The M(N)STRY: Phillis Wheatley and Fugitive Imagination


quote-imagination-who-can-sing-thy-force-or-who-describe-the-swiftness-of-thy-course-soaring-through-phillis-wheatley-311699

What happens when an enslaved person is given the tools to express her desire for freedom after being captured? When a young child taken from Senegal to Boston and renamed after the slave ship on which she was brought is then taught to read and write in not her own language and history, but in the language and history of Europeans? You get what the first black person to publish a book of poetry in America, Phillis Wheatley, wrote in “On Imagination.” Written a few years before she was granted her freedom, her poem, filled with allusions to Greek mythology and personifying Imagination as if it is a goddess of fertile creativity, is reminiscent of Fred Moten’s concept of the “fantasy in the hold.” This dream or possibility of movement while still in bondage, while still held back where you currently are. But also the tensions between exploration in a ship (whether on water or space) to other places and being shipped as a commodity. Is it the awe of coming to a new world, or is it violent abduction? Maybe both, like being raptured by a god common in Greco-Roman myths.

Wheatley’s poem portrays Imagination as a powerfully creative guiding spirit that breaks boundaries and hybridizes a particular experience of the world with the alien world it encounters to discover new meaning. Her use of Winter throughout the poem clearly shows her awareness of oppression of her mobility as an enslaved person and imagination is her muse for liberation. At a time (she wrote it in 1773) when Enlightenment principles taught that reason, often attributes to white, hetero-masculine power, governed over all other faculties of human expression, Wheatley celebrates the Imagination as a feminine, fertile power moving as part of a spacecraft traveling beyond limits placed on it. In the quote above and the rest of the same stanza (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.), she describes Imagination exploring beyond the sky to different stars and even different worlds in what she calls, “the mental optics.” Remember this is 1773 and she is an enslaved black woman and yet she is imagining traveling in a spaceship. If that isn’t Afrofuturistic and the mind of a Black speculative writer, I don’t know what is.

Imagination, like her, is a genius in bondage and struggles to be free. Imagination was what allowed Wheatley to see and be aware of the fullness of the cosmos and through which she could envision new spaces.

Below is the complete poem:

 

On Imagination

BY PHILLIS WHEATLEY

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 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.

Further Reading:

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