An Hymn to Phillis

I post this painting and verse (“An Hymn to the Morning”) in honor of poet Phillis Wheatley (circa 1753-1784). Her birth date, and in fact her birth year, are unknown, but today is the anniversary of the day that she was emancipated from slavery. So we might think of that as a kind of birthday.

I chose this image to accompany her poem partly because of its depiction of dawn, but also because it was, unhappily, across the sea that Wheatley came to these shores, kidnapped in West Africa by slavers and sold in Boston. Her age was estimated at around seven or eight, because she had “already lost her front teeth,” a fact that clutches at the heart of any parent reading this unembellished observation. Or of anyone who knows a child… or remembers being a child. No tooth fairy for her, though. Her birth name went unrecorded, and her new owners blithely and undoubtedly without irony gave her the name Phillis, the name of the slave ship that had brought her to Boston, adding their own surname.

Phillis was a thin, sickly child (unsurprising, after such a voyage), and although she was nursed and raised more as a child of the house than a slave, she remained delicate all her short life. Her owners soon recognized that Phillis was bright and precocious and put her education into the hands of their grown daughter Mary. Within sixteen months Phillis was fluent in English and could read even difficult passages in the Bible. Her education included Classical and English literature, geography, history, and Latin, as well as the ubiquitous Bible, and volumes of poetry—an unusual education for a woman of the day, let alone an African slave. (Mary had probably been given the same education.)

At around age twelve, Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and her first published work appeared in a Newport newspaper when she was fourteen. She felt a powerful drive to create poetry, and her owners encouraged her and assisted in its publication in journals in the colonies and in England. Much of the subject matter was quite somber, consisting of tributes to noteworthy personages of the day and elegies composed upon the death of someone’s spouse or child. They are complex in their use of language, employing ambiguity and subtle understatement, and allusions to Greek and Roman history and mythology as well as to the Bible. Wheatley was obviously assuming similar education on the part of her audience, and it’s pretty rough sledding for the 21st century reader. I liked this particular poem because of the rare note of humor in the closing lines, and was glad to imagine her having a small chuckle.

It wasn’t long before Wheatley’s poetry brought her attention. Her owners, unable to find a colonial backer to publish a book of her work, found a publisher in London, who agreed to the project if the work could be prefaced by a statement signed by respectable Bostonians testifying to its authenticity! Phillis was questioned by Boston’s judges, and the required document was procured (one of its 18 signers was John Hancock).

So off she went to England, accompanied by her owners’ grown son, where she spent several months overseeing the publication of her book and meeting both members of the nobility and free Britons of African descent. She was a celebrity. In England there was public criticism of Phillis’ American enslavement, which embarrassed her owners. It probably would have been possible for her to refuse to return to America, and to stay where she would have been free; nevertheless, on hearing of her mistress’ illness, she boarded ship for home, missing an upcoming opportunity to be presented at court. And shortly after her return, her owner signed her emancipation papers.

She was free. What did that mean? Well, that her books belonged to her, and thus she attempted to sell them to help support herself. She authored a tribute to George Washington, who invited her to come call on him, as he wished to meet “the little black poetess.” Phillis had hopes for the Revolution—that the new country, once freed from Britain’s yoke, would turn around and free its own yoked people. Her poetry, which had been ambiguous in its references to slavery, grew more clearly critical. Although she continued to write, while struggling to earn a living as a cleaning woman, she died young, ill and destitute.

Happy Emancipation Day, Phillis. With your gifts and your drive to create, what would you have become in another era? Undoubtedly a published author of many works, interviewed by journalists, embarking on author tours, launching podcasts.

Attend my lays, ye ever honour’d nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest numbers pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.
Aurora hail, and all the thousand dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume.
Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While thy fair sisters fan the pleasing fire:
The bow’rs, the gales, the variegated skies
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.
See in the east th’ illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away–
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th’ abortive song.

Phillis Wheatley

Sea-washed gates

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

—Emma Lazarus

In celebration of the birthday of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) today, I post what is probably her most famous poem, written to help raise funds for the installation of the Statue of Liberty, and which now graces that monument. I had hoped to write a bio as part of the post, but today’s schedule does not allow it, so the bio will have to wait. Please check back in 2011. In the meantime I pair the poem with this watercolor of a tempest-tost morning.

Stormy

Sea Fever

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

—John Masefield

Sea

My mother shared with my husband a deep love of sailing ships and the sea, as well as sea-related poetry and books. They discovered together and passed back and forth the entire Patrick O’Brien series, set aboard ship during the Napoleonic Wars. (My mother was convinced she had been a cabin boy in some past life and had drowned off the White Horse Reef.)

At her memorial service, my dear husband, never one to stand up and speak before a crowd, decided to read aloud in my mother’s honor this poignant and evocative poem they both love, written by John Masefield (1878-1967), whose birthday it is today. For me now my mother and my husband are forever within its lines.

CakeShellsJan


Maryland, My Maryland

Pictures by my daughter from the Local History and Geography homeschooling block.

On this day in 1788, Maryland became the 7th state to ratify the Constitution. Perhaps you live in Maryland and never knew how this came about. Or perhaps Maryland is terra incognita because you live far away, in Nepal, or Virginia. In any case, I am going to tell you.

Campsite

For thousands of years human beings on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay fished, farmed, and fought one another without foreign interference. However, the seagoing vessels across the Atlantic Ocean grew ever-larger, and when Italian Giovanni Caboto, in the pay of Henry VII of England, wandered into codfish-rich Newfoundland/Maine waters in 1497, that was enough for England to claim the promising land. (They also insisted on referring to Caboto as “John Cabot” to help make their case.)

One hundred and ten years later Captain John Smith, although mainly concerned with the floundering colony in Virginia, ventured up the Chesapeake Bay, pronounced it goodly and pleasant, and produced a map that received much attention. So when George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, tired of the anti-Catholic feeling in Protestant England (Catholics were considered untrustworthy and could not hold office, vote, or worship openly), he asked his friend King Charles I to give him a piece of this New World land.

Calvert had tried Newfoundland first, but his settlers died of harsh weather and disease. His request was granted, but the Virginians were unhappy about the potential nearness of Papists. Well, suggested Charles, how about just a northern sliver of Virginia, about 10,000 square miles around the Chesapeake Bay—nobody there except non-Christian native dwellers! Calvert accepted this parcel, to tax and govern as he saw fit, in exchange for two Indian arrowheads a year, an enviably low rent.

Shortly afterward George Calvert died, so his younger son Leonard set sail in the Ark and the Dove and a party that included settlers and adventurers, several gentlemen, a handful of women, a number of indentured servants, and three priests. The group was a mixture of Catholics and Protestants, as it was Calvert’s intention to set up a religious-tolerant community. When they arrived at the mouth of the Potomac in March 1634, they were kindly greeted by the surprised yet helpful Yaocomico inhabitants, who, tiring of attacks by their Susquehannah neighbors, were fortuitously planning a move west. They granted the newcomers their land, along with houses, fields, and useful botanical, zoological, and culinary tips. The settlers renamed the territory Terra Maria, in honor of Queen Henrietta Maria (daughter of King Henri IV of France). Terra Maria: Mary-Land.

Ark&Dove

The Maryland settlers were better prepared than their hapless predecessors in Jamestown, those aristocratic younger sons who arrived in their best clothes ready to pick up the gold and jewels lying scattered on the shores of America. No, these folks brought tools and seeds and useful skills like carpentry, and had been recruited by Calvert on condition of willingness to work hard. The village, now called Saint Mary’s City, Maryland’s capital, was quickly fortified and the surrounding lands divided and allotted according to size of the household living on it: for heads of household, wives, and indentured servants, 100 acres each; for children 50 acres each. You can imagine that this arrangement encouraged emigration of large groups. “And here is my cousin Robert… and his son John…and their three manservants…” Voilá—450 more acres!

Although the Calverts were Proprietors—they actually “owned” Maryland and could govern it as they saw fit—the settlers announced that they intended to make their own laws. Calvert objected, and an uneasy compromise was worked out, but this insistence on self-rule was, as we know, a harbinger of things to come. Calvert did convince them to pass his Act of Toleration in 1649, which guaranteed religious freedom to Christians, although the arrangement was: if you deny the divinity of Jesus Christ you will be executed. Such means of ensuring uniform worship have not entirely fallen out of favor in 2010. The Act lasted until the Puritans chopped off Charles I’s head for tyrannical cluelessness (no longer a capital offense in Great Britain). In 1692 England and its colonies were declared officially Protestant. The new leaders burned down the Catholic churches in Maryland and moved its capital to Puritan-founded Providence—renamed Annapolis for Protestant Queen Anne.

To be continued April 29th: Part II.

CakeBerries2Edith


Morning Has Broken

Today is the birthday of Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), born in London, England, into a rather bohemian musical, literary, theatrical family. The lucky girl. She was delicate, and so was homeschooled among shelves crammed full of books—fairy and folk tales, history and mythology. She began writing quite young and was encouraged (of course); in her teens she collaborated with her brothers on their theatre productions; by age 19 she sold her first fairy tale.

Farjeon went on to write a range of literature for children: stories, history verses, plays, and lots of poems, among them the one above written in 1931 to accompany an old Gaelic melody and later popularized by folk singer Cat Stevens and other musicians. Her work abounds in wit, unexpected turns of phrase and plot, magic, humor, and nonsense. She is probably best known for her collection The Little Bookroom and the Martin Pippin stories, but if you have a little girl who loves to jump rope and she has NOT read Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep, you must drop everything and run straight to the library together to check it out. (If it has not yet been pulled from the library shelf and sold on Amazon. See Each Day post 2/11/10.)

Japanese animation lovers, take note. The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon, an Eleanor Farjeon story originally published in 1955, is presently being adapted for a Japanese/Korean animation feature, scheduled for release in spring 2011. Now wouldn’t that surprise Eleanor.

CakeChocCurlsSara