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Lillian Rozell Messenger: A Prolific American Poet

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Lillian Rozell Messenger made her mark in American literature throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, just as women began to be taken seriously in publishing.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Lillian Rozell Messenger was a prolific poet born in Kentucky in the middle of the nineteenth century. Though historians are unsure exactly what year she was born, they have narrowed it to sometime between 1843 and 1853. Her parents Dr. Francis Overton and Caroline (Cole) Rozell were well-to-do Virginians as her father was a physician. Messenger’s father instilled in her an early appreciation for the arts as he had a deep love for poetry and music. Her family was of the sensitive, artistic disposition prone to bouts of depression, later seen in seriousness and sadness conveyed in some of her most famous works.

During her early childhood, her family moved to Arkansas. Messenger thrived in the open, country air as she roamed the countryside freely, climbing hills, flying kites, and shooting her bow and arrow. Her love for nature grew alongside her love of the arts as she delighted in public speaking, imitating speakers she was fond of in genres ranging from poetry to prose. Messenger became serious about poetry at a very young age, as she quickly went from reading and reciting poetry to writing it. Her early education was extensive. So extensive in fact, that her astronomy and philosophy studies helped dispel many of her childlike notions about the mysteries of the universe, a reality her artistic heart could barely contend with.

While attending college at Forest Hill Seminary, near Memphis, Tennessee, Messenger’s beloved father died. She was so devastated she did not return to school but instead devoted herself to expressing her grief through her poetry. She wrote verses of “Night”, and at just sixteen, her first poem was published.

Though this was the first time her work garnered public intrigue, this was not Messenger’s first foray into being published. As a young schoolgirl, her literary aspirations were nurtured by influential community members and mentors like Colonel M. C. Galloway, Solon Borland, and Geo. D. Prentice. Borland was editor of the Arkansas Gazette, while Prentice was a newspaper editor, writer, and poet who built the Louisville Journal. Messenger’s first poems appeared in the Memphis Avalanche under the nom de plume Zena Clifton until she gained enough confidence to use her own name.

In 1863, she married North Allen Messenger, a Tuscumbia, Alabama native and editor in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Unfortunately, North died four years later, leaving Messenger to care for their young son North Overton. Messenger raised North Overton in Tuscumbia and had an active literary career. In 1868, Messenger moved back to Arkansas. She became the first woman elected to membership in the State Press Association.

She later moved to Washington, DC, where she wrote many of her most popular literary works. She joined many patriotic and literary organizations and was even a founding member of the Daughters of the Revolution (an organization for women descended from those who fought for America’s independence from the British).

Messenger’s most influential works "Fragments from an Old Inn," "The Vision of Gold," "Disappointment," "Importuning," "Halloween," "The Southern Cross," and "Columbus- OrIt Was Morning” were first read on July 4, 1893, before the Woman's Building Congresses of the Columbian Exposition as Messenger was an excellent dramatic reader. Her poetry was of such importance that her work was included in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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