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Maria Gowen Brooks, born in 1794 in Massachusetts, United States, and also known by her pen name Maria del Occidente, remains an enigmatic yet compelling figure in 19th-century American poetry. Though she is not as widely read or studied today as some of her contemporaries like Emily Dickinson or Edgar Allan Poe, her work, especially the epic poem "Zóphiël; or, The Bride of Seven," provides an important window into the literary landscape of her time.

Literary Background and Early Influences

Maria Gowen Brooks was born into a family of moderate means and limited educational opportunities. Despite this, she exhibited a passion for literature and poetry from an early age. Her limited schooling did not deter her; rather, she was largely self-taught, reading voraciously from the Bible, classical texts, and works of contemporary literature. The neoclassical tradition, particularly the works of Alexander Pope and John Milton, as well as the biblical stories, had a formative influence on her literary sensibilities.

It is worth noting that she was widowed early and faced several hardships, including economic difficulties, which colored her world view and indirectly found a way into her writings. Marriage to a second husband, who was supportive of her literary endeavors, enabled her to travel and broaden her intellectual horizons. She spent time in Cuba and later in England, where she met several literary figures who influenced her work, including Robert Southey, the Poet Laureate of England at that time.

Poetic Schools or Movements

Brooks’ work is often seen as a transitional phase between Neoclassicism and Romanticism in American literature. While her poems exhibit a formal structure and stylistic elements reminiscent of the neoclassical tradition, the subject matter and emotional depth resonate with the burgeoning Romantic movement. She also dabbled in Orientalism, a trend popular in the 19th century, which involved Western writers drawing on Eastern themes and settings, albeit through a lens often colored by exoticism and stereotype.

Poetic Oeuvre: Phases and Themes

Brooks’ poetic career can be divided into phases characterized by her thematic focus and stylistic choices. The early phase was predominantly influenced by her neoclassical leanings, visible in her strict adherence to form and meter. As she matured, however, her style evolved to incorporate more Romantic elements, like the exploration of human emotions, individuality, and the sublime. The culmination of these efforts is arguably her most significant work, "Zóphiël; or, The Bride of Seven."

"Zóphiël" is an epic poem that combines her various interests and literary influences, from biblical stories to classical mythology. The poem centers around the eponymous angel Zóphiël, who is infatuated with the mortal maiden Egla. It explores complex themes of love, devotion, and sacrifice, capturing both the grandiosity of the epic form and the emotional intensity of the Romantic period.

Influence and Honors

Maria Gowen Brooks was not widely celebrated during her lifetime, but she did gain some recognition and acclaim, especially in England. Robert Southey was one of her earliest and most vocal supporters, praising her as "the most impassioned and imaginative of all poetesses." Edgar Allan Poe also spoke highly of her work, albeit posthumously, mentioning that her neglect during her lifetime was "one of the most shameful pieces of neglect on the part of her countrymen." While she didn't garner significant honors or awards in her lifetime, her work has been revisited in recent times as scholars delve into the contributions of women writers in 19th-century American literature.


The life and works of Maria Gowen Brooks provide a valuable perspective on the shifting literary paradigms of 19th-century America. Her personal struggles, intellectual pursuits, and artistic vision contribute to a poetic oeuvre that is both a product of its time and a testament to its author’s singular talent. Though not as widely acknowledged as some of her contemporaries, her influence is perceptible in the themes she explored and the stylistic risks she took. Her works remain an important but often overlooked facet of American literary history, deserving of further study and appreciation.

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