The Divine Sun in American Poetry: Wheatley’s “Thoughts on the Works of Providence” and Bradstreet’s “Contemplations”
In her 1773 poem, Thoughts on the Works of Providence¸ Phillis Wheatley considers God’s power through the solar system of the Sun and Earth’s rotational relationship. Almost a hundred years prior to Wheatley’s neoclassical poetic style, Anne Bradstreet would examine the Sun, and its relationship to God and humanity on Earth with equal scrutiny through the fourth and seventh stanzas in her 1678 poem, Contemplations. Their poems mark out the symbolic importance of the Sun in early American poetry as representative of a Christian God and his divine power through rays of emitted light. Although their poems bear certain symbolic similarities, it is also important how Wheatley’s religious poem, and her portrayal of God’s role in the natural world, is influenced by the new scientific knowledge and sociopolitical changes emerging from the American Revolution and the Enlightenment.
Wheatley opens the second stanza by representing the Sun as a “vast machine” (768). In these lines, she vividly describes the arcing movements of the Earth’s rotational patterns around the Sun’s glowing center point. The Sun, which is controlled by God’s unseen hand, is described as having “twice forty millions” miles in height. Wheatley’s astronomical language is deeply rooted in the influences of reason and mathematical calculations of the Enlightenment, yet it is designed to elevate God’s divine power. She employs the scientific knowledge of the day to imagine God’s perspective of the Universe as he guides the planets and to remind the reader of their minuscule mortal presence in the face of God’s massive solar system unseen by the naked human eye. Bradstreet, too, notes the blinding, almost destructive light of the Sun and God’s subsequent power, albeit through a more abstract inquiry: “Art thou so full of glory that no eye / Hath strength thy shining rays once to behold?” (216). After her scientific descriptions, Wheatley quotes Genesis, “Let there be light”, pushing for a compatible balance between Christianity and the Enlightenment’s science (770). Bradstreet speaks of the “annual and diurnal course” of the Sun in its seasonal patterns (216). Her awareness of agricultural ‘science’ would’ve been critical knowledge for surviving the earliest years of the American colonies. Both Bradstreet and Wheatley recognize this divine light emitted by the Sun as an important tool in God’s creation of the natural world as he brought life from darkness
Despite criticisms of Wheatley’s work lacking explicit political discourse, there are suggestions of social and political tension in Thoughts on the Works of Providence. She describes God’s Sun as a “peerless monarch”, unrivaled by the mortal, tyrannical English kings on Earth (768). Her descriptions of God’s magnitude present the possibility of divine power transcending our societal positions, important given that in that year she would gain her freedom from slavery. During this tumultuous time, as the foundations of our government were established, Wheatley recognized the hypocrisy of America’s use of slavery despite its ideology of freedom. She speaks of the Earth surviving “impetuous storms”, “winds and surging tides” under God’s divine providence, suggesting America will triumph (768). Yet, she acknowledges that Reason alone is not enough for the country to succeed, and we need “immortal Love” to act as a companion to this rational way of thinking, not to overshadow our respect for God (770). Her poem suggests that we must love humans and nature because they are part of God’s universal plan, otherwise we will be plunged into darkness. Wheatley’s underlying suggestion is to incorporate Christian belief into our new country and end the immoral practice of slavery, bringing freedom to all mankind. Although the Contemplations are more introspective and focused on the beauty of nature, Bradstreet also acknowledges humanity’s historical inability to differentiate between God’s power and the natural world: “no wonder some has made thee a deity” (216). Here, the Sun is a type of monarch yet she calls for its power to be credited to God’s superior agency.
Lastly, the use of Greek mythological references are evident of the poets’ level of education which carries implicit sociopolitical significance. Both Bradstreet and Wheatley reference Phoebus (Apollo) at the beginning of their poems and gender the Earth as a female counterpart. In Bradstreet’s case, she further genders the Sun as a “bridegroom” (216). This biblical reference implies a marriage between Earth and humanity with the Sun and God, and expresses the inferior social position of women at the time (although she a superior education due to her family’s class). Wheatley’s intelligent Neoclassical reference to Phoebus demonstrates a kind of literary education which would have been completely unavailable to other enslaved women at the time, demonstrating her revolutionary position in American society.
Both Wheatley and Bradstreet describe God’s creative force through symbolic language of the Sun, both through Biblical and Pagan references and quotations. Yet, under the conditions of their respective eras, the way they view God and humanity’s relationship to the Sun differentiates as Wheatley engages with the social changes of her day. While Bradstreet’s work is more romantic in tone and concerned with personal religious experience, Wheatley acknowledges the importance of Enlightenment science and education and confronts the immorality of oppression in American society during the Revolution. Across these poems, we see how God’s divine providence has granted us life on earth, yet we must continue to follow his principals and be loyal, like subjects to a monarch, we will reap the Earthly rewards of his power on an individual and societal scale.
Bradstreet, Anne. “Contemplations.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A: Beginnings to 1820. 1960. Edited by Nina Baum and Robert S. Levine, 8th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1979, pp. 215-222.
Wheatley, Phillis. “Thoughts on the Works of Providence.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume A: Beginnings to 1820. 1960. Edited by Nina Baum and Robert S. Levine, 8th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1979, pp. 768-771.
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In her 1773 poem, Thoughts on the Works of Providence¸ Phillis Wheatley considers God’s power through the solar system of the Sun and Earth’s rotational relationship. Almost a hundred years […]