‘A Hymn to the Evening’ by Phillis Wheatley is a four stanza poem which is separated into two sets of six lines, or sestet, one set of four lines, or quatrain, and a final rhyming couplet. While the line numbers vary in these stanzas giving it a somewhat disparate look on paper, the poem is unified by its structured rhyme scheme. All of the lines follow a pattern of aabbccdd…etc. This allows the poem to be read as a large collection of couplets or two-line statements.
Another fact to note about ‘A Hymn to the Evening’ is the word “hymn.” This word is used to refer to any type of religious song, or in this case poem. It is dedicated to God and has been crafted, and would be read, in dedication to him.
Summary of A Hymn to the Evening
‘A Hymn to the Evening’ by Phillis Wheatley describes a speaker’s desire to take on the glow of evening so that she may show her love for God.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the beauty of the setting sun and how it casts glory on the surrounding landscape. The whole world is filled with “Majestic grandeur” in these moments.
In the next section she speaks on how it is God who makes the sunset as beautiful as it is. She wishes that she, and those reading this piece, could take on some of the “glow” she sees and keep it in their breast. The speaker believes this will allow one to truly worship God and wake more peacefully the next morning.
Analysis of 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.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by noting a number of beautiful details about the landscape which surrounds her. The poet has chosen to give no more details than are necessary for one to imagine this moment. She never provides a reader with an exact location or time this evening is taking place. It could be in any city or in any year.
In the first two lines the speaker states that at the exact moment the sun “forsook” or gave up, “the eastern main” there was a crack of “pealing” thunder. The two events seemed almost preternaturally determined to occur at the same moment The speaker feels like there is something divine about this sight and sound. The thunder is so loud and powerful it “shook the heav’nly plain.”
Although a powerful storm can be frightening in the right circumstances, this is not one of those moments. The speaker sees the storm and exclaims “Majestic grandeur!” She is in awe of the moment and sees the wind as a soft breeze, or “zephyr,” which brings with it the “incense of blooming spring.” It appears as though winter is coming to an end in this landscape and spring is soon to be on its way.
There are other elements of the scene which also speak to the narrator of spring. She can hear the “Soft purl of the streams” and the birds which are “renew[ing] their notes’ for the first time this season. The whole world seems to be preparing itself for a change and the lovely sounds of the world combine to make one “mingled” song.
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!
In the second stanza, which only contains four lines, the speaker describes how the “heav’ns” or skies, are changing colours with the season as well. It is likely that the landscape has been muted up until this point, perhaps with many whites and greys. Now though, with spring on the way, a number of different “dies” or “dyes,” are showing themselves in the sky.
The most prominent of these is the “deepest red” which graces the “western” region. This is fitting for the moment as it is a landscape in the evening. As the sun sets in the west the sky grows more luminous, at least for a few moments.
The speaker sees the vibrant nature of these moments and considers how she, and all he listeners might take the glory into their own bodies. She wishes that “our breasts” might “glow” as the skies do. They are, she states, the “living temples of our God.”
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.
In the second to last stanza, which is made up of six lines, the speaker turns her thoughts fully from the landscape to God. She is elaborating on what it would mean for those who worship him to be truly filled with his “light” and “praise.” This would be as impactful and meaningful as the red sunset.
She wants to please God by showing him, through her own glory and that of others, how much she cares about him. The speaker knows him as the one who “draws the sable curtains of the night.” He sets the sun and secures his followers safety in their sleep. He also “sooth[es]” the minds of those who feel “weary.” He is a balm at the end of a trying day.
In the second half of the stanza the speaker describes what it can be like when morning comes. One will have rested better, knowing God is there, and wake “more refin’d,” or better than one was the night before. With this increased positivity and calmer start to the day all the work which follows will seem “more pure.” It will also be “more guarded” from sin.
Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.
In the final two lines of the poem, which are structured as a rhyming couplet, the speaker concludes her narrative of an evening. She describes how the world sends her off to sleep as if with a spell.
The first line states that it is “Night’s leaden sceptre” which “seals” her eyes and now and allows her to drift off to sleep. She will remain this way until “Aurora” rises in the morning. “Aurora” is the Latin word for dawn, and it is also the name of the goddess of the dawn in Roman mythology.