27 September 2018

Confessions: What Phillis Wheatley Taught Me

Frontispiece “Poems on Various Subjects,” London, 1773 (Public Domain).
An inch or so of melting snow covered the trail around the George Washington Carver National Monument. The trees and the eaves of the Carver House stood dripping.

I soaked up the silence.

As a boy, I shared young Carver's fascination with nature. He was my hero. And that day, that landscape, made him real, which made me realize how much more I had to understand.

“That's a lot of books,” the ranger said as she rang them up.

There were four or five. And “Poems of Phillis Wheatley: A Native African and a Slave” was on top of the stack.

Margaretta Matilda Odell's memoir of Phillis Wheatley begins with these words—harrowing for their politeness.

“She was purchased by Mr. John Wheatley, a respectable citizen of Boston. This gentleman, at the time of the purchase, was already the owner of several slaves; but the females in his possession were getting something beyond the active periods of life, and Mrs. Wheatley wished to obtain a young negress, with the view of training her up under her own eye, that she might, by gentle usage, secure to herself a faithful domestic in her old age. She visited the slave-market, that she might make a personal selection from the group of unfortunates offered for sale. There she found several robust, healthy females, exhibited at the same time with Phillis, who was of a slender frame, and evidently suffering from change of climate. She was, however, the choice of the lady, who acknowledged herself influenced to this decision by the humble and modest demeanor and the interesting features of the little stranger.”

It brings to mind Paul Giamatti's portrayal of slave trader Theophilus Freeman in the 2013 movie12 Years a Slave,” brutal and mundane.

When the Wheatleys realized her aptitude, they taught Phillis to read and write English and then Latin. They sheltered her from the harshest realities of slavery and from the poverty suffered by free blacks, but she remained a slave.

Suspended between worlds, or as June Jordan writes, made "this valuable/this hated thing," Phillis Wheatley found her voice.

Odell continues, “In 1770, at the age of sixteen, Phillis was received as a member of the church worshipping in the Old South Meeting house, then under the pastoral charge of the Rev. Dr. Sewall....”

Phillis Wheatley wrote:

'T was mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God—that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye--
'Their color is a diabolic dye.'
Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain
May be refined, and join the angelic train.

Her Christian faith provided not mere spirituality or gratitude but a critique of the institution by which she came to America and to her faith itself.

Her 1770 elegy “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitfield” earned her wider recognition, and when appeals to publish her work failed in America, she eventually secured the help of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, to whom her first volume of poetry, "Poems on Various Subjects," was dedicated.

Thoughts on the Works of Providence” was one in that collection.

Arise, my soul, on wings enraptur’d, rise   
To praise the monarch of the earth and skies,   
Whose goodness and beneficence appear   
As round its centre moves the rolling year,   
Or when the morning glows with rosy charms,
Or the sun slumbers in the ocean’s arms:   
Of light divine be a rich portion lent   
To guide my soul, and favour my intent.   
Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain,   
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!

  Ador’d for ever be the God unseen,   
Which round the sun revolves this vast machine,   
Though to his eye its mass a point appears:   
Ador’d the God that whirls surrounding spheres,   
Which first ordain’d that mighty Sol should reign
The peerless monarch of th’ ethereal train:   
Of miles twice forty millions is his height,   
And yet his radiance dazzles mortal sight   
So far beneath—from him th’ extended earth   
Vigour derives, and ev’ry flow’ry birth:
Vast through her orb she moves with easy grace   
Around her Phœbus in unbounded space;   
True to her course th’ impetuous storm derides,   
Triumphant o’er the winds, and surging tides.   

  Almighty, in these wond’rous works of thine,
What Pow’r, what Wisdom, and what Goodness shine?   
And are thy wonders, Lord, by men explor’d,   
And yet creating glory unador’d!   

  Creation smiles in various beauty gay,   
While day to night, and night succeeds to day:
That Wisdom, which attends Jehovah’s ways,   
Shines most conspicuous in the solar rays:   
Without them, destitute of heat and light,   
This world would be the reign of endless night:   
In their excess how would our race complain,
Abhorring life! how hate its length’ned chain!   
From air adust what num’rous ills would rise?   
What dire contagion taint the burning skies?   
What pestilential vapours, fraught with death,   
Would rise, and overspread the lands beneath?

  Hail, smiling morn, that from the orient main   
Ascending dost adorn the heav’nly plain!   
So rich, so various are thy beauteous dies,   
That spread through all the circuit of the skies,   
That, full of thee, my soul in rapture soars,
And thy great God, the cause of all adores.   

  O’er beings infinite his love extends,   
His Wisdom rules them, and his Pow’r defends.   
When tasks diurnal tire the human frame,   
The spirits faint, and dim the vital flame,
Then too that ever active bounty shines,   
Which not infinity of space confines.   
The sable veil, that Night in silence draws,   
Conceals effects, but shews th’ Almighty Cause;   
Night seals in sleep the wide creation fair,
And all is peaceful but the brow of care.   
Again, gay Phœbus, as the day before,   
Wakes ev’ry eye, but what shall wake no more;   
Again the face of nature is renew’d,   
Which still appears harmonious, fair, and good.
May grateful strains salute the smiling morn,   
Before its beams the eastern hills adorn!   

  Shall day to day and night to night conspire   
To show the goodness of the Almighty Sire?   
This mental voice shall man regardless hear,
And never, never raise the filial pray’r?   
To-day, O hearken, nor your folly mourn   
For time mispent, that never will return.   

  But see the sons of vegetation rise,   
And spread their leafy banners to the skies.
All-wise Almighty Providence we trace   
In trees, and plants, and all the flow’ry race;   
As clear as in the nobler frame of man,   
All lovely copies of the Maker’s plan.   
The pow’r the same that forms a ray of light,
That call’d creation from eternal night.   
“Let there be light,” he said: from his profound   
Old Chaos heard, and trembled at the sound:   
Swift as the word, inspir’d by pow’r divine,   
Behold the light around its maker shine,
The first fair product of th’ omnific God,   
And now through all his works diffus’d abroad.   

  As reason’s pow’rs by day our God disclose,   
So we may trace him in the night’s repose:   
Say what is sleep? and dreams how passing strange!
When action ceases, and ideas range   
Licentious and unbounded o’er the plains,   
Where Fancy’s queen in giddy triumph reigns.   
Hear in soft strains the dreaming lover sigh   
To a kind fair, or rave in jealousy;
On pleasure now, and now on vengeance bent,   
The lab’ring passions struggle for a vent.   
What pow’r, O man! thy reason then restores,   
So long suspended in nocturnal hours?   
What secret hand returns the mental train,
And gives improv’d thine active pow’rs again?   
From thee, O man, what gratitude should rise!   
And, when from balmy sleep thou op’st thine eyes,   
Let thy first thoughts be praises to the skies.   
How merciful our God who thus imparts
O’erflowing tides of joy to human hearts,   
When wants and woes might be our righteous lot,   
Our God forgetting, by our God forgot!   

  Among the mental pow’rs a question rose,   
“What most the image of th’ Eternal shows?”
When thus to Reason (so let Fancy rove)   
Her great companion spoke immortal Love.   

  “Say, mighty pow’r, how long shall strife prevail,   
And with its murmurs load the whisp’ring gale?   
Refer the cause to Recollection’s shrine,
Who loud proclaims my origin divine,   
The cause whence heav’n and earth began to be,   
And is not man immortaliz’d by me?   
Reason let this most causeless strife subside.”   
Thus Love pronounc’d, and Reason thus reply’d.

  “Thy birth, celestial queen! ’tis mine to own,   
In thee resplendent is the Godhead shown;   
Thy words persuade, my soul enraptur’d feels   
Resistless beauty which thy smile reveals.”   
Ardent she spoke, and, kindling at her charms,
She clasp’d the blooming goddess in her arms.   

  Infinite Love where’er we turn our eyes   
Appears: this ev’ry creature’s wants supplies;   
This most is heard in Nature’s constant voice,   
This makes the morn, and this the eve rejoice;
This bids the fost’ring rains and dews descend   
To nourish all, to serve one gen’ral end,   
The good of man: yet man ungrateful pays   
But little homage, and but little praise.   
To him, whose works array’d with mercy shine,
What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!

This second selection, "Niobe in Distress for her Children slain by Apollo: from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI. and from a view of the Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson" demonstrates Phillis Wheatley's conversance with Latin.

“The Destruction of Niobe's Children,”
by Richard Wilson, 1760 (Public Domain).

Apollo's wrath to man the dreadful spring
Of ills innum’rous, tuneful goddess, sing!
Thou who did’st first th’ ideal pencil give,
And taught’st the painter in his works to live,
Inspire with glowing energy of thought,
What Wilson painted, and what Ovid wrote.
Muse! lend thy aid, nor let me sue in vain,
Tho’ last and meanest of the rhyming train!
O guide my pen in lofty strains to show
The Phrygian queen, all beautiful in woe.

  ’Twas where Mæonia spreads her wide domain
Niobe dwelt, and held her potent reign:
See in her hand the regal sceptre shine,
The wealthy heir of Tantalus divine,
He most distinguish’d by Dodonean Jove,
To approach the tables of the gods above:
Her grandsire Atlas, who with mighty pains
Th’ ethereal axis on his neck sustains:
Her other gran sire on the throne on high
Rolls the loud-pealing thunder thro’ the sky.

  Her spouse, Amphion, who from Jove too springs,
Divinely taught to sweep the sounding strings.

  Seven sprightly sons the royal bed adorn,
Seven daughters beauteous as the op’ning morn,
As when Aurora fills the ravish’d sight,
And decks the orient realms with rosy light
From their bright eyes the living splendors play,
Nor can beholders bear the flashing ray.

  Wherever, Niobe, thou turn’st thine eyes,
New beauties kindle, and new joys arise!
But thou had’st far the happier mother prov’d,
If this fair offspring had been less belov’d:
What if their charms exceed Aurora’s teint,
No words could tell them, and no pencil paint,
Thy love too vehement hastens to destroy
Each blooming maid, and each celestial boy.

  Now Manto comes, endu’d with mighty skill,
The past to explore, the future to reveal.
Thro’ Thebes’ wide streets Tiresia’s daughter came,
Divine Latona’s mandate to proclaim:
The Theban maids to hear the orders ran,
When thus Mæonia’s prophetess began:

  “Go, Thebans! great Latona’s will obey,
And pious tribute at her altars pay:
With rights divine, the goddess be implor’d,
Nor be her sacred offspring unador’d.”
Thus Manto spoke. The Theban maids obey,
And pious tribute to the goddess pay.
The rich perfumes ascend in waving spires,
And altars blaze with consecrated fires;
The fair assembly moves with graceful air,
And leaves of laurel bind the flowing hair.

  Niobe comes with all her royal race,
With charms unnumber’d, and superior grace:
Her Phrygian garments of delightful hue,
Inwove with gold, refulgent to the view,
Beyond description beautiful she moves
Like heav’nly Venus, ’midst her smiles and loves:
She views around the supplicating train,
And shakes her graceful head with stern disdain,
Proudly she turns around her lofty eyes,
And thus reviles celestial deities:

  “What madness drives the Theban ladies fair
To give their incense to surrounding air?
Say why this new sprung deity preferr’d?
Why vainly fancy your petitions heard?
Or say why Cœus’ offspring is obey’d,
While to my goddesship no tribute’s paid?
For me no altars blaze with living fires,
No bullock bleeds, no frankincense transpires,
Tho’ Cadmus’ palace, not unknown to fame,
And Phrygian nations all revere my name.
Where’er I turn my eyes vast wealth I find.
Lo! here an empress with a goddess join’d.
What, shall a Titaness be deify’d,
To whom the spacious earth a couch deny’d?
Nor heav’n, nor earth, nor sea receiv’d your queen,
’Till pitying Delos took the wand’rer in.
Round me what a large progeny is spread!
No frowns of fortune has my soul to dread.
What if indignant she decrease my train
More than Latona’s number will remain?
Then hence, ye Theban dames, hence haste away,
Nor longer off’rings to Latona pay?
Regard the orders of Amphion’s spouse,
And take the leaves of laurel from your brows.”

  Niobe spoke. The Theban maids obey’d,
Their brows unbound, and left the rights unpaid.

  The angry goddess heard, then silence broke
On Cynthus’ summit, and indignant spoke;
“Phœbus! behold, thy mother in disgrace,
Who to no goddess yields the prior place
Except to Juno’s self, who reigns above,
The spouse and sister of the thund’ring Jove.
Niobe sprung from Tantalus inspires
Each Theban bosom with rebellious fires;
No reason her imperious temper quells,
But all her father in her tongue rebels;
Wrap her own sons for her blaspheming breath,
Apollo! wrap them in the shades of death.”

  Latona ceas’d, and ardent thus replies,
The God, whose glory decks th’ expanded skies.

  “Cease thy complaints, mine be the task assign’d
To punish pride, and scourge the rebel mind.”

  This Phœbe join’d.—They wing their instant flight;
Thebes trembled as th’ immortal pow’rs alight.

  With clouds incompass’d glorious Phœbus stands;
The feather’d vengeance quiv’ring in his hands.

  Near Cadmus’ walls a plain extended lay,
Where Thebes’ young princes pass’d in sport the day:
There the bold coursers bounded o’er the plains,
While their great masters held the golden reins.
Ismenus first the racing pastime led,
And rul’d the fury of his flying steed.
“Ah me,” he sudden cries, with shrieking breath,
While in his breast he feels the shaft of death;
He drops the bridle on his courser’s mane,
Before his eyes in shadows swims the plain,
He, the first-born of great Amphion’s bed,
Was struck the first, first mingled with the dead.

  Then didst thou, Sipylus, the language hear
Of fate portentous whistling in the air:
As when th’ impending storm the sailor sees
He spreads his canvas to the fav’ring breeze,
So to thine horse thou gav’st the golden reins,
Gav’st him to rush impetuous o’er the plains:
But ah! a fatal shaft from Phœbus’ hand
Smites through thy neck, and sinks thee on the sand.

  Two other brothers were at wrestling found,
And in their pastime claspt each other round:
A shaft that instant from Apollo’s hand
Transfixt them both, and stretcht them on the sand:
Together they their cruel fate bemoan’d,
Together languish’d, and together groan’d:
Together too th’ unbodied spirits fled,
And sought the gloomy mansions of the dead.

  Alphenor saw, and trembling at the view,
Beat his torn breast, that chang’d its snowy hue.
He flies to raise them in a kind embrace;
A brother’s fondness triumphs in his face:
Alphenor fails in this fraternal deed,
A dart dispatch’d him (so the fates decreed:)
Soon as the arrow left the deadly wound,
His issuing entrails smoak’d upon the ground.

  What woes on blooming Damasichon wait!
His sighs portend his near impending fate.
Just where the well-made leg begins to be,
And the soft sinews form the supple knee,
The youth sore wounded by the Delian god
Attempts t’ extract the crime-avenging rod,
But, whilst he strives the will of fate t’ avert,
Divine Apollo sends a second dart;
Swift thro’ his throat the feather’d mischief flies,
Bereft of sense, he drops his head, and dies.

  Young Ilioneus, the last, directs his pray’r,
And cries, “My life, ye gods celestial! spare.”
Apollo heard, and pity touch’d his heart,
But ah! too late, for he had sent the dart:
Thou too, O Ilioneus, art doom’d to fall,
The fates refuse that arrow to recal.

  On the swift wings of ever-flying Fame
To Cadmus’ palace soon the tidings came:
Niobe heard, and with indignant eyes
She thus express’d her anger and surprize:
“Why is such privilege to them allow’d?
Why thus insulted by the Delian god?
Dwells there such mischief in the pow’rs above?
Why sleeps the vengeance of immortal Jove?”
For now Amphion too, with grief oppress’d,
Had plung’d the deadly dagger in his breast.
Niobe now, less haughty than before,
With lofty head directs her steps no more.
She, who late told her pedigree divine,
And drove the Thebans from Latona’s shrine,
How strangely chang’d!——yet beautiful in woe,
She weeps, nor weeps unpity’d by the foe.
On each pale corse the wretched mother spread
Lay overwhelm’d with grief, and kiss’d her dead,
Then rais’d her arms, and thus, in accents slow,
“Be sated cruel Goddess! with my woe;
If I’ve offended, let these streaming eyes,
And let this sev’nfold funeral suffice:
Ah! take this wretched life you deign’d to save,
With them I too am carried to the grave.
Rejoice triumphant, my victorious foe,
But show the cause from whence your triumphs flow?
Tho’ I unhappy mourn these children slain,
Yet greater numbers to my lot remain.”
She ceas’d, the bow-string twang’d with awful sound,
Which struck with terror all th’ assembly round,
Except the queen, who stood unmov’d alone,
By her distresses more presumptuous grown.
Near the pale corses stood their sisters fair
In sable vestures and dishevell’d hair;
One, while she draws the fatal shaft away,
Faints, falls, and sickens at the light of day.
To sooth her mother, lo! another flies,
And blames the fury of inclement skies,
And, while her words a filial pity show,
Struck dumb——indignant seeks the shades below.
Now from the fatal place another flies,
Falls in her flight, and languishes, and dies.
Another on her sister drops in death;
A fifth in trembling terrors yields her breath;
While the sixth seeks some gloomy cave in vain,
Struck with the rest, and mingled with the slain.

  One only daughter lives, and she the least;
The queen close clasp’d the daughter to her breast:
“Ye heav’nly pow’rs, ah spare me one,” she cry’d,
“Ah! spare me one,” the vocal hills reply’d:
In vain she begs, the Fates her suit deny,
In her embrace she sees her daughter die.

As her literary reputation grew, Phillis would be invited to visit the Wheatley's social connections. Odell wrote, “...upon the occasion of one of these visits, the weather changed during the absence of Phillis; and her anxious mistress, fearful of the effects of cold and damp upon her already delicate health, ordered Prince (also an African and a slave) to take the chaise, and bring home her protegee. When the chaise returned, the good lady drew near the window, as it approached the house, and exclaimed—'Do but look at the saucy varlet—if he hasn't the impudence to sit upon the same seat with my Phillis!' And poor Prince received a severe reprimand for forgetting the dignity thus kindly, though perhaps to him unaccountably, attached to the sable person of 'my Phillis.'”

After the death of Mrs. Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley married John Peters, a free black man, and they suffered in the harsh economic conditions during and after the Revolutionary War. A second volume of poetry was lost when once again no American publishers took it up. And Phillis Wheatley died December 1784.

Abolitionists used Phillis Wheatley's work to argue for the humanness and capability of her people. But in the political defense of what should be self-evident sometimes we risk not getting the whole story.

The challenge of her work to me is the realization that I have not really loved my neighbor until I see her—not merely as confessor of a common faith but as fellow confessor, not merely as an individual but as someone her own, not as an example to be cited or someone to be reached but as someone to be heard.

No comments:

Post a Comment