Text of the Poem

Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,                  5
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and veil of night!

The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel bind her golden hair:                              10
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,                       15
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.                 20
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honours,—we demand                 25
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;                      30
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of the nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,                         35
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.                           40
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.

Footnotes

  1. The poem’s final image is unexpected. Despite the reverence the speaker holds for Washington, the image of the general bedecked with golden crown, mansion, and throne brings to mind the British monarchy. However, there is a sense that these items are no more than trophies. According to Wheatley’s account, Washington is motivated by virtue and the goddess Columbia rather than personal gain.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. In Greek and Roman philosophy, “virtue” refers to moral excellence, or any qualities guided by a strong sense of goodness. The four classical virtues are temperance, prudence, courage, and justice, many of which Wheatley illustrates in her descriptions of the American Revolution. This line is a prime example of Wheatley’s signature blending of classical thought and tradition with contemporary American politics. Wheatley held an intellectual interest in ethics and virtue throughout her life, and she published a poem titled “On Virtue” in 1773.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. The adjective “pensive” means “thoughtful” and carries connotations of melancholy or gloominess. The suggestion is that in the face of the surging American militants, Great Britain has retreated into a state of grief, pondering unproductively about what to do.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The verb “to droop” means “to hang or sink down, as from weariness.” The suggestion here is that Great Britain is waning in power, exhausted by the tireless American rebels.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Wheatley refers to Great Britain as “Britannia,” the Latin name the Romans gave to Britain when they annexed the island in 43 CE. Wheatley’s use of the name maintains the poem’s fabric of classical allusion. The reference also undermines Great Britain, America’s colonial superordinate, by recalling the historical period in which Britain was itself a colony under Roman control.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Wheatley’s speaker imagines the Revolutionary War as a spectacle put on for the world. The spectacle is conceptualized as the act of weighing the two warring sides on a set of scales. Literally speaking, while scales are a tool in economic dealings, they are also an ancient metaphor for justice. In classical mythology, the goddesses Justicia and Themis represented justice and were depicted holding a set of scales. The figure two lines later of Britannia “droop[ing] the pensive head” subtly conveys the weighty descent of one side of the scales.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The “Gallic powers” refers to France, specifically the French forces sent to the New World to colonize it. The moment “when Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found” Wheatley means is the French and Indian War, a series of conflicts between the French and British colonies in which several North American Indian tribes participated. The wars began in 1688, which explains the “one century [which] scarce perform’d its destined round”; Wheatley wrote the poem in 1776, nearly a century after the wars erupted and just 13 years after France officially lost and withdrew from the Americas.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Wheatley creates a subtle shift in address in these lines. At the poem’s start, it is not clear who the speaker addresses as an audience beyond the muses. Here, the speaker issues a rhetorical question: “Shall I to Washington their praise recite?” In the following line, the speaker turns to George Washington, addressing him with the familiar pronoun “thou.” The rest of the poem serves as both an ode to Washington and a blessing of him as he leads the American revolt.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. An “ensign” is an emblem or banner, often carried by a military unit to represent its loyalties. The image of the American troops unfurling the “ensign waves in air” conveys a sense of pride while bringing back the image of the literal waves from earlier in the stanza.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. The adjective “refluent” means “flowing back” or “flowing again.” In its literal usage, it applies to oceanic waves. In its metaphorical usage, it applies to human emotions. Wheatley draws on both usages here. The obvious image in this line is of “surges,” or waves, repeatedly striking the shore, making this is a poetic figure for the repeated efforts of the American militia.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Eolus, often written as “Aeolus,” is the ancient Greek god of the wind. Aeolus was characterized as a figure whose breath determined the course of the earth’s wind and weather, including “tempests and a night of storms.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The word “propitious” means “merciful,” “gracious,” and “favorably inclined,” specifically in the context of the divine. The phrase “Muse! bow propitious” is thus a repeated invocation to the muse, another call for inspiration.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The “olive and laurel” which bind Columbia’s hair are references to the ceremonial wreaths used in classical Greek and Roman culture. The olive wreath, the kotinos, was used to celebrate winners of the Olympic games in ancient Greece. The laurel wreath, sported by the god Apollo, was used in both Greece and Rome to denote victories in numerous spheres: poetry, athletics, and military conquests. In this line, Wheatley draws heavily on the traditions of the classical world while symbolizing the complete excellence that characterizes Columbia.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. Wheatley frames the American Revolution as something novel in world history, which is accurate in many ways. In a historical era defined by colonization, the American Revolution was unprecedented. To the European kingdoms, the notion that a colony could revolt and build itself into a rival power was new and unsettling.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The adjective “refulgent” means gleaming, shimmering. It comes from the Latin “fulgere,” which means “to shine.” Throughout the poem, Wheatley uses such latinate diction to strike an elegant, elevated tone.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. Wheatley constructs this line using an unusual syntax in order to draw a double meaning from the word “alarms.” The clause could logically be reassembled as “While freedom’s cause alarms her anxious breast.” In this case, “alarm” means to call to action, with “freedom’s cause” as the subject and “her anxious breast” as the object being roused. As it is written, however, “her anxious breast alarms” draws on another usage of “alarm,” which means to arm oneself. Thus, “her anxious breast” operates as both subject and object, arming itself. This second reading is not strictly accurate, but it is reinforced by the next line with its image of “refulgent arms.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. The word “Columbia” is Wheatley’s name for America. The term “Columbia” became popular in the 1730s as a place-name to encompass the thirteen colonies. The name’s origin derives from Christopher Columbus. Wheatley’s innovation was to personify Columbia as a goddess-like character, the powerful and fiercely defiant symbol of American nationalism. This poem became so influential that Wheatley’s character of Columbia entered the mythology of the United States and was used in the works of other writers and artists.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. The poem opens with an invocation to the muses, a call for inspiration from a “celestial choir.” This device was typical of the poets of the neoclassical movement in which Wheatley wrote. The neoclassical poets drew themes and ideas from Greek and Roman antiquity, including the opening invocation favored by the ancient poets, from Homer to Virgil. Wheatley was familiar with the classics and read in both Greek and Latin.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff