Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn

Poet and Radical Activist

Young girls at spooling machines at Lincoln Cotton Mill, Indiana, 1908.
Young girls at spooling machines at Lincoln Cotton Mill, Indiana, 1908. Lewis W. Hine / Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Known for: radical sentiments. She was a Christian socialist, a pacifist, an anti-vivisectionist, a vegetarian, and worked for women's suffrage, for prison reform, against lynching, against the death penalty, and against child labor.

Occupation: poet, writer
Dates: 1876 - April 4, 1959
Also known as: Sarah N. Cleghorn, Sarah Cleghorn


Robert Frost famously pointed out that the people of Vermont were "taken care of by three great ladies. And one of these is wise and a novelist, one is mystic and an essayist and the third is saintly and a poet." Frost referred to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Zephine Humphrey, and Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn. He also said of Cleghorn, "To a saint and a reformer like Sarah Cleghorn the great importance is not to get hold of both ends, but of the right end. She has to be partisan."

Born in Virginia in a hotel where her New England parents were visiting, Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota until she was nine. When her mother died, she and her sister moved to Vermont, where aunts raised them. She lived most of her years in Manchester, Vermont. Cleghorn was educated at a seminary in Manchester, Vermont, and studied at Radcliffe College, but she could not afford to continue.

Her circle of poet and writer friends included Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Robert Frost. She is considered part of the American Naturalists.

She called her earlier poems "sunbonnets" -- poems which characterized country life -- and her later poems "burning poems" -- poems that pointed to social injustices.

She was profoundly influenced by reading of an incident in the South, "the burning alive of a Negro by his white neighbors." She was also disturbed by how little attention this incident drew.

At 35, she joined the Socialist Party, though she later said that she had begun to "do some cogitating" on labor issues at age 16. She worked briefly in the Brookwood Labor School.

On a visit to South Carolina, she was inspired by seeing a factory mill, with child laborers, next to a golf course, to write her best-remembered verse.  She oritinally submitted it as just this quatrain; it is part of a larger work, "Through the Needle's Eye," 1916:

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

In middle age, she moved to New York to find work -- not too successfully. Over the years, forty of her poems were published in Atlantic Monthly. In 1937, she served briefly on the faculty of Wellesley College, as a substitute for Edith Hamilton, and she also substituted for a year at Vassar, both times in the English departments.

She moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where she continued her activism, defending peace during the Cold War as "an old Quaker."

Sarah Cleghorn died in Philadelphia in 1959.


  • Mother: Sarah Chestnut Hawley
  • Father: John Dalton Cleghorn


  • educated at home
  • Burr and Burton Seminary, of Manchester
  • Radcliffe, 1895-1906


  • A Turnpike Lady (novel), 1907.
  • Hillsboro People (poems), 1915.
  • Fellow Captains with Dorothy Canfield Fisher, 1916.
  • The Spinsters (novel), 1916.
  • Portraits and Protests (poems), 1917.
  • Ballad of Eugene Debs, 1928.
  • Miss Ross' Girls , 1931.
  • Ballad of Tuzulutlan, 1932.
  • Ballad of Joseph and Damien, 1934.
  • Threescore (autobiography), 1936. Robert Frost wrote the introduction.
  • Peace and Freedom (poems), 1945
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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn." ThoughtCo. (accessed July 7, 2022).