Friday, April 18, 2008

Janice N. Harrington on Poet Phyllis Wheatley

Janice N. Harrington's Poetry Month Pick, April 18, 2008, from Poetry Daily.

"On Imagination"
by Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784)

Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck'd with pomp by thee!
Thy wond'rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.

From Helicon's refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.

Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov'd object strikes her wand'ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th' empyreal palace of the thund'ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th'unbounded soul.

Though Winter frowns to Fancy's raptur'd eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o'er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow'ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown'd:
Show'rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.

Such is thy pow'r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:
In full perfection all thy works are wrought,
And thine the sceptre o'er the realms of thought,
Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,
Of subject-passions sov'reign ruler Thou;
At thy command joy rushes on the heart,
And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.

Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from the earth, and sweep th'expanse on high;
From Tithon's bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o'erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy's flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

* * * * *

Janice N. Harrington Comments:
When I first read Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” it felt like a wash of impossible ice water in a humid Midwestern summer. Its elegant formality stopped me. Yes, she wrote in the manner of her times: its classical rhythms and rhymes, its grand loftiness. But still—my mind trembles—she sang like that? Despite enslavement, despite loss, despite limits unfathomable to modern minds, she lifted her pen and mastered the meter of her day, made it ring with her voice, and believed that on pinions we can “surpass the wind.”

In seven stanzas of iambic pentameter, her poem meditates on the force of imagination, as in Dickinson’s “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”. But Wheatley’s poem does not have the spare tetrameters and clean lines of a protestant hymnal, it is self-consciously grand. The reader meets Greek gods and muses. She argues that imagination is monarch of mind, passion, and joy. Yet Wheatley’s consideration ends with these words: “Winter austere forbids me to aspire, / And northern tempests damp the rising fire; / They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea, / Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.” A poet’s ponderings ended by a chilly morning? The odd “unequal lay” at the end of the poem which clunks and fumbles after lines consistently shaped by true and off-rhyme—is this a poet’s humility or is it artful proof that she is more than up to the task? What of that winter—so carefully italicized—what is the cold, barren season that would stall a poet’s pen? Ah, she makes me sad at the end of the poem because she dares to betray her argument. I want to believe in the rising fire and that like imagination and with imagination it is never vanquished.

About Janice N. Harrington:
Janice N. Harrington is a poet and children’s writer. Her first book of poetry, Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone (2007), won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize from BOA Editions and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award for poetry. She is now Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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