December 5, 2012

Death of Phillis Wheatley: cease my song

She was born free and given a name lost to history but was renamed Phillis Wheatley when she was brought to the New World and enslaved. Her poetry helped her earn her own freedom, and it was as a free woman that she died on December 5, 1784. She was approximately 31 years old. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Boston's Copps Hill Burial Ground.

Though the first published African poet in the New World known to history, she was impoverished in her final years. After being granted her freedom, she remained with the Wheatley family for several years (during this period, she knew important men like Benjamin Franklin and corresponded with George Washington). She married shortly before the United States declared their independence.

Wheatley's final year proved difficult. She turned to part-time duties as a domestic servant and a teacher. The family's financial situation was dire, nevertheless, and her husband John Peters was imprisoned for debt. She planned to publish another book of poems in the hope that she would receive financial support from sponsors (as had been the case with previous books).

Through her work, Wheatley shows herself as a deeply religious and optimistic woman who adores nature. Though she occasionally seems accepting of her fate, recent critics have found more subversive questions about freedom and humanity. She can be a difficult poet to read and understand, but among her shorter works is "Hymn to the Evening":

     Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main,
The pealing thunder shook the heavenly 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 heavens what beauteous dyes 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!

     Filled with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers soothe each weary mind,
At morn to wake, more heavenly, more refined;
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.

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