Guest Author - Jessica Smith
The poem "An Hymn to Humanity" by Phillis Wheatley is a very popular one, though perhaps a bit difficult to fully understand, mainly because its grammar and sentence structure are old-fashioned, and not the way we would normally speak in day to day conversation. In order to gain a clearer interpretation of this lovely poem, let's go through it verse by verse.
O! for this dark terrestrial ball
Forsakes his azure-paved hall
A prince of heav'nly birth!
Divine Humanity behold,
What wonders rise, what charms unfold
At his descent to earth!
The first three lines are one sentence, and this sentence is a bit turned around. The subject of the sentence is the "prince of heav'nly birth", which is normally at the beginning of a sentence, but in this case is not. The action verb in the sentence, what the prince does, is "forsakes his azure-paved hall". So if we turn it around we have "A prince of heavn'ly birth forsakes his azure-paved hall for this dark terrestrial ball." That sentence is a little easier. Now let's think about the meaning. "Terrestrial" means 'of earth', so we know that the "terrestrial ball" is most likely the planet Earth. We could then imagine that the "azure-paved hall" (azure is the color blue) is Heaven. So the prince, in this case Jesus, leaves Heaven to go down to Earth. The next three lines ask humanity, as a group, as a whole, to witness what great things occur when this happens.
The bosoms of the great and good
With wonder and delight he view'd,
And fix'd his empire there:
Him, close compressing to his breast,
The sire of gods and men address'd,
"My son, my heav'nly fair!
One of the most important things to understanding a poem is to realize who is the subject of the poem. Who is doing the actions, who is the voice speaking. In this case, "he" is Jesus. So he saw the "great and good" hearts of mankind and that is where he set up his "empire," which could be a metaphor for faith and belief. The next three lines took me a few read-throughs to get it. Now God speaks to his son Jesus. I can break it down for you: "Him (Jesus), close compressing to his breast (God is holding Jesus close to his heart), The sire of gods and men (God) address'd (spoke to Jesus), "My son, my heav'nly fair!" Again we are dealing with sentences where the grammar is out of order.
"Descend to earth, there place thy throne;
"To succour man's afflicted son
"Each human heart inspire:
"To act in bounties unconfin'd
"Enlarge the close contracted mind,
"And fill it with thy fire."
This verse is a little easier, and is the continuation of God's message to his son. To "succor" means to help, relieve, or take care of. So Jesus must go to earth in order to give assistance to mankind, who are suffering, and to enlarge their mind, their point of view, and fill them with inspirational fire.
Quick as the word, with swift career
He wings his course from star to star,
And leaves the bright abode.
The Virtue did his charms impart;
Their G--! then thy raptur'd heart
Perceiv'd the rushing God:
Some useful definitions for this verse: "career" in this case means "course" or "direction", or possibly "speed". "Wings" is used as a verb, meaning "he flies". "Abode" is "home" or "dwelling place". "Impart" is to give. So upon receiving his directions from God, Jesus swiftly leaves Heaven and gives virtuous gifts to humanity, which perceives him with wonder and rapture.
For when thy pitying eye did see
The languid muse in low degree,
Then, then at thy desire
Descended the celestial nine;
O'er me methought they deign'd to shine,
And deign'd to string my lyre.
Now the poem shifts slightly, away from the mass of humanity and onto the speaker herself. Jesus sees her, "the languid muse in low degree" (a poor poet, saddened) and feels pity. "The celestial nine" undoubtedly refers to the Nine Muses of the arts. The speaker of the poem has been telling the story all along, but not until this verse do we see her physical presence. She feels the presence of the muse over her as she writes (most likely "string my lyre" is a symbol for aiding her writing the poem, rather than helping her with actual music).
Verse Six (final verse):
Can Afric's muse forgetful prove?
Or can such friendship fail to move
A tender human heart?
Immortal Friendship laurel-crown'd
The smiling Graces all surround
With ev'ry heav'nly Art.
In this final verse, the speaker has begun to talk about herself. We use our knowledge here that Phillis Wheatley was a black slave in America, and we can understand that "Afric's muse" is meant to be her- the poet with the African background. She is asking rhetorical questions- questions that don't require an answer because the answer is obvious. She will not forget the diving presence she felt, and will not fail to be moved by the kindness and friendship she felt. "Immortal Friendship" wears laurels, the traditional Greek plant placed on the head of victors, of people who deserved praise. Now that she has felt the presence and received the gift from the divine, she feels herself surrounded by graces, by heavenly and artistic essences.
Looking back on the overall analysis, you'll find that the keys to analyzing it successfully are figuring out who the subject is, what the action is, and reading the lines over and over again until something clicks (reading aloud will often help).
View the Full Poem