‘Nothing of Floods’: A Poem

I felt compelled to share a poem with you today.

I recently received the sad news that my grandmother in Texas – who I was very close with – died of Covid, so I wanted to post a poem that I wrote several years ago about her.

Like many poems, it’s a blend of fiction and fact. In many ways it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves to understand the world and each other. My grandma and I didn’t see the world in exactly the same way. She was very religious, a Southern Baptist, specifically, and this brought her a lot of peace and comfort. I’m not religious at all. As I grew up, there were times when this caused some friction and I was really forced to reckon with how I could love and respect someone so much, who saw the world so differently? Who I disagreed with in so many fundamental ways? Of course, I don’t have any ‘answers’ to those questions. But I suppose poems are more about asking questions than they are about offering answers.

I wrote this poem in early 2018. It was commended in the British Army’s Poetry competition on the theme of ‘Armistice’ (to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the armistice which ended WWI) and first published in their prizewinners anthology, Writing Armistice. I really liked responding to this theme. For me, it was interesting that an ‘armistice’ doesn’t mean necessarily the end of a war, but instead it’s a formal agreement to stop fighting and to work towards peace.

I loved my grandmother. And love isn’t always smooth or simple, as you know. Sometimes divides cannot be crossed. But sometimes, they can be. I am thinking of her today, and I’m thinking of all of you, hopeful that you haven’t lost someone during this time. But if you have, I’m so very sorry and you’re not alone. I’m doubly sorry if you’re apart from your family and friends as well, which makes these things extra hard to endure.

I’ll be back next week with more historical and literary explorations for you. (I’m excited about this upcoming ‘Madeira Mondays’ in particular, which is about a great historical novel that explores disease in early America). Until then, thank you so much for reading, it means a lot, and I hope you like the poem.

*

Nothing of Floods

Grandma, when I pinched the skin
on the back of your hand
it made mountains, slow to sink
back to land.

We watched movies with kids singing
Jonah and the Whale –
I imagined bone rafters,
swamps of grey stomach sludge,

and Noah’s Ark –
horse eyes through wooden slats,
sea spray in a man’s beard
like dew on grass.

I said, ‘I prefer Tolkien
or Grimm’s’ –
dwarves in damp caverns,
talking trees,
Elf writings on rock.

You screamed, ‘This is not a fairy tale.’

But not as much as you screamed
when I asked why God
was not a woman?

You said
I would go to hell.

I called you naïve,
for believing those things,

as rain clattered down
on your tin trailer roof.

We didn’t speak for a while.

When we talked again
it was about jewelry,
traffic, butter in mash potatoes.
Nothing of floods, sons of God,
vengeful Pharaohs.

Sometimes I dream of a manger –
crisp straw poking holes
in our cotton dresses,
heavy barnyard smell
draped over our shoulders,
slick newborn with fat cheeks
sobbing.

Outside, the moon tugs at water.
I pull up loose skin on the back
of your hand. You kiss my forehead
as stars whir with delight
because they are memories
flung through time,

whether or not
you believe it’s magic.

 

Madeira Mondays: 2020 Recap

I’ve had several discussions with friends recently about time and our perception of it during this very strange year.

It feels, to me, that January 2020 was about a thousand years ago – so much has happened since (a global pandemic, a turbulent US Presidential race, an altered state of life for everyone)! But it also feels that January 2020 was only a minute or two ago, considering that also so little has happened since (vacations canceled, jobs lost, a string of blurring and indistinct days as we’re all stuck inside).

Whether you feel like time has passed slowly or quickly for you – or if (like me!) you feel that it has passed quickly AND slowly – I’d encourage you to look backwards and think on anything you’re proud of this year. Even if what you’re proud of is quite simply just making it through this year!

For me, one of those things I’m proudest of is all of these Madeira Mondays posts. It’s brought me joy to write them, and the consistency of it has kept me sane during the ups and downs of the creative freelancer’s life. Some weeks are full of exciting creative work – writing, editing, researching, teaching, performing – while some weeks are full of the not-so-nice side of this work – constant rejections, negotiating contracts (thankfully with the help of my union!), tedious funding applications, and oh, did I mention the constant rejections?

Through all the highs and lows of this year, including launching a new poetry book, Madeira Mondays has been there for me. And I’ve heard from several of you that it’s been there for you too! A couple of you have reached out and said that it’s something you look forward to starting your week with, and that makes me so happy to hear – especially this year, when we quite desperately need things to look forward to!

I’ve done some reflecting on the year that has passed and pulled out just a handful of my personal favorite Madeira Mondays posts from 2020. We’ve covered so many topics, from 18th century underwear, to swear words, to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. I’ve reviewed tons of historical books, films and TV shows, as well as visited historic sites in Scotland and the US. We’ve covered so much ground this year despite, well, literally not covering that much ground!

*

The Best of ‘Madeira Mondays’ (2020)

Most unexpectedly delicious recipe…

That would be absolutely be switchel! This ’18th century energy drink’ with lemon and ginger was delicious, and I’ve made it several times since. If you want to learn the recipe and how I made it, check out the post from June.

A very tasty glass of Switchel!

Best film I’ve watched set in the 18th century…

I’ve watched quite a few historical films this year, but my personal favorite (and this is quite subjective) was: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s a queer love story set in 18th century France, and while it wasn’t perfect, I thought it was pretty darn good. Lots of broody, moody, melancholy shots of girls standings on cliffs staring out into the horizon. Yup, I loved it.

My ‘most read’ post…

This one wasn’t actually decided by me but by you and all the people who read Madeira Mondays, but by far and away one of my posts has been the most viewed this year: my analysis, from July, of Tracy K. Smith’s poem ‘Declaration’, which is an erasure poem based on the Declaration of Independence. The post talks about slavery and its ‘erasure’ from the declaration, as well as the power of poetry to explore historical silences and this has by far been the most viewed post of 2020.

Something that is especially meaningful about this is the fact that I can see that several people who read the post actually clicked the link to read the Declaration itself, from the US national archives. This brings me joy because if you’re an American, this document belongs to you, in a sense. I’m thrilled that my post is encouraging further engagement with it!

My favorite site visit…

I love visiting historical sites (if you work at or run one in the UK and would like to chat about the possibility of me visiting, please do get in touch!), but of course this year didn’t allow for many! I think my favorite site visit though was from this summer, when I went to the Highland Folk Museum, and saw a recreated rural 18th century village. I was glad to be able to provide a sort of virtual ‘tour’ of it, for you.

One of the turf houses we explored on our visit to the Highland Folk Museum!

My favorite historical fiction novel I read this year…

This is, again, purely down to personal tastes. I don’t know if this book is objectively the STRONGEST (in terms of style, structure, etc.) but it’s certainly the one that has stuck with me most and that’s: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. This was written back in the 1950’s and while it has its limitations, it’s suspenseful, punchy, and totally sucked me in. I really enjoyed this sweeping drama about a plucky young seamstress in Revolutionary War South Carolina. It’s got some good characters and thinking of the last line still gives me chills (I’ve actually got chills as I’m writing this now!).

Best non-fiction history book I read this year…

I’d say that’s: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. This popular book (which I believe came out in 2019 or 2018) follows the lives of the five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. It’s an excellent portrait not just of them, but also of the society in which they lived. I think the historical research also seemed pretty sound (I’m not a historian, but I’ve worked with historians and read many books by both historians and journalists about history, and this was just my impression!).

Most fun post to write…

That would probably be my post talking about how I researched/wrote one of the poems from my second poetry pamphlet, which was released in July: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. These posts looked at how I researched the Salem Witch Trials, and what influence had had on my poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’. Since I wrote this poem a while ago, it was fun to reflect back on how it was built. Much of my PhD focused on how creative writers access the early American past (through primary sources, like letters and diaries, but also secondary sources, other media etc) and so it was great to reflect on that poem and its beginnings. Hopefully that post is inspiring for fellow historical fiction writers, especially.

*

And that’s it, folks! My favorite posts from 2020.

What have been your favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ from this year? 

What are you proud of having accomplished this year, even if (especially if!) it’s something ‘small’ (i.e. keeping a plant alive, talking regular walks, learning a new skill etc.)?

This was taken in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, during my trip to visit my step-sister there in October 2019

Also, I wanted to let you know that this will be the last Madeira Mondays for 2020. But I’ll only be away for two weeks, and then back on Monday January 4th, with a whole new batch of these posts for 2021!

If you’ve enjoyed this series, please do recommend this blog to a friend, or share with them any of the posts you’ve enjoyed! That really means a lot to me, as our little community of curious minds grows. And if you want to further support me and my work, a great way to do that is to order one of my books! There is more information about all of them on my publications page, and you can order my latest, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, on the publisher’s website here.

Most of all, I want to thank you all SO MUCH for reading. Many of you have blogs yourselves and thank you for writing those, as they’ve provided so much solace and entertainment for me during this really difficult time.

Have a wonderful holiday season, and see you all in 2021 my friends!

PS Today’s Featured Image is: ‘A British man of war before the Rock of Gibraltar’, By Thomas Whitcombe. (This ship represents us sailing off, towards 2021 and new adventures together in the new year!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

A Year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

Exactly one year ago, I sat down to write my first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. My initial idea for this series was that it would look at early American history and historical fiction. I have always been passionate about early American history, from a surprisingly young age. See (rather grainy) photographic evidence below of me in high school alongside some of my history teachers. We dressed up in 18th century garb when a Declaration of Independence broadside came to the school. Our job was to educate the public about the document and, oh boy, was I thrilled to do it!

When I began ‘Madeira Mondays’, I had just finished up my PhD, a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and my research there had focused on how creative writers access and represent the American Revolution specifically. Part of my doctorate had also involved writing a full-length historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution. So my life, for three years, had effectively been all 18th century, all the time. And I really wanted to communicate some of that knowledge (and enthusiasm!) to the wider community somehow, and to make friends online who were similarly interested in history, books, and generally learning and chatting about the past. (My friends and family in life are brilliant as well, don’t get me wrong! And many of them do follow the blog – hello!).

I named the series ‘Madeira Mondays’ after the fortified Portuguese wine that was popular in 18th century America (there’s a great article here from a historian about the history of Madeira). Wine is something drunk socially at gatherings and I wanted this blog to be a gathering, of sorts, and a place to share.

‘Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam’ by John Greenwood, c. 1752-58. Located at the St Louis Art Museum. Looks like those guys are enjoying a LOT of Madeira!

Gradually the series widened out, so now I focus not just on early American history, but 18th century history more generally. I do live in Scotland after all, and there’s so much brilliant history here from that time period!

Today marks the official one year anniversary of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which means I’ve written over fifty posts about everything from 18th century swear words to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. There have been tons of historical film and book reviews, as well as a look at the links between 18th century fashion and RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve talked about my experience as a reenactor, and my writing process for writing some of the historical poems in my new poetry pamphlet. I’ve cooked recipes, attended conferences and visited historic sites here in Scotland and further afield. I’m proud of myself for sticking with it and can’t quite believe it’s been a year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

I think the most fulfilling thing though has been connecting with people online – you! Many of you who follow this blog and enjoy ‘Madeira Mondays’ have blogs of your own, which I’ve loved reading and discovering. Your thoughtful and enthusiastic comments and suggestions here have been a real joy for me, encouraging me to keep this series going and also, quite honestly, making me feel more globally connected during this time of isolation. Writing is always a solitary endeavor, so this blog has been a way for me to balance that, to share and look outwards.

Also – and fellow creative writers I’m sure can relate to this – there is something very satisfying about writing a blog post, when you’re in the midst of working on a long-form creative project like a novel. A blog post is short and sweet and FINISHED within an hour or two. Whereas a novel can take months or, more likely, years.

What I’m trying to say is: thank you for reading this series! I hope that it has been engaging and that you’ve taken something from it. To celebrate ‘A Year of Madeira Mondays’, I’ve picked out five of my favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from the last year. I’ve picked a couple from the start of the project, since quite a few of you are more newly subscribed, in case you wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘back catalogue’. (They’re also a good place to start if you’re totally new to ‘Madeira Mondays’ and want a sample of what I cover on the blog).

My favorite posts from October 2019-October 2020

  1. The John Adams Miniseries (TV Show Review)

This was one of the first posts I wrote and I think it’s one of the best. It analyzes the HBO series John Adams, about the life of America’s 2nd President. Part of my PhD looked at representations of John Adams specifically in popular culture, and this post was in conjunction with a talk I gave at the Trinity College Dublin as part of their History Conference 2019.

Me dressed up as John Adams to deliver my paper at Trinity College Dublin. The conference was free, fun and open to the public and the organizers said ‘costumes are encouraged.’ As you know from the start of this post, I need no encouragement.

2. The Witch (Movie Review)

This post looks at one of my favorite movies set in early America – The Witch by Robert Eggers! A spooky and cleverly made film set in Puritan New England. It’s about an evil witch who lives in the woods…or is it?

3. A Forgotten 18th Century Drink (‘Flip’)

This is one of my favorite posts because my attempt to make this 18th century drink went so horribly wrong. It was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever (tried) to drink and this hilarious failure sticks in my mind.

4. The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

I’m really proud of this post which showcases the life and writing of one of America’s first poets: Phillis Wheatley. She was internationally famous in her day for her poetry, respected and admired for her work, which is remarkable considering that she was not only a young woman but also a former slave. Her life is interesting but also tragic. Have a read!

This is an original copy of one of Wheatley’s books, which I saw at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in October 2019.

5. The Patriot (Film Review)

This post looks at one of the most famous movies depicting the American Revolution, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this movie (it’s so ridiculous, but I’m fond of it because I enjoyed it so much as a kid). This post is a two-parter and is, effectively, a rant. ‘Historical accuracy’ is a complex topic, and, as a writer myself, I’m not usually one to care too much about small creative changes made in order to tell a better story. But if you really want to see me come down on a film for its egregious and nonsensical alterations to American history – this is the post for you!

*

And that’s it! Five posts from my first year. I hope you enjoy them!

Which ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts have been your favorite ones, so far?

Thank you so much, as always, for joining me on this blogging journey. I publish a new ‘Madeira Mondays’ post every Monday, and if you’d like to subscribe and follow along, please do! I’ll see you next Monday.

Madeira Mondays: Emily Dickinson…teen rebel?

A couple of months back, I wrote a blog post on Emily Dickinson‘s poem about waiting. In that post, I mentioned how Dickinson was one of my favorite poets, especially as I was growing up, and how I have many of her poems memorized. Around that time I also mentioned that I was thinking about watching the new Apple TV series Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld, inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson and a couple of you said you’d be curious to know what I thought of that series. Well – I’ve now seen Episode One of Dickinson entitled ‘Because I Could Not Stop’ and wow – there’s a lot going on in this show.

In Episode One alone, we meet ‘Emily Dickinson’, reimagined as a rebellious and slightly emo teenager who says things like ‘I’m just chilling’ and ‘Hey bro!’ She’s got big literary ambitions and a conservative family (including a mother played by 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Jane Krakowski). We get a sexy steam-punk personification of ‘Death’ in a top hat. We get modern pop music. We get a secret lesbian romance. We get, in short, a lot of stuff. (Who knew so much was going on in rural 19th century Massachusetts?)

Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Dickinson isn’t interested in historical accuracy. They make that abundantly clear from the first scene when Emily is asked to get water from a well. She complains that her brother doesn’t have to fetch water. When her sister responds that her brother doesn’t have to do chores because he is a boy, Dickinson says, ‘This is bullshit.’ Now, we can’t know how the real Emily Dickinson spoke, sure, but she was a pious woman living in rural New England at the time of the American Civil War, so…I think we can safely say that she didn’t talk like this. And that’s the whole point of the opening scene – the show is letting you know immediately that they’re going for this sort of irreverent mish-mash of historical characters in period clothes mixed with deliberately anachronistic, modern dialogue and, in many cases, modern attitudes too.

A daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson at age 16 displayed at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images), accessed via The Poetry Foundation Website

I’m actually not sure what to compare this to – in terms of style. The fun and irreverent mix of modern and historical makes me think of Hamilton, but that seems almost unfair to Hamilton, given that Hamilton harnesses modern music in its historical retelling for a strong thematic purpose. By telling a historical story in the contemporary musical language of rap (and by starring a multiracial cast), it’s saying that these stories belong to contemporary, multicultural America. It’s also drawing a parallel between the struggles of an 18th century man, Alexander Hamilton, and the struggles of modern immigrants. It’s also just an innovative musical choice and, when you’re watching it, the music feels fresh and even revolutionary, which conveys the fresh and revolutionary ideals of the man it’s about (notice that King George III doesn’t rap, but the revolutionaries do!).

Maybe Dickinson is doing something similar. Are they trying to show that Dickinson is ahead of her time, by having her speak in a way that is…ahead of her time? Notice that her mother and father don’t talk as casually or in as modern a way as Emily does. They speak in a more ‘period’ fashion. But I think the whole acting-like-a-modern-teenager thing is more for comedy than anything else (at least from Episode One). The tone is actually a lot more similar to something like Drunk History (which Jane Krakowski has actually been a part of) than Hamilton.

I’m really not sure yet if I liked Dickinson. I thought that it would be more like Reign, a teen drama ‘based’ on the life of Mary Queen of Scots which was popular a couple of years ago. I liked Reign because it was basically a soap opera. Crazy stuff (betrayals, affairs, secret plots) were in basically every episode and it didn’t take itself very seriously. I am worried that Dickinson might be taking itself too seriously, or working its way there. I think I’d like it more if it stayed in the more lightly comic tone – I actually laughed out loud once or twice when I was watching it!

I think too that some of the dialogue in Episode One was really heavy-handed, but that might just be because it was the first episode. There’s a lot of exposition and lines like ‘I don’t want to get married! You know that!’ and ‘You’re afraid, Emily? You’re not afraid of anything!’

I am curious to see where it goes though. I’d be fine if they heightened the fun (more steam-punk Death in a carriage!) and played down the family drama stuff, but I’m worried it might go the opposite way. But we’ll see.  I’ve seen/read a few other representations of Dickinson’s life, both quite serious – The Belle of Amherst (a play) and A Quiet Passion (a film from 2016) – but I’ve not seen anything quite like this before.

Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) and ‘Death’ (Wiz Khalifa) in Dickinson

I might watch Wild Nights with Emily (2018)which was a purely comedic film, about her supposed romantic relationship with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, to compare it with this series (since I think that interesting aspect of Emily’s life will play a big part in this too).

Let me know what you think of Dickinson! I would be so, so curious, if you’ve seen this series, what you think of it? Should I keep watching? Does it improve from this or go downhill? And if you’ve not seen it, what do you think of the sounds of it? (Also excuse that Dickinson falls slightly outside of our ‘Madeira Mondays’ 18th century remit, since it is technically about the early 19th century! But I figured you wouldn’t mind!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

PS And speaking of poets and poetry, I also wanted to let you know that I’m doing a poetry performance online this week with the brilliant ‘spoken word cabaret’ Sonnet Youth.  I’ll be reading poems from my new pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, alongside three other excellent Scotland-based poets. It’s a free to watch video stream, with the option to donate to charity if you’d like. It’s on Thursday, 17 September 2020 from 20:00-21:30 and the event link is here

 

 

Madeira Mondays: An analysis of Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Declaration’

To mark the 4th of July, I’ll be spending the next couple of ‘Madeira Mondays’ looking at various artistic responses to the Declaration of Independence. Some incredibly powerful and serious artworks, some quite lighthearted and silly.

For international readers, the 4th of July is an annual American holiday celebrated to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was a document signed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, in which the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. “(T)hese United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States,” the document reads. It also explains why they are declaring their independence, listing out the colonists’ grievances with King George III (they list his ‘abuses and usurpations’ in a basically bullet point list format: ‘He has done THIS wrong and also THIS and, oh wait, THIS too!’). This document was mailed to the King who was, understandably, not happy about it and the Revolutionary War kicked off in earnest (there had already been some smaller battles). If the Americans had lost the war for independence, those that signed the Declaration would certainly have been executed for treason. But, as you know, history went another way!

800px-Declaration_of_Independence_(1819),_by_John_Trumbull

The famous painting ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1819) by John Trumbull, accessed via Wikipedia

It’s a beautifully written document (you can read a transcription of it here) and is widely viewed as a sort of mission statement for American democracy. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, wrote some famous and enduring phrases in it such as:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s a powerful declaration of not just American rights but also human rights. Yet, whose rights were we talking about here? The 18th century was a time when women had few rights. They were basically, legally, their husband’s property (they obviously couldn’t do things like vote but they also had no control over their finances, their bodies, their children etc.). It was also a time when Africans – women, men and children – were forcibly being kidnapped and sold into bondage to labor on the American continent. I’m talking of course about American slavery, the institution with effects and impact that we can see throughout American history (from the American Civil War, through to segregation and Jim Crow) and are still seeing today (through mass incarceration and urgent calls for criminal justice system reform).

But slavery was an issue on the American founders’ minds too and contrary to popular belief, many of them did know that it was wrong. Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration, called slavery a ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot’, while also benefiting from the institution and enslaving more than 600 people over the course of his life. Others, like my personal favorite of America’s founders (for various reasons) John Adams from Massachusetts, was vehemently anti-slavery and never kept any enslaved servants on principal. Yet it would take a civil war the following century, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, to officially end it.

Slavery was (and is) part of the American story and it remains a great irony that the men who wrote so eloquently about liberty and freedom in the Declaration were, themselves, keeping other people enslaved. It’s this topic which is taken up in former U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith‘s poem ‘Declaration’.

You can read and listen to the poem here.

‘Declaration’ is an erasure poem. An erasure poem takes a preexisting text and makes a poem by erasing or removing words from it. In this case, Smith takes the Declaration of Independence as her starting point and erases words until a new poem is left. As you read her poem, you can quite clearly see what it is evoking: slavery.

There are several reasons why ‘Declaration’ works so well. Firstly, the form itself. Erasure poetry is by its nature a bit radical and iconoclastic because you’re hacking away at an existing document and making something new. It’s rebellious, just like the Declaration itself. Yet it’s also about erasing things, removing them from sight, which is exactly what the founders did with slavery, which is never mentioned in the Declaration. Jefferson had written a passage about it, basically blaming the institution on the King, but it was struck out, Jefferson claimed, at the insistence of other southern colonies. So it isn’t there. Smith’s poem inverts this original erasure, turning Jefferson’s words against themselves so that the poem now focuses on slavery and the original intent of the document (about the white male colonists’ grievances with the King) has been erased.

The poem also changes the meaning of the pronoun ‘he’. In the original document, this ‘he’ referred to King George III (e.g ‘He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…’). But now this ‘he’ is more nebulous and tough to pin down: he could now be white slavers, but also America, generally, or the institution of slavery personified.

Another reason it’s so powerful is the use of frequent ’em’ dashes (those are the longer dashes), which is the only punctuation that Smith seems to have added (although you could think about all the white space as a kind of punctuation). The em dashes seem to indicate where the phrase continues in the original document but words have been removed e.g. ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’ from the original becomes ‘he has plundered our-/ravaged our-/destroyed the lives of our-‘ in Smith’s poem. In addition to reminding us that this is an erasure poem and words have been removed, all those dashes, also suggest, to me, that in some ways these crimes remain unspeakable. The phrase: ‘Taken away our’, followed by an em dash, is an example of this. Taken away our…what? Our lives? Our spirits? Our humanity? The reader is forced to fill in that awful blank.

IMG_5676

Photo I took in December 2017 at Magnolia Plantation, South Carolina, of a slave cabin on the site

The poem ends on one of these dashes and it’s quite significant, I think, that the final two words are: ‘to bear’. This suggests to me several meanings. Firstly, enslaved people forced to bear (or carry or pick up) tools, but also to bear children, perhaps (sexual violence against enslaved women was pervasive). Yet it also suggests that people are still ‘bear(ing)’ the legacy of slavery now. The poem isn’t finished (there is no end stop), which suggests that the effects of slavery aren’t finished either. It is something that we as a nation must ‘bear’ too.

Smith’s poem cleverly subverts a document which, by its very nature, erased the lives of many. Her words, instead, foreground and express their suffering, while at the time time suggesting that this suffering is inexpressible. It’s a powerful poem and one that reminds me how poetry can change the way that we look at our history and our world.

Let me know what you thought of the poem. Had you read it before? What did you notice about it? Next week, we’re looking a very different artistic response to the Declaration of Independence. Hint: It’s a movie. Any guesses?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is of an 1823 facsimile of the Declaration, and accessed via Wikipedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Writing Poetry about the Salem Witch Trials

In last week’s post, I shared part-one of my poem ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, from my upcoming poetry pamphlet Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. This week, I wanted to look more closely at the story behind the poem. And I don’t just mean the historical story that inspired it, but also how I wrote the poem itself. But first: if you’ve not read last week’s post, you might want to take a look at that one first and have a wee read of the poem (this post will probably make more sense if you do!).

‘The First Afflicted Girl’ is a persona poem. A ‘persona poem’ is a poem that adopts the voice of a specific character (maybe a historical character, a fictional character, etc.). In this case, the poem adopts the voice of Betty Parris who was one of the ‘afflicted children’ during the Salem Witch Trials, who accused others of being witches. Her short entry on Wikipedia says that she, alongside her cousin Abigail, ’caused the direct death of 20 Salem residents: 19 were hanged…(one) pressed to death.’ But Betty was a child – can we really say she caused those deaths? A nine-year-old child didn’t hang those women, a community did. What I’m saying is, that’s pretty harsh, Wikipedia!

But, nevertheless, Betty played a key role in this tragic episode, and several years ago I became curious about her life after reading A Delusion of Satan by Frances Hill (a very gripping nonfiction account of the Salem Witch Trials). Hill describes Betty as ‘impressionable’ and ‘steeped in her father’s Puritan theology that made terrifying absolutes of good and evil, sin and saintliness and heaven and hell.’ Hill also writes that: ‘Unsurprisingly, (Betty) was full of anxiety.’ These descriptions drew me to her, perhaps because ‘anxious’ and ‘impressionable’ were probably two words that could have been used to describe me as a kid, alongside imaginative (we’ll get to imagination in a moment).

Frances Hill

Who was Betty?

For starters, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Parris was the daughter was the daughter of Salem Village Reverend Samuel Parris. In 1692, she lived in Puritan Massachusetts in her father’s home with her eleven year old cousin Abigail (who plays a part in my poem). She also lived with an enslaved couple of Caribbean origins, Tituba and John Indian. It was unusual for a New England family at the time to keep slaves, and, at least from Hill’s account, it seems that Tituba was a constant presence in Betty’s life (maybe even more so than her mother, who I chose to make absent entirely from my poem). Betty would have known Tituba since infancy. It’s impossible to know the complex dynamic between little Betty and Tituba, but both Betty and Abby were certainly dependent on her – which is why Tituba’s presence is woven subtly throughout the poem. She’s always there, usually doing household chores to keep the home running (in part-one, for instance, she’s blowing air from the bellows into the fire).

What was Betty’s life like?

The days were quite monotonous for young Puritan children. Endless chores (sewing, helping with the cooking, spinning etc.). Families were mostly self-reliant (making many items there at home, like candles and clothes). Hill writes about how there was ‘little play or amusement’ for kids and, as they grew older, no entertainment or hobbies. The only books they had were religious ones. Most strikingly to me, there were few outlets for the little girls to imagine. Hill writes:

Young women of that time and place had nothing to feed the imagination, to expand understanding or heighten sensitivity. There were no fairytales or stories to help order and make sense of experience. Were was no art or theatre (…) boys enjoyed hunting, trapping, and fishing, carpentry and crafts. For girls there were no such outlets for animal high spirits or mental creativity.

This made me wonder: what would it have been like to be a little girl like Betty? What might the mind conjure up, if you had no outlet for your imagination? What might I have done, if I had been born in this environment?

So how did that research contribute to the poem?

The monotony of Betty’s existence is something I wanted to convey with the language of the poem, which uses frequent repetition (‘days and days and days/of lighting fires’). And if a young girl like Betty were to feel anything but content with these days of boredom and drudgery, then they would probably have interpreted these feelings as sinful and wicked. That’s why I bring in Betty’s repeated thoughts: ‘I am not wicked/I do not want to be wicked.’ These lines come immediately after she talks about ‘wanting/to be in bed instead of/sewing, washing, sweeping.’ ‘I do not want sunshine’, she tries to assure herself, but already, from a few stanzas back, we know that she ‘dream(s) her cheeks are burned by sunlight’.

A few lines later, when Betty says the ‘outside is not different/from the in’, that line refers to the house being dark inside and out because it’s the dead of winter. But, on another level, it’s also her hope that her internal world and what she presents outwardly are the same. Of course, they’re not the same. Inside, it’s tumultuous and full of conflicting desires and self-chastisement, even if on the ‘outside’ she’s playing the part of an obedient child who doesn’t ‘want sunshine’.

The final three lines of part-one, ‘We burn the candles/and keep them/burning’, also works on two levels (I hope!). This is a physical description of the setting meant to convey just how dark it was during those bleak winter months, but also ending that section on the word ‘burning’, and isolating the word like that, on its own line, is suggestive of the witch trials that are to come (keep them burning). Although no women or men were burned alive in Salem, this imagery does evoke witch trials generally, I think. It’s a sinister note to end on, suggesting bad things to come, and the poem definitely takes a turn for the increasingly more sinister and strange in parts two and three, as Betty becomes more physically, emotionally and psychologically distressed. In the poem, as in life, she begins speaking incoherently, having violent convulsions, and eventually causing everyone around her to conclude that she has been ‘bewitched’.

800px-Witchcraft_at_Salem_Village

‘Witchcraft at Salem Village’ engraving from 1876, accessed here

*

Of course, each reader will get something different from the poem, and just because I intended for something to be read a certain way, that doesn’t mean that it will be! Overall, in the first section, I really wanted to convey Betty’s fear of being ‘wicked’, the physical discomforts of her life, and the fervent religion beliefs of her time. Section two explores Betty’s dabbling with fortune telling (and her increasingly morbid thoughts) and finally her descent into ‘hysteria’. My poem ends before the Witch Trials actually begin. (I won’t say exactly how it ends! For that, you’ll need to read the full poem in the book!)

In reality, what happened was that Betty and Abby accused three (vulnerable) women of being witches: Sarah Good, a homeless woman; Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman and (perhaps most tragically and most predictably) the woman who had cared for them, Tituba.

Tituba survived, but many people did die as a result of the ensuing witch trials (nineteen hanged and one man pressed to death). I don’t have an answer as to ‘why’ the real historical Betty behaved the way she did. There were probably numerous contributing factors that led to her odd behavior. There are certainly many factors that led to the Salem Witch Trials generally, including long-standing superstitions (witch trials had been going on in Europe for years) and complex relationships and rivalries between members of Salem Village and Salem Town. As for the girls’ affliction: there’s a theory (put forward by psychologist Linnda Caporael in the 1970’s) that blamed their abnormal behavior on the fungus ergot, which can be found in rye and might have caused hallucinations. But this theory is not really supported by historians, as explained very well in this blog post from a history student and tour guide in Salem.

In any case, my poem is not trying to explain exactly what happened to the girls, and it’s certainly not delving into the complex origins of the trials themselves. What I am trying to do is explore a certain state of being, a state of boredom, fear and anxiety that might have taken hold of this ‘impressionable’ nine-year-old girl. Hill also notes, and I agree with this argument, that this is a time when women weren’t allowed any sort of public voice, and had little to no power in their homes, so even feigning this kind of ‘affliction’ would have given the girls a kind of power. People would have listened to them, taken them seriously, an intoxicating prospect for a Puritan girl, even if it had deadly consequences.

Matteson-witch

Examination of a Witch (1853) by T.H. Matteson, accessed via Wikipedia

*

Within my book, this poem is also positioned right before a poem about my own experience of ‘Abstinence Only’ sexual education in a Texas public high school, very much an anxiety-inducing experience and one more aimed, in my experience, at scaring young people than educating them. Through this ordering of poems, I’m trying to draw (unsettling) parallels between past and present, and to raise questions about how young people are ‘educated’ then and now. 

So that’s a bit of insight into the research and thinking behind this poem! (There are much cheerier poems in the pamphlet too, I should add! The aforementioned ‘Sex Ed’ poem is actually really funny – I hope!). If you’d like to read more, the whole poem is in Anastasia, Look in the Mirror (available for pre-order here).

And if you’d like to learn more about Salem generally, here are a few ideas:

Recommended Further Reading/Listening/Viewing:

Books:

Movies:

  • The Witch directed by Robert Eggers (one of my favorite films! I wrote about it last Halloween here)

Podcasts:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: ‘The First Afflicted Girl’ (A Poem)

The Salem Witch Trials is well-trodden territory for fiction writers. Perhaps the most famous fictional representation of this tragic episode in early American history is Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’ (1953). Miller wrote this play as an allegory, drawing parallels between the fanatical 17th century Puritans accusing people of being witches and the ‘Red Scare’ of the 1950’s, when the US government accused many people (including himself) of being communist. But beyond ‘The Crucible’, there’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851), as well as several modern novels, including the YA novel A Break with Charity (1992) by one of my literary heroes, Ann Rinaldi. This is in addition to TV and movies ranging from the silly (think Hocus Pocus) to the serious, as well as dozens of non-fiction accounts from historians and journalists alike about what exactly happened in Salem Massachusetts that fateful winter.

Cruciblecover

I never intended to write a poem about the Salem Witch Trials, for the very reason that it’s pretty well-covered ground. But several years ago I was reading a non-fiction book, A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials by Frances Hill, and I became fascinated with her depiction of a somewhat ‘minor’ character in this story: Betty Parris. Betty was a little girl who, in the winter of 1692, started showing strange and abnormal behaviors (barking, hiding under tables, having fits). The adults around her decided that she was bewitched, so naturally the question arose: Who had bewitched her? Betty and her cousin Abigail started naming names, and this is what started The Salem Witch Trials.

800px-Captain_Alden_Denounced

‘Captain Alden Denounced’, a sketch from 1878, author unknown, accessed via Wikimedia

Betty’s story really interested me. What was going on with her psychologically and physically? What was her life like? What events might have led up to these strange behaviors and her peculiar ‘illness’? I don’t have answers for most of these questions, but they inspired a three-part poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’, that is in my new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror.

IMG_0514

I’m going to share the first part of the poem here and then next week I’ll talk a bit more about Betty’s life and my historical research, what I hoped to achieve with the language, as well as what themes I wanted to explore overall in the poem.

The First Afflicted Girl

I.

I whisper Wake up, Abby,
as floorboards creak above and sawdust
falls on us like snowflakes.

Up there, Tituba blows air into the fire,
wakes it up. I want to burrow
like a field mouse back to sleep.
I dream my cheeks are burned by sunlight
but I wake and cannot feel the ends of me.

I pull on cloth, teeth knocking,
Wake up, Abby, shaking her shoulders
and we go up the stairs, clat clat clat,
and huddle by the heat, hold our palms
out to catch it. I think it is morning
but now the days fog into nights
and days and days and days
of lighting fires.

The Lord is in the candles
for He is in everything that is good,
like the pale sunlight when we walk
to see Mary Walcott,
for He created Light
and the Devil is in the cobwebs
and the nights when cold is biting
me. And in the wanting

to be in bed instead of
sewing, washing, sweeping.
I am not wicked.
I do not want to be wicked.
I do not want sunshine.
I light the candles,
see my face in dark glass.

Now the outside is not different
from the in.

Both are gray in winter.
We burn the candles
and keep them
burning.

If you’d like to read the whole poem and hear more of Betty’s story you can check out: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror which is out on July 2, 2020 and is now available for pre-order here from Stewed Rhubarb Press! Betty is only one of the many characters you’ll meet in the book which explores female desire and sexuality from a range of historical and modern perspectives. (Most of the poems are funnier and more light-hearted than this one as well, by the way!) There’s lots more information about it on my book announcement blog post here.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

(PS Today’s Featured Image is “The Witch No. 1 Lithograph” by Joseph E. Baker c. 1892, from The Library of Congress, and accessed via Wikimedia)

 

Madeira Mondays: Mid-Year Wrap-Up

It’s the middle of the year (June) and the middle of the month (the 15th), so I figured what better time to do a mid-year recap of all the ‘Madeira Mondays’ that I’ve posted so far this year, as well as a look ahead at what topics I’m hoping to cover in the second half of 2020.

This blog series is all about early American history and historical fiction, but the topics I’ve looked at range pretty far and wide, so I’ve organized this list in terms of category (‘On Films and TV Shows’ ‘On books’ ‘Recipes’ etc). You can easily scroll down to the category that might be of most interest to you. I’d also love any suggestions and feedback on which topics you’d be curious about as I move forward – more on that at the end of the post!

IMG_9441

Display of items that would have been found in an 18th century American shop, at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia (November, 2019)

Madeira Mondays January-June 2020

On Films and TV Shows

Washington miniseries Episode 1; Washington miniseries Episodes 2-3 (Reviews of The History Channel’s new miniseries about the life of America’s first President, George Washington)

Behind the Mask (Review of film set in Revolutionary War Philadelphia, directed by Chad Burns)

Grace and Frankie and…John Adams (A look at the popular TV series Grace and Frankie and its surprising links to early American history and John Adams)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Film review of Celine Sciamma’s 2019 film about a romance between two women in 18th century France)

18th century Fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race (A look at how drag queen Gigi Goode incorporates 18th century fashion into her outfits)

portait of a young girl

Scene from Portrait of a Lady on Fire, featuring Noemie Merlant as Marianne (right) and Adele Haenel as Heloise (left)

On Books

Thomas Jefferson, James Hemings, and French Cooking (Book review of Thomas Jefferson’s Creme Brûlée by James Craughwell, about how Jefferson and his enslaved cook James Hemings brought French cuisine to America)

Historical Short Stories (On Karen Russell and her historical fiction short stories)

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold (Book review of non-fiction book about the lives of the five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper)

Celia Garth (Book review of this novel by Gwen Bristow, first published in the 1950’s and set in Revolutionary Charleston, South Carolina)

Emily Dickinson’s Poem about Waiting (Analysis of a poem by Dickinson)

Recipes

A Forgotten 18th Century Drink (Making ‘flip’, an 18th century warmed rum drink)

A Cheap and Delicious 18th Century Recipe (Making potato cakes from an 18th century recipe)

Discovering an 18th Century Energy Drink (Making ‘switchel’, a refreshing summertime drink popular in early America)

Historical Research

Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (A-F); The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (G-P); Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (R-Z) (A series of posts about the best words from Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a compendium of 18th century slang)

Hamilton wasn’t wearing any underwear (An in-depth look at 18th century men’s underwear)

The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley (A look at the life of Phillis Wheatley, a young African-American writer who was a celebrity in 18th century Britain and America and one of the first American poets)

The Surprisingly Interesting History of Tomato Ketchup (A look at ketchup’s history, from ancient China through to today)

IMG_0442

Exhibitions and Historic Sites

Runaway Slaves in 18th Century Louisiana (A visit to The Cabildo museum in New Orleans Louisiana in January 2020, and a look at their exhibition Le Kèr Creole (The Creole Heart): Runaway Slaves, Music, and Memory in Louisiana)

Inside a Georgian Drawing Room (A visit to The Georgian House in Edinburgh, run by The National Trust of Scotland, where I volunteer as a costumed historical guide)

IMG_8950

The Drawing Room at The Georgian House where I volunteer in Edinburgh, Scotland

*

I’ve really enjoyed writing and researching these posts and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them. So what’s next for Madeira Mondays? Since I have a new book coming out next month, there will be a couple of posts on the research I did for that and how I went about writing some of the poems (many of the poems are inspired by history). I also have plans to read two books by Laurie Halse Anderson in the near future. One of these I’ve read before – Chains – about an enslaved young girl in 18th century New York City who gets involved with the Revolution. The other book – Fever, 1793 – is about the outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia in the late 18th century, and I’ve never read this one. But I know Anderson is a brilliant writer (she’s most famous for her 1999 novel Speak, which is a really harrowing but beautifully written book about a teenager’s experience with sexual assault).

In terms of shows, I plan to watch Dickinson (the new TV series loosely inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson, which looks like a lot of silly fun). And, in honor of the upcoming 4th of July, I’d like to do a post or two about the musical 1776, about the signing of the Declaration of Independence (I also researched this musical as part of my PhD, so I’ve got a lot to say about it!).

Which posts have been your favorites thus far? Are there any historical fiction books/TV series/films that I should know about? I’ve also toyed with the idea of asking some of the Early American historians that I met through my PhD to do a guest post (or perhaps an interview) for the blog, so let me know if that’s something you’d be curious to see!

As always, thanks so much for reading. Hope to see you next Monday! x

 

Madeira Mondays: Emily Dickinson’s Poem about Waiting

This isn’t the post I planned on writing today. I planned on writing about the (surprisingly fascinating!) history of ketchup and how it links to international travel and trade in the 18th century. BUT last week was a very full week for me work-wise. So instead of spending today researching ketchup (and don’t worry – that post is coming!), I wanted to share a lovely and timely poem from one of my favorite early American writers: Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) lived in Amherst Massachusetts and led a quiet, isolated life at home. Although she had only a handful of poems published in her lifetime, she is widely regarded now as one of the great American poets. I wanted to share her poem with you which begins ‘Will there really be a morning?’ (It doesn’t have a title. None of Dickinson’s poems were titled in her original manuscript, so if you ever see one of her poems printed with a title, that was added by an editor).

daguerreotype-cropped-corrected-1

Emily Dickinson, at about the age sixteen or seventeen, in the only authenticated portrait of her after childhood

I’ve not studied Dickinson’s life and work academically, and I’m not sure if there is any known ‘origin’ of this poem (if, for instance, some event in her life is known to have inspired it). But what I do know is that ever since I read it for the first time, it has seemed to me a poem full of yearning, of waiting, of unanswerable questions (‘Will there really be a morning? Is there such a thing as day?’). As the speaker waits for ‘morning’ to arrive, they wonder what morning even is (‘has it feathers like a bird?’). It strikes me that it is the perfect poem to read right now when it seems like we are all waiting: for news, for lockdown to end, for…something. It’s an impatient poem, where the speaker seems desperate for information, calling out for wiser, more experienced people, to reassure them (‘Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!’). And I think all of us can relate to at least some of those feelings and emotions right now.

Here’s the poem:

Will there really be a morning?

Is there such a thing as day?

Could I see it from the mountains

If I were as tall as they?

 

Has it feet like water-lilies?

Has it feathers like a bird?

Is it brought from famous countries

Of which I’ve never heard?

 

Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!

Oh, some wise man from the skies!

Please tell a little pilgrim

Where the place called morning lies!

IMG_0481

I hope you enjoyed the poem, and that you’re having a good start to the week.

Would you be curious to have more posts about Emily Dickinson? I was thinking of reviewing the new TV series about her – Dickinson – which came out last year in 2019, and also the comedy film Wild Nights with Emily (2018) which is a queer reinterpretation of her life.

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

  • Emily Dickinson: Collected Poems (I’d suggest trying to find an edition where the poems aren’t titled, if possible!)
  • The Poetry Foundation’s page on Emily Dickinson has a lot more info about her life
  • A Quiet Passion, the 2016 film from Terence Davies about Dickinson’s life was pretty good!
  • The Emily Dickinson Museum’s website has lots of info about her too

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Many of America’s most famous poets lived during the 19th century: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), for example. But there was already a literary tradition beginning to blossom in America in the 18th century as well and one of the literary darlings of colonial America, celebrated both nationally and internationally, was Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Phillis Wheatley rose to prominence as a popular poet in early America, despite the fact that she was a woman, an African-American and a slave. Phillis Wheatley had a remarkable and in many ways quite a tragic life. She’s not a figure that I know a lot about, but I’ve always been curious to learn more, especially since I saw a first edition of one of her books at the Museum of the American Revolution last year. So, in honor of her upcoming birthday – May 8, 1753 – I’ve done a little bit of research into her life and writings, so that I could introduce you (or perhaps re-introduce you!) to this important figure in American literature.

IMG_9434

Phillis Wheatley’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773. I took this photo during a trip to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia last autumn.

Who was she?

Born in 1753, Wheatley was kidnaped from her home in West Africa at a young age, brought to America and sold into slavery to the Wheatley family. The Wheatleys, noticing that she was very bright, taught her to read and write. Sondra A. O’Neale of Emory University writes, in her short biography of Phillis Wheatley on The Poetry Foundation’s website, about Phillis’ classical education at the Wheatley house:

Soon (Phillis Wheatley) was immersed in the Bible, astronomy, geography, history, British literature (…) and the Greek and Latin classics of Virgil, Ovid , Terence, and Homer. In “To the University of Cambridge in New England” (probably the first poem she wrote but not published until 1773), Wheatley indicated that despite this exposure, rich and unusual for an American slave, her spirit yearned for the intellectual challenge of a more academic atmosphere.

She wrote an elegy for a reverend, George Whitefield, which brought her first national acclaim (as it was published in Boston, Newport and Phildelphia) and then international acclaim, as it was published in London too.

Shortly after that, she travelled to London, where she was welcomed by prominent artists and dignitaries. Her book was published soon after: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first volume of poetry by an African American.

What did she write about?

Her poetry is very 18th century in its style, for sure. She writes in rhyming couples mostly, with a lot of allusions to classical themes and literature. A lot of her poems were celebratory of America and America’s victory over Great Britain in the Revolutionary War. In 1776, she wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington, and he replied with an invitation to visit him (he was in Massachusetts at the time), saying that he would be ‘happy to see a person so favored by the muses.’

She also comments on slavery from a Christian perspective in her poem: ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. In the same article by Sondra A. O’Neale I quoted from above, O’Neale talks about Wheatley’s influence on fledgling abolitionist movements of the 18th century: ‘Wheatley was the abolitionists’ illustrative testimony that blacks could be both artistic and intellectual (…) her achievements a catalyst for the fledgling antislavery movement.’

What happened to Wheatley?

She was eventually freed from slavery in the mid 1770’s.

She was so incredibly young when she became famous and unfortunately some difficult years lay ahead of her, despite her connections to the rich and famous of her time. She married a free black man who ran a grocery store and experienced years of poverty during the Revolutionary War. She had been struggling with poor health all her life and died at the age of just 31.

*

So had you heard of Phillis Wheatley before? If you grew up in the USA, did you study her in schools? I never did, which seems a shame because she was one of the country’s earliest poets and has such a unique personal history.

As an American poet myself and someone who loves 18th century history, it was fascinating for me to learn a bit more about who she was and I hope you found it interesting too! I definitely plan on reading more about her in the future.

IMG_0442

Recommended Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is by Edward Colyer, ‘Still Life’ ca. 1696, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!