Monday, February 17, 2020

Phillis Wheatley*

Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753—1784) is a black American poet whose book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared on the eve of the American Revolution in 1773. She had been kidnapped as a child from her African home, by slave traders, and sold to tailor John Wheatley in Boston.

Growing up with the Wheatley’s children she learned to read and write. Her poem “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine…George Whitefield” (1770), drew attention to her talent sufficiently to lead to the publication of her book in London, England. She was a social success there, but returned to Boston, due to the illness of her mistress, Susanna Wheatley. She was given her freedom, prior to the deaths of John and Susanna. Her life of freedom did not turn out well, though; she was abandoned by her husband (also a freed black slave) was forced to hire herself out as a servant, and died in poverty at age 31.

The following poem ― being an elegy, arranged in couplets, and focussing on Christian truths ― is typical of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry.

On the Death of a Young Lady of Five Years of Age

From dark abodes to fair etherial light
Th' enraptur'd innocent has wing'd her flight;
On the kind bosom of eternal love
She finds unknown beatitude above.
This known, ye parents, nor her loss deplore,
She feels the iron hand of pain no more;
The dispensations of unerring grace,
Should turn your sorrows into grateful praise;
Let then no tears for her henceforward flow,
No more distress'd in our dark vale below,
Her morning sun, which rose divinely bright,
Was quickly mantled with the gloom of night;
But hear in heav'n's blest bow'rs your Nancy fair,
And learn to imitate her language there.
"Thou, Lord, whom I behold with glory crown'd,
"By what sweet name, and in what tuneful sound
"Wilt thou be prais'd? Seraphic pow'rs are faint
"Infinite love and majesty to paint.
"To thee let all their graceful voices raise,
"And saints and angels join their songs of praise."
Perfect in bliss she from her heav'nly home
Looks down, and smiling beckons you to come;
Why then, fond parents, why these fruitless groans?
Restrain your tears, and cease your plaintive moans.
Freed from a world of sin, and snares, and pain,
Why would you wish your daughter back again?
No––bow resign'd. Let hope your grief control,
And check the rising tumult of the soul.
Calm in the prosperous, and adverse day,
Adore the God who gives and takes away;
Eye him in all, his holy name revere,
Upright your actions, and your hearts sincere,
Till having sail'd through life's tempestuous sea,
And from its rocks, and boist'rous billows free,
Yourselves, safe landed on the blissful shore,
Shall join your happy babe to part no more.

*This is the second Kingdom Poets post about Phillis Wheatley: first post.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection is Ampersand (2018, Cascade). His books are available through Amazon, and Wipf & Stock, including the anthologies The Turning Aside, and Adam, Eve, & the Riders of the Apocalypse.