Poem of the Week

Vashti: Prude or Proud Proto-feminist?

A black Civil War era poet celebrates the beautiful woman who said no to the King.

Lafayette Photography from a privately printed 'Collection of Portrait of Some of the Guests' at the ball

Vashti

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
She leaned her head upon her hand
And heard the King's decree --
"My lords are feasting in my halls;
Bid Vashti come to me.

"I've shown the treasures of my house,
My costly jewels rare,
But with the glory of her eyes
No rubies can compare.

"Adorn'd and crown'd I'd have her come,
With all her queenly grace,
And, 'mid my lords and mighty men,
Unveil her lovely face.

"Each gem that sparkles in my crown,
Or glitters on my throne,
Grows poor and pale when she appears,
My beautiful, my own!"

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

All waiting stood the chamberlains
To hear the Queen's reply.
They saw her cheek grow deathly pale,
But light flash'd to her eye:

"Go, tell the King," she proudly said,
"That I am Persia's Queen,
And by his crowds of merry men
I never will be seen.

"I'll take the crown from off my head
And tread it 'neath my feet,
Before their rude and careless gaze
My shrinking eyes shall meet.

"A queen unveil'd before the crowd! --
Upon each lip my name! --
Why, Persia's women all would blush
And weep for Vashti's shame!

"Go back!" she cried, and waved her hand,
And grief was in her eye:
"Go, tell the King," she sadly said,
"That I would rather die."

They brought her message to the King;
Dark flash'd his angry eye;
'Twas as the lightning ere the storm
Hath swept in fury by.

Then bitterly outspoke the King,
Through purple lips of wrath --
"What shall be done to her who dares
To cross your monarch's path?"

Then spake his wily counsellors --
"O King of this fair land!
From distant Ind to Ethiop,
All bow to thy command.

"But if, before thy servants' eyes,
This thing they plainly see,
That Vashti doth not heed thy will
Nor yield herself to thee,

"The women, restive 'neath our rule,
Would learn to scorn our name,
And from her deed to us would come
Reproach and burning shame.

"Then, gracious King, sign with thy hand
This stern but just decree,
That Vashti lay aside her crown,
Thy Queen no more to be."

She heard again the King's command,
And left her high estate;
Strong in her earnest womanhood,
She calmly met her fate,

And left the palace of the King,
Proud of her spotless name --
A woman who could bend to grief,
But would not bow to shame.

***

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in Congress today is not the first time Jews have tangled with Persians, nor is he the first leader to have attempted to impress by entertaining lavishly and displaying his wife’s feminine charms.

The Book of Esther – the Megillah read on Purim – trumps the current antics. Then at least, a change of queens was needed for the Jews to be saved.

The Megillah begins with the inebriated King Ahasuerus (Xerxes) summoning his wife Vashti to a banquet to display herself to male dignitaries, topping “a hundred and fourscore” days of festivities.

Harper’s king summons her “adorned and crowned,” but while the Megillah has her summoned “with the crown royal, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty.”  The Babylonian Talmud (BT Megillah 12b) interprets this as meaning she should wear only the crown and be otherwise naked. The poet might not have been familiar with this tradition, or else she modestly ignored it.

The Megillah simply states that she refused. The poem on the other hand gives her emotions and fighting words – to paraphrase: No way. I’m not going to show myself to a bunch of drunks.

Vashti is not afraid to lose her job as queen by refusing to subject herself to the possibility of sexual humiliation. Her justification: Appearing before the men would destroy her own reputation and bring disgrace upon all Persian women.

Some Jewish feminists and religious scholars applaud her for this defense of modesty. Other commentators postulate that she vain and refused, possibly because she had gained weight, or had been stricken with leprosy, or had grown a tail.

In the poem, Vashti leaves the palace, saddened by her husband’s boorish behavior but proud of her own virtue.

Poet and novelist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was born in 1825 to free African-American parents in Baltimore. She supported abolition, temperance and women’s suffrage.

Harper knew her Scriptures: The phrase “ with the glory of her eyes / No rubies can compare” is a reference to Proverbs 31:10 – “A woman of valor who can find? for her price is far above rubies.” This follows a series of Proverbs about strong drink (e.g. in verse 4: “it is not for kings to drink wine: nor for princes to say: Where is strong drink”) and is the beginning of an acrostic about good wives that many Jewish husbands recite on Friday night.

*Musing: Consulting you about a Purim costume, your young daughter suggests Vashti. What would you say?

* Bonus: “Take this job and shove it”