By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Hymn to the Evening’ is a poem written by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84) in praise of the evening. 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.
‘A Hymn to the Evening’ was one of the poems which appeared in that 1773 collection. Before we offer an analysis of the poem’s meaning and themes, it’s worth summarising the content of the poem.
‘A Hymn to the Evening’: summary
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.
No sooner had the sun crossed from the eastern horizon towards the west (where it will set), than thunder could be heard like the pealing of a bell, shaking the land. It is grand and powerful as Zephyr, the west wind, breathes his sweet springtime aroma through the air.
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!
The streams softly murmur as they run, and the birds begin singing again. The music of the different birds’ song can be heard. Across the skies there are beautiful colours, but there is something striking about the deep red colour which spreads itself across the western horizon, as the sun sets.
Wheatley then compares people to temples, places of religious worship, describing human beings as ‘living temples’ to God whose hearts should glow with good thoughts and deeds as brightly as the western horizon glows with the dying sunlight.
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;
As we praise God who provides the light from the sun and then withdraws it by bringing on night-time (Wheatley conjures the image of God drawing a pair of black curtains, as across a vast window, to block out the sunlight), we go to bed and should, the poet hopes, be filled with calm sleep so that we can wake feeling purer and closer to God.
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.
Then the work of the day can get underway and we can conduct ourselves in a more morally upright and godly manner, protecting ourselves from the temptation to commit sin. To reinforce the ‘majestic’ nature of the scene, Wheatley describes her eyes closing in sleep as being like someone using a heavy sceptre or official staff made of lead to seal her eyes closed. Now she can finish her poem in praise of the evening and sleep, until Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, heralds the coming of a new day.
‘A Hymn to the Evening’: analysis
Much of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry can be aligned with Augustan poetry: that is, eighteenth-century verse which looked back to the age of the great Roman emperor Augustus and consciously echoed its style and values. Such poetry is concerned with order and balance, not just in the world but in the poetry itself. It is also urbane, decorous, and ‘proper’: stately and formal, and often invoking figures from classical mythology. Wheatley does this, of course, at the close of ‘A Hymn to the Evening’, when she refers to Aurora, Roman goddess of the dawn.
This is why the heroic couplet – rhyming couplets written in iambic pentameter – was the preferred form for neoclassical or Augustan poets of the eighteenth century. The rhythms are decorous, stately, and grand: the form is known as the ‘heroic couplet’ because this was the verse form of choice when poets translated the classical epics – poems of heroic deeds such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid – into English.
And Wheatley’s ‘A Hymn to the Evening’ is true to this neoclassical model in both form and content. The metre is overwhelmingly regular: look how the second line, for instance, follows the alternating unstressed and stressed syllables typical of the iambic line (‘The PEAL-ing THUN-der SHOOK the HEAV’nly PLAIN’). And in her treatment of the subject matter, too, Wheatley is keen to emphasise the order and structure to the natural world, created and controlled as it is (so she implies) by God’s hand.
So we are part of the natural world, which is itself part of God’s natural order. Just as God controls the light, so we are controlled by it, going to sleep when the light disappears and waking when it returns. Just as spring comes round every year, so night follows day and each night will give way, in turn, to the dawn. Even the thunder is ‘majestic’ and a reminder of God’s power.
Wheatley was freed shortly after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, a volume which bore a preface signed by a number of influential American men, including John Hancock, famous signatory of the Declaration of Independence just three years later in 1776. Indeed, Wheatley even met George Washington, and wrote him a famous poem. Since Wheatley is estimated to have been born in around 1753, she wrote ‘A Hymn to the Evening’ when she was perhaps twenty years old, and possibly still a teenager. The poem shows her precocious ability to emulate neoclassical models in praise of the evening.