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Featured Poem: A Hymn to the Evening by Phillis Wheatley

Written by Rachael Norris, 21st October 2019

As part of our series for Black History Month in October, this week's Featured Poem is Thoughts on A Hymn to the Evening by Phillis Wheatley, chosen by The Reader's Head of Learning and Quality, Clare Ellis.

Night’s leaden spectre seals my drowsy eyes
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.

First thoughts? Well, I’ve always loved the feel of the word aurora. I first came across it as a name - when I met Aurora Leigh in Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I have since heard people use the word in relation to the phenomenon of the Northern Lights. And I was delighted to encounter it again here in this soothing poem, lifting my eyes up in the secure expectation of another kind of light - going to sleep with the reassurance of the coming dawn.

I am a lark rather than a night owl, and sometimes I worry that I am wasting precious evening time going to sleep at 9pm - even though I’m up every morning at 6am. This poem relieves some of that guilt and reminds me of the rejuvenating powers of sleep.

Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d.

I absolutely love the idea of waking up ‘more heav’nly’ and wonder what the ‘more’ adds as well as what waking up heavenly might be like? It reminds me of being akin to early morning dew and light. Our daily rebirth. But that still doesn’t explain the ‘more’ to me?

I also wonder if the poem would help people who may find it difficult to sleep? Would it offer a calming balm if we recited this in our minds whilst resting our heads on the pillow instead of enduring that cultural phenomena of counting sheep?

I imagine letting yourself hear how the bird’s ‘mingled music floats’ or inhale what the evening air here seems to magically exhale - ‘the incense of the blooming spring’. This reminds me of something I learnt from Gardener’s World the other week - how there are some flowers that only emit their scent of an evening.

I’d love to know if this poem does help us sleep? Please do feedback if you find it useful. And in the meantime, wishing you many placid slumbers that might strengthen you for those returning labours of the day.

A Hymn to the Evening

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.
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!
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;
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.

by Phillis Wheatley

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