Phillis Wheatley, African American Poet

phyllis wheatley

From Poetry Foundation online

Several years ago in a biography of preacher and evangelist Jonathan Edwards, I read the name of  “slave poet” Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784). Wheatley wrote an elegy (poem on the occasion of one’s death) for George Whitefield, one of Jonathan Edwards’ dear friends. Whitefield and Edwards were pillars of the Great Awakening that swept the world from England to the United States in the 1700’s and Wheatley had been greatly affected by the move of God in her own life. In fact, much of her strong Christian faith shows up in her poems, which I soon found out when I went looking.
What’s astonishing to me is the language and voice of Wheatley’s work. She was brought to America from Senegal/Gambia at the age of 7 and purchased by a family in Boston to purportedly “accompany the family’s children and share in domestic work.” As a result, she inadvertently was taught to read and write, receiving a stellar classical education alongside the children, something unheard for a slave. She read widely the literature and early works of Virgil and Ovid, John Milton and Shakespeare, and the style of her writing reflects this classical immersion.
The more I read the more surprised I was, assuming that all African slaves in the 1700’s were illtreated and illiterate. Thanks to my Sophomore English teacher, Dr. Kehl, I learned to love the language and style of Shakespeare’s writing (though I often needed assistance in deciphering his meaning.) When I first became a Christian I enjoyed the King James Version of the Bible for just that reason. Reading Wheatley’s poetry was like reading Shakespeare and I was drawn in.
Thanks to her owners and their wide circles in Boston society Wheatley’s work was known and shared widely in Boston and across the Atlantic. Her first published poem was printed when she was only 13 and she went on to write many, many more. Mary Wheatley, Phillis’ benefactress, saw to it that bookseller Archibald Bell begin to circulate Phillis’ work, and the debut edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773. Poems on Various Subjects was the first volume of poetry by an American Negro published in modern times. Its readers included notables like Benjamin Franklin, among others and was well received and widely supported.
Although she wrote and published many further poems, after she received her freedom in 1774, Phillis’ life turned rather grave. When Mary Wheatley died only 3 months later, Phillis was left nearly alone. Mary’s children were each married and their father passed away, leaving Wheatley without a home. She survived the lean years after the Revolutionary War and against all of her relations wishes, married a ‘no count man,’ who plunged them both into poverty. In spite of harsh and trying circumstances Wheatley continued to write poetry until the end. She passed away at the age of 31 in December, 1784, but not before leaving a rich legacy of remarkable poems.
Here are two of my favorites:

A Hymn to the Evening

Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev’ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

‘Twas 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 colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, ChristiansNegros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Seven Books for the Seasons

Did you know that woodchucks (aka the groundhog) and Jesus’ birthday have something in common? On the church calendar, February 2nd is Candlemas, the last Feast Day in the Christian year dated in reference to Christmas. 

presbyterian calendar

This celebration of Candlemas marks the presentation of Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth (as Jewish custom required), and the purification ceremony of the Virgin Mary at the same time. (Luke 2:29-32). The word ‘Candlemas’ (or Candlemass) refers to the custom of blessing and distributing candles and carrying them in procession before the Mass celebrated in churches in many parts of the globe. The lighting of the candles is symbolic of Christ, the light of the world, as Simeon declared in the Luke passage above.

What does that have to do with a groundhog? An old, old rhyme translated from the Scottish tells us:

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter will not come again.

So, if the weather is ‘fair and bright’ on Candlemas day, you can expect more winter weather. If the day brings ‘cloud and rain’, then the weather in the weeks ahead should improve.  And there you have it: another only-in-America observance involving a groundhog predicting the weather with roots in the Christian calendar, anchored in the life of Christ.

But this post isn’t about Christmas or candles or woodchucks–it’s about reading around the Church Year, anchored not only in the life of Christ but our own lives throughout the seasons, months and days in God’s creation.

Here are seven books currently gracing my bookshelves which have accompanied me in my own cycles through the seasons according to Creation and the birth of Christ. These include poetry and essays by writers from the 1800’s–George MacDonald–through the 1950’s and into the present day, all as rich and varied as their authors.

THE CHURCH YEAR

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Candlemas  Malcolm Guite

They came, as called, according to the Law.

Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,

They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,

For God was coming with them to His temple.

Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle

They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,

Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,

Had made a killing on the two young doves.

They come at last with us to Candlemas

And keep the day the prophecies came true

We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,

The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.

For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,

Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.

Malcolm Guite is a poet and priest at Girton College, Cambridge in the U.K. These two vocations dovetail in Sounding the Seasons, making church feasts liturgy accessible to readers who may be less familiar with the church calendar. Guite’s sonnets begin with the season of Advent and read through to the Feast of Christ the King on November 11th. As an Evangelical still learning about the Christian way of marking time, I especially like the Index with Scripture references Guite uses, as well as the correlation to the liturgical calendar.

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The Next Best Yes {a #poem}

view of cda lake from room

C’oeur d’Alene Lake, ID jlc 2019

Now

Let 

And 

Yet

How can the power of my surrender

be wrapped up in three slight letters?

A mix of mercy in a single syllable?

And yet.

Placed just so, like fine crystal

refracting evening sun into shards 

of light, they precede each sentence,

illuming my way to the next best yes.

***

I’m grateful to Jesus, who is eternal and an all-at-once God, that we are bound by time.

That we are asked to step into our days one at a time, one yes at a time.

 

A Slow Walk into the New Year

P1200354It’s New Year’s Eve as I sit here in my Seattle dining room, typing with a view to the sky. Things are quiet; only the chimes noising their song outside my window as the gray and muted horizon frames the day. It’s time to be pensive and think deep thoughts, I suppose. Here are some of mine as we end not only this year, but an entire decade.

There are those who relish the action of turning the last page of December’s calendar with the promise of a new start each January. But the invisible leap from one year to the next sometimes is akin to falling over a precipice to an uncertain future. The page turning is dramatic and dreadfully sudden with the only certainty that God will be there to catch us.

I much prefer the slow walk into the New Year the Twelve Days of Christmas (from Christmas day until Epiphany on January 6th) provides. A meandering approach to ease into the days ahead with a look, not to something Brand New and Wonderful but to the slow revelation of who God is in the world.

Which is, of course, what Epiphany means. “A showing forth or manifestation.”

We’ve just celebrated Jesus’ birth–the revelation to His Jewish parents of the Messiah as a child. Epiphany is the event when we observe Christ’s appearance to the rest of mankind as the Magi (Gentiles) came from other parts of the world and left with the message that they had seen the Saviour.

Christ’s birth was a singular occasion–The Word, come to Earth as a babe. But walking out what that means as believers in Jesus–taking that message of salvation to the world much as the Wise Men must have done–is a lifelong journey.

What if instead of a freight-filled, auspicious turn from one year to the next, we evened out our steps a bit with a deliberate and intentional walk through all the days afforded us in Twelvetide?

Instead of making January 1st the beginning of each new year, why not make it simply a resting place along the way in a timetable anchored in the life of Christ, as we anchor our lives in His?

Perhaps I’ll begin observing the New Year on January 7th, walking into the world with the Gospel news that Messiah is here, come to bring health, healing and hope for all.

How about you? What are you going to take into the next season? I’d love to hear in the comments.

(This is an edited version of a recent social media post.)  Cheers!

When God Disrupts Your Christmas Plans on Purpose

Emmanuel. God with us. That’s the core of Christmas, that God the Son left his place in Heaven and came to us as a baby in a manger. What an unlikely beginning for a King. Talk about a disruption.

Our pastor spoke last Sunday of just what that Incarnation looked like, how God came into the world at Christmas. There was a visual he mentioned of Jesus putting his hand on peoples’ hearts to “stop the bleeding.” Not physical bleeding, but that dissipation and dissolution that leads to pain and hurt, often making us act like the broken people we are.

Sometimes just being kind during Christmas is all someone needs to transfuse them with life. I know it’s all I need. Which is why celebrating the birth of Jesus is an act of defiance, to choose to live like people who know that He came.

To notice others, speak kindly to them, acknowledge their worth as people made in God’s image. Wish them a “Merry Christmas” but also ask how they’re doing when they look harassed and harried. During this season most of all we are challenged to incarnate Jesus to the world in the face of all that would cause us to do otherwise.  To choose joy in spite of what we see around us.

“Incarnate” means to embody in the flesh. Sometimes (most times) the way we act is more important than what we say. We don’t have to even mention Jesus’ name, but simply act in order that a door might open someday for a conversation about Him.

Of course, there is an enemy of our souls who wants to steal our joy and hijack our message, so it makes sense that it might seem like all Hell breaks loose in the weeks before Christmas. I know, I probably shouldn’t say ‘hell’ in the same sentence where I’m talking about Christ’s birth and all. But I think when God’s kingdom is advancing in the small ways we seek to honor him, there is always pushback.

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What’s in a Name? Only Everything {an Advent Post}

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There can be no manner of doubt a name is more easily remembered when its meaning is understood.      –A.J. Macself, from the Foreword, “Plant Names Simplified”

I forgot to plant my amaryllis bulb the week of All Hallow’s Eve. I wrote about the practice in my Christmas season book, how planting a crinkly, brown bulb with antenna-like roots can be a lesson in patience and waiting during the Advent and Christmas season. But I was too busy to remember. Goodness.

So, I potted the inglorious bulb the other day after soaking the accompanying ground-up coconut shreds in warm water, watching them miraculously expand and nearly overtake my 32-ounce glass measuring cup. Amaryllis duly snugged into plastic container, I pondered something while I cleaned up the mess in my sink.

What does ‘amaryllis’ mean, anyway?

I’m fond of learning the Latin for plant names, shrubs and trees. As an amateur gardener, I pride myself on the pronunciation and meaning of the various denizens of my yard and garden. And some of the names are not Latin at all, but simply named for people or a place.

–Susan Magnolia

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-Japanese Stewartia

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-Shindishojo Maple

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-Lonicera (Honeysuckle)

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