‘To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works’ is a poem by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84) about an artist, Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African artist living in America. Wheatley was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties.
In order to understand the poem’s meaning, we need to summarise Wheatley’s argument, so let’s start with a summary, before we move on to an analysis of the poem’s meaning and effects.
‘To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works’: summary
In the title of this poem, ‘S. M.’ is Scipio Moorhead, the artist who drew the engraving of Wheatley featured on her volume of poetry in 1773. Wheatley praises Moorhead for painting ‘living characters’ who are living, ‘breathing figures’ on the canvas.
To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Wheatley begins her ode to Moorhead’s talents by praising his ability to depict what his heart (or ‘lab[ou]ring bosom’) wants to paint. He can depict his thoughts on the canvas in the form of living, breathing figures; as soon as Wheatley first saw his work, it delighted her soul to see such a new talent.
Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
And may the charms of each seraphic theme
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!
Wheatley exhorts Moorhead, who is still a young man, to focus his art on immortal and timeless subjects which deserve to be depicted in painting. This is a noble endeavour, and one which Wheatley links with her own art: namely, poetry. Perhaps Wheatley’s own poem may even work with Moorhead’s own innate talent, enabling him to achieve yet greater things with his painting.
The delightful attraction of good, angelic, and pious subjects should also help Moorhead on his path towards immortality. Note how the ‘deathless’ (i.e., eternal or immortal) nature of Moorhead’s subjects is here linked with the ‘immortal fame’ Wheatley believes Moorhead’s name will itself attract, in time, as his art becomes better-known.
High to the blissful wonders of the skies
Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.
Thrice happy, when exalted to survey
That splendid city, crown’d with endless day,
Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:
Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.
Wheatley urges Moorhead to turn to the heavens for his inspiration (and subject-matter). Looking upon the kingdom of heaven makes us excessively happy. The reference to ‘twice six gates’ and ‘Celestial Salem’ (i.e., Jerusalem) takes us to the Book of Revelation, and specifically Revelation 21:12: ‘And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel’ (King James Version).
Note how ‘endless spring’ (spring being a time when life is continuing to bloom rather than dying) continues the idea of ‘deathless glories’ and ‘immortal fame’ previously mentioned. Moorhead’s art, his subject-matter, and divine inspiration are all linked.
Calm and serene thy moments glide along,
And may the muse inspire each future song!
Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless’d,
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!
But when these shades of time are chas’d away,
And darkness ends in everlasting day,
On what seraphic pinions shall we move,
And view the landscapes in the realms above?
Note how Wheatley’s reference to ‘song’ conflates her own art (poetry) with Moorhead’s (painting). When death comes and gives way to the ‘everlasting day’ of the afterlife (in heaven), both Wheatley and Moorhead will be transported around heaven on the wings (‘pinions’) of angels (‘seraphic’).
There shall thy tongue in heav’nly murmurs flow,
And there my muse with heav’nly transport glow:
No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,
Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes,
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,
And purer language on th’ ethereal plain.
Cease, gentle muse! the solemn gloom of night
Now seals the fair creation from my sight.
In heaven, Wheatley’s poetic voice will make heavenly sounds, because she is so happy. Her tongue will sing of nobler themes than those found in classical (pagan, i.e., non-Christian) myth, such as in the story of Damon and Pythias and the myth of Aurora, the goddess of the dawn.
Instead, her poetry will be nobler and more heightened because she sings of higher things, and the language she uses will be ‘purer’ as a result. She calls upon her poetic muse to stop inspiring her, since she has now realised that she cannot yet attain such glorious heights – not until she dies and goes to heaven.
‘To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works’: analysis
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Wheatley’s poem is that only the first half of it is about Moorhead’s painting. Thereafter, ‘To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works’ gives way to a broader meditation on Wheatley’s own art (poetry rather than painting) and her religious beliefs.
This marks out Wheatley’s ode to Moorhead’s art as a Christian poem as well as a poem about art (in the broadest sense of that word). For Wheatley, the best art is inspired by divine subjects and heavenly influence, and even such respected subjects as Greek and Roman myth (those references to Damon and Aurora) cannot move poets to compose art as noble as Christian themes can.
This is worth noting because much of Wheatley’s poetry is influenced by the Augustan mode, which was prevalent in English (and early American) poetry of the time. Eighteenth-century verse, at least until the Romantics ushered in a culture shift in the 1790s, was dominated by classical themes and models: not just ancient Greek and Roman myth and literature, but also the emphasis on order, structure, and restraint which had been so prevalent in literature produced during the time of Augustus, the Roman emperor.
Indeed, in terms of its poem, Wheatley’s ‘To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works’ still follows these classical modes: it is written in heroic couplets, or rhyming couplets composed of iambic pentameter. This form was especially associated with the Augustan verse of the mid-eighteenth century and was prized for its focus on orderliness and decorum, control and restraint.