Poem #2: An Hymn to the Evening by Phillis Wheatley

Estimated Reading Time: 3.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

Title: An Hymn to the Evening by Phillis Wheatley

Author: Phillis Wheatley Peters

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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.


That full stop at the start of line 3 is interesting.  There isn't another moment like it in the poem and seems to replicate the thunder of the line before.  We have a rhyming couplet and then this exclamation "Majestic grandeur!" And from there, Wheatley delves into the sights associated with this moment.  On its face, the poem does read as the title hints which is a spiritually infused recognition of the end of the day.  In particular, how the natural world acknowledges this transition and how, in turn, humankind acknowledges this as another blessing to be standing at the end of the day. With the start of the night comes the opportunity to sleep and awake the next day to recommit to God's mission after having rested in his protection.  That, in itself, is a warm thought.  

But there are two words that appear that I saw in On Being Brought from Africa to America: dies and sable. In both, they were used in relation to describing African slaves and so it makes me wonder if the repeated use of these terms hint at something else going on. I don't have a strong grasp here but there's something about the first paragraph that makes me wonder if that somehow represents the capture and transporting of Africans into the slave trade.  Something about the word choice (forsook, shook) feels like they carry more, and then when I look at these lines, there seems to be more at work.   Certain lines like "Through all of heav'ns what beauteous dies are spread/But the west glories in the deepest red" feel rich with deeper meanings. The term "beauteous dies" can mean not just colors but deaths and "the west glories in the deepest red" could hint that it is the West (the entity itself or the westward journey that slaves made) that produces the "deepest red"--or blood.  Within that, there's this sense that sleep is a means of escaping the "snares of sin" until "fair Aurora rise".  Now that means dawn, of course, but "fair" also seems to denote coloring in a poem with so many color-references and the capital denotes a person's name and inevitably a white person's name.  All of this is to say that like other poems by Wheatley, I think there is more going on than just a straightforward celebration of what the actual topic is. 

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciate and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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