Sarah Piatt was born Sarah Morgan Bryan in 1836, outside of Lexington, Kentucky. Piatt was descended from two of Kentucky's oldest and most prestigious pioneer families, being related to Daniel Boone through his wife, Rebecca Bryan and her brother-in-law, William Bryan. Not only did she come from a family of renowned Indian fighters (and killers), she was also last in a long line of slaveholders.
When Piatt was eight years old, her mother died, so she spent most of her youth being shuttled, along with her sister and brother, from relative to relative. As a young woman she attended Henry Female College, a respectable school in New Castle, Kentucky, where she became familiar with the classics, as well as the Romantic poets -- her favorite being Lord Byron.
By 1855, at the age of nineteen, she began to write and publish poetry. She came to the attention of George Prentice, editor of the Louisville Courier, and patron of many aspiring women poets, who championed her, placing many of her poems in his paper. By 1860 she was a "popular and well-known poet in Kentucky, the South, and throughout the United States" (see bibiliography, Notable American Women 63). It was through Prentice that she met fellow journalist/poet, John James Piatt. They were married in 1861, and lived for a time in Washington, D.C., where John James (or "J.J," as he was known) held a clerkship with the Treasury Department. By 1864 Piatt had produced two children: a daughter, Marian, and her first book of poetry, The Nests of Washington, which she cowrote with John.
By the start of the Civil War, she and John James left D.C. and moved to Ohio, where Piatt began what was in effect a new life as a Northern woman. It quickly becomes apparent in her poetry that she was to be torn, for the rest of her life, between the ideal, mythological South crystallized by her childhood recollections, and the horrifyingly violent South of reality. She stood with one foot in the South and one foot in the North, belonging wholly to neither. She is perhaps the only Civil War poet to explore this excruciating position, surely the only woman poet to do so.
Many of Piatt's poems explore this divided world through the use of child-voices and characters, often based on her own seven children. Hers is one of the largest bodies of such "children's poetry" extant in American poetry. The mainstream poetry of sentimentalism idealized the figure of the child, particularly the dead child. Piatt uses the constructs of sentimentalism, but undercuts many of them them with a witty, bitterly ironic plainstyle technique.
Piatt's most productive years were in the 1870s and 80s. In the latter years, she found herself "exiled," as she called it, to Ireland. John Piatt served as an American Consul in the southern cities of Cork and Cobh for 11 years, and in a fascinating example of reverse acculturation, several of the Piatt children remained behind when their parents returned to America in 1893. Piatt continued to produce poetry well into the turn of the century. She published, with her husband acting as agent, a total of fifteen books and approximately 450 poems which appeared in her books and in the leading periodicals of the day. Despite such a successful publishing history, however, the Piatts died impoverished, J.J. in 1914, and Sarah in 1919.
For more biographical resources, see bibliography.