here.

Source: African-American Poetry of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (University of Illinois Press, 1992)
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  • Adah Isaacs Menken was a writer, lecturer, and actress whose infamous private life brought widespread attention to her acting career. Born near New Orleans, most likely of African American, white, and Creole heritage, Adah Isaacs married affluent businessman Alexander Isaac Menken when she was around 21 and adopted his faith, Judaism. By the time she married, she had already given readings of Shakespeare and had published poems.
    In 1856, Menken began a successful and lucrative acting career in New Orleans. Her performances garnered her international fame, particularly her role in Byron’s Mazeppa. Menken—who left her first husband, remarried several times, wore short hair, and smoked cigarettes—was considered scandalous by Victorian society for her romantic affairs and rebellious nature. She published her writing widely and befriended writers internationally.

    While she was well known for her dramatic roles, Menken longed for literary recognition. She collected 31 of her poems in a self-designed publication,...

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