A tribute to humanity and artistic self-discovery in a time of slavery from the first published African-American woman
This week's poem, "An Hymn to Humanity" by the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, combines Christian and classical myths in a lively depiction of the Incarnation that concludes with a celebration of artistic self-discovery. Wheatley's story is well-known. She was a frail seven-year-old in a shipment of slaves snatched from Senegal or Gambia, purchased cheaply by a prosperous Boston tailor to assist his wife in the housework. The Puritan family didn't adopt the child, and she wasn't freed from slavery until much later, but they educated her in the arts and sciences, and she began writing at an early age. Individual poems were printed and praised, though she was unable to find a publisher in the US for her first collection, containing this week's poem. It was published in London under the title Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral when she was still only 20 years old. Her life after her marriage to another freed slave, John Peters, spiralled into dismal poverty, and she died in childbirth at the age of 31.
The "Hymn" testifies to happier times. Its jaunty, festive mood is inscribed in the rhythmic pattern: two tetrameter lines, followed by a trimeter, are repeated in each stanza, with a tight-knit a, a, b, c, c, b rhyme-scheme. Hymns usually have a more sober and stately rhythm, but this choice works seamlessly with the swift-moving narrative.
Wheatley inverts the opening sentence. "A prince of heav'nly birth" is the subject, but she begins with the "dark terrestrial ball" of the earth, as if to emphasise the unique and dramatic arrival. The "azure-paved hall" represents the sky, of course, but also suggests a sumptuous palace with jewelled floors, evoking the wealth of a worldlier prince, and hinting that enlightenment is connected to privilege.
The second stanza reveals how humanity has become divine: the prince has "fix'd his empire" in the "bosoms of the great and good". Wheatley seems to intend a tribute here to her adoptive Christian community. Unusual in the nativity scene is a truly fatherly God the Father, who embraces and praises "My son, my heavenly fair!" Stanza three declares God's command that Christ should inspire humans to "Enlarge the close contracted mind/ And fill it with thy fire". Again, Wheatley's sentence unfolds its grandeur slowly, by means of a grammatical inversion. This stanza is about self-transcendence. Religious enlightenment and a transforming education are entwined for Wheatley, with no suggestion of a rift between moral and intellectual discoveries.
Resembling a messenger-god dispatched by Zeus, Christ "wings his way from star to star". The abbreviated word in stanza four, line five, is presumably "Godhead", the sacred source of "Virtue". Recalling the imagery of Pentecost and the Holy Spirit's descent in the form of tongues of fire, "the rushing God" notices the "raptur'd heart" of humanity, and so a new, more personal theme enters the poem.
Wheatley is referring to herself in stanza five as "The languid muse in low degree", blessed by "the celestial nine" and given her poetic voice: "O'er me methought they deign'd to shine/ And deign'd to string my lyre." Both human friendship and the friendship of the muses, "immortal" and "laurel-crowned" are conjoined. The poet, singled out as "Afric's muse", swears her fidelity to God, and to His embodiment in redeemed humanity.
If the nine Muses represent the poet's broad learning in the arts and sciences, the three Graces are goddesses of lighter, more social pleasures. Their invocation shows the true, unjudgmental generosity Wheatley extends to those she considers her earthly saviours and friends.
An Hymn to Humanity
Lo! for this dark terrestrial ball
Forsakes his azure-paved hall
A prince of heav'nly birth!
Divine Humanity behold,
What wonders rise, what charms unfold
At his descent to earth!
The bosoms of the great and good
With wonder and delight he view'd,
And fix'd his empire there:
Him, close compressing to his breast,
The sire of gods and men address'd,
"My son, my heav'nly fair!
"Descend to earth, there place thy throne;
To succour man's afflicted son
Each human heart inspire:
To act in bounties unconfin'd,
Enlarge the close contracted mind,
And fill it with thy fire."
Quick as the word, with swift career
He wings his course from star to star,
And leaves the bright abode.
The Virtue did his charms impart;
Their G-----! then thy raptur'd heart
Perceiv'd the rushing God:
For when thy pitying eye did see
The languid muse in low degree,
Then, then at thy desire
Descended the celestial nine;
O'er me methought they deign'd to shine,
And deign'd to string my lyre.
Can Afric's muse forgetful prove?
Or can such friendship fail to move
A tender human heart?
Immortal Friendship laurel-crown'd
The smiling Graces all surround
With ev'ry heav'nly Art.