Poetry Wednesday: Phillis Wheatley

Maecenas, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
Their noble strains your equal genius shares
In softer language, and diviner airs.
While Homer paints, lo! circumfus’d in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;
Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heav’n quakes, earth trembles, and the shores resound . . .

Phillis Wheatley’s  first poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” was published in December  of 1767,  in the Newport, Rhode Island, Mercury, before she was fourteen years old:

Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,
As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?
Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow
Against you? or did Consideration bow?
To lend you Aid, did not his Winds combine?
To stop your passage with a churlish Line,
Did haughty Eolus with Contempt look down
With Aspect windy, and a study’d Frown?
Regard them not; — the Great Supreme, the Wise,
Intends for something hidden from our Eyes.
Suppose the groundless Gulph had snatch’d away
Hussey and Coffin to the raging Sea;
Where wou’d they go? where wou’d be their Abode?
With the supreme and independent God,
Or made their Beds down in the Shades below,
Where neither Pleasure nor Content can flow.
To Heaven their Souls with eager Raptures soar,
Enjoy the Bliss of him they wou’d adore.
Had the soft gliding Streams of Grace been near,
Some favourite Hope their fainting hearts to cheer,
Doubtless the Fear of Danger far had fled:
No more repeated Victory crown their Heads.

Fourteen.  Years.  Old.

And she didn’t know a word of English until she was at least seven.

I know.

The child who would become Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753.  She was kidnapped in 1761, brought to America on a slave ship, and sold to John Wheatley, who wanted a personal servant for his wife, Susanna.

The Wheatley family soon discovered how bright and curious the newly christened Phillis was, and decided, against custom and practice, to teach her to read and write.  She became fluent in English in two years before moving on to Greek and Latin.

Ten years later, the elegy she wrote for the esteemed Reverend George Whitefield* was published as a broadsheet and distributed throughout the Colonies—making her the first black, female poet to gain popular interest in the Americas.

Word of her talent reached England and in 1773, Ms. Wheatley was escorted by John and Susanna’s son to London, where her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published. She was apparently a terrific social success there, though she had to return home later that year because Susanna fell ill.

Amazing story.

But . . .

While it’s tempting to marvel at Ms. Wheatley’s accomplishments simply because she was an enslaved woman  who  accomplished them in the time and place that she did at the pace that she did, I find that kind of praise . . . uncomfortably patronizing.

It’s far too close to saying that what she said and how she said it was less important than that she said it at all.

So let’s regroup.

Phillis Wheatley is a fine poet.

Most of her work is seriously, relentlessly Neoclassical—dense with allusions and metaphors and more couplets than even Alexander Pope might have deemed strictly necessary.

This style isn’t to everyone’s taste.  To be honest, it’s not always to my taste.

Some of her poems, particularly the elegies—and she wrote a lot of elegies—take a little more work for those of us who were educated in American public school systems  and aren’t up on all the references.**

They can also be a bit much for those of us who appreciate a whimsical sense of humor—Ms. Wheatley is earnest and elegant and persuasive, but quirky she ain’t.***

But for all that, Ms. Wheatley has a way with context and though one may not catch all the dropped names, her meaning is usually clear and beautiful as a stained glass window.  As is her enthusiasm, especially when she’s writing about something other than death and piety.

On Imagination
(Phillis Wheatley)

Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck’d with pomp by thee!
Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.

From Helicon’s refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.

Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov’d object strikes her wand’ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

Though Winter frowns to Fancy’s raptur’d eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o’er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow’ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown’d:
Show’rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose,
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.

Such is thy pow’r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:
In full perfection all thy works are wrought,
And thine the sceptre o’er the realms of thought.
Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,
Of subject-passions sov’reign ruler thou;
At thy command joy rushes on the heart,
And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.

Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th’ expanse on high:
From Tithon’s bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o’erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

See?  Totally worth the work.

I suspect that Phillis Wheatley must have been very much aware of her audience—which certainly makes sense—and there’s a certain perfectionism in her word choice and meter that speaks of great, deliberate care.

It’s only occasionally that she allows herself to relax a bit and show the ease with which she could write and might have written under different circumstances.  The verses she wrote on her visit to England are among these.  There are cultural comparisons and just a soupçon of Colonial awareness of politics, but I like to imagine that she was in an exhilarated frame of mind.

A Rebus
(Phillis Wheatley)

I.
A bird delicious to the taste,
On which an army once did feast,
Sent by an hand unseen;
A creature of the horned race,
Which Britain’s royal standards grace;
A gem of vivid green;

II.
A town of gaiety and sport,
Where beaux and beauteous nymphs resort,
And gallantry doth reign;
A Dardan hero fam’d of old
For youth and beauty, as we’re told,
And by a monarch slain;

III.
A peer of popular applause,
Who doth our violated laws,
And grievances proclaim.
Th’ initials show a vanquish’d town,
That adds fresh glory and renown
To old Britannia’s fame.

And here’s another, in response to a discussion of the first one among the literati of England.

An Answer To The Rebus, By The Author Of These Poems
(Phillis Wheatley)

The poet asks, and Phillis can’t refuse
To show th’ obedience of the Infant muse.
She knows the Quail of most inviting taste
Fed Israel’s army in the dreary waste;
And what’s on Britain’s royal standard borne,
But the tall, graceful, rampant Unicorn?
The Emerald with a vivid verdure glows
Among the gems which regal crowns compose;
Boston’s a town, polite and debonair,
To which the beaux and beauteous nymphs repair,
Each Helen strikes the mind with sweet surprise,
While living lightning flashes from her eyes,
See young Euphorbus of the Dardan line
By Manelaus’ hand to death resign:
The well known peer of popular applause
Is C—-m zealous to support our laws.
Quebec now vanquish’d must obey,
She too much annual tribute pay
To Britain of immortal fame.
And add new glory to her name.

That couplet about Helen?  Excellent.

Shortly after she returned to the Colonies, the Wheatley family freed her, partially due to pressure from her new English friends. But she stayed with the family and took care of John and Susanna, both in poor health, until they passed away.

The rest of her story isn’t much fun. She married in 1778, but was soon abandoned by her husband. Though she kept writing, always, only five more of her poems were published during her lifetime.  Eventually, she took work as a servant and died penniless in December of 1784.

She remains to this day, however, a remarkable woman who wrote remarkable poems.

_______

* An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield can be found here.

** If you don’t know, for example, that Maecenas was a wealthy Roman patron of the arts around 40 BC and acted as a sort of unofficial minister of culture to his good friend Caesar Augustus—yeah, the same guy who allegedly hauled a pregnant lady all the way to Bethlehem so he could get a head-count—you might not read the verse at the top of this post in quite the same way.  I sure didn’t.

***With the possible exception of the poem she wrote about sailing to England.  She never mentions seasickness outright, but it’s in there and it made me smile.

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13 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Phillis Wheatley

  1. Wow! Thanks for posting this!!! This piece on Wheately is so good that you really should try to get it published somewhere since it is Black History Month. I really appreciate this piece.

  2. Really? Thank you, Wayne—I’m glad you like it!

    I think I’ve probably missed the boat for this month, but maybe I’ll could pitch it for next year, if posting it doesn’t count . . .

  3. I was thinking the same thing, Wayne. This is wonderful. I’m surprised she’s not a household name. She really ought to be and I love that statue of her. The next time I go to Boston, I will certainly seek it out.

  4. That statue of her is just stunning.

    I wonder if she would (or did she?) have been as accomplished if she had written in her native tongue?
    I picture a young girl kidnapped, thrown on a slave ship, God knows what horrors she endured, to end up as a servant and not be broken of spirit, but to have the ability and desire to learn English (in 2 years?!) then move on to Latin (?!) and Greek (?!).
    I can’t help but wonder if she was a girl possessed by words, a prodigy clearly, but if she also saw it as a way out of slavery? If that explains her constraint in the poetry, playing by the rules trying to win freedom. Or if it’s as simple as that is just what she wanted to write. So fascinating, Sarah. Thanks for the introduction.

    • I do wonder what she would have become if she hadn’t been kidnapped. I’m sure she would have been remarkable wherever she was.

      I’m not sure if she chose the structures she did to prove herself or because that was one of the predominant styles at the time—maybe she simply loved Alexander Pope as much as I did?

      • “I’m sure she would have been remarkable wherever she was.”

        Full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air.

        It’s nice to see somebody who knows Phillis Wheatley.

        If I may, does Earful Of Cider come from Sky Masterson’s memorable speech? Or did you choose it coincidentally?

        • My first Phillis Wheatley poem was “Niobe in Distress”—it made quite an impression and so did she. I’m glad her sweetness wasn’t wasted!

          And thanks for the reminder—I haven’t done Thomas Gray, yet! 🙂

          You’re correct—I’m a big Damon Runyan fan and took the quote from “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.” I’m thinking it would be difficult to come up with it coincidentally, except under some seriously bizarre circumstances . . .

  5. Her eloquence is remarkable, demonstrating not only a gift for language and the mechanics of poetry, but a thirst for knowledge. I also like her word choice, the rhyme and the structure of her poems. I think it reflects the style of the times. In reviewing your comments, I don’t think you can NOT consider the impact of the time period and her life experience on her writing. To fully “get” someone’s writing…particularly poets…it is important to understand from where their voice originates. That includes their upbringing, education, trials, tribulations, personal sacrifice, etc. Think Emily Dickinson, Poe, Bukowski, Giovanni, Plath, …I could go on, but I won’t….. 🙂 Considering the era, she is fortunate to have had such enlightened benefactors as the Wheatley’s to have personally ensured her education and a safe environment for her writing to fluorish.

    Sorry for the soapbox post.

    • You can bring your soapbox over here any time, John!

      I agree with you, but the problem is that her biography is so good that people rarely bother to read her work.

      • I’ve been rethinking my answer . . . Poetry doesn’t happen in a vacuum, no, but I would like for people to glean more of her circumstances from her words rather than all of it from her personal story.

  6. What an extraordinary blog. I had heard of her but this was fascinating. I agree with one of the other readers, you should try and get it published somewhere. For money!! Loved your Wild Librarian rant too! x

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