'Niobe In Distress For Her Children Slain By Apollo, From Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VI. And From A View Of The Painting Of Mr. Richard Wilson' by Phillis Wheatly

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APOLLO's wrath to man the dreadful spring
Of ills innum'rous, tuneful goddess, sing!
Thou who did'st first th' ideal pencil give,
And taught'st the painter in his works to live,
Inspire with glowing energy of thought,
What Wilson painted, and what Ovid wrote.
Muse! lend thy aid, nor let me sue in vain,
Tho' last and meanest of the rhyming train!
O guide my pen in lofty strains to show
The Phrygian queen, all beautiful in woe.
'Twas where Maeonia spreads her wide domain
Niobe dwelt, and held her potent reign:
See in her hand the regal sceptre shine,
The wealthy heir of Tantalus divine,
He most distinguish'd by Dodonean Jove,
To approach the tables of the gods above:
Her grandsire Atlas, who with mighty pains
Th' ethereal axis on his neck sustains:
Her other grandsire on the throne on high
Rolls the loud-pealing thunder thro' the sky.
Her spouse, Amphion, who from Jove too springs,
Divinely taught to sweep the sounding strings.
Seven sprightly sons the royal bed adorn,
Seven daughters beauteous as the op'ning morn,
As when Aurora fills the ravish'd sight,
And decks the orient realms with rosy light
From their bright eyes the living splendors play,
Nor can beholders bear the flashing ray.
Wherever, Niobe, thou turn'st thine eyes,
New beauties kindle, and new joys arise!
But thou had'st far the happier mother prov'd,
If this fair offspring had been less belov'd:
What if their charms exceed Aurora's teint.
No words could tell them, and no pencil paint,
Thy love too vehement hastens to destroy
Each blooming maid, and each celestial boy.
Now Manto comes, endu'd with mighty skill,
The past to explore, the future to reveal.
Thro' Thebes' wide streets Tiresia's daughter came,
Divine Latona's mandate to proclaim:
The Theban maids to hear the orders ran,
When thus Maeonia's prophetess began:
"Go, Thebans! great Latona's will obey,
"And pious tribute at her altars pay:
"With rights divine, the goddess be implor'd,
"Nor be her sacred offspring unador'd."
Thus Manto spoke.The Theban maids obey,
And pious tribute to the goddess pay.
The rich perfumes ascend in waving spires,
And altars blaze with consecrated fires;
The fair assembly moves with graceful air,
And leaves of laurel bind the flowing hair.
Niobe comes with all her royal race,
With charms unnumber'd, and superior grace:
Her Phrygian garments of delightful hue,
Inwove with gold, refulgent to the view,
Beyond description beautiful she moves
Like heav'nly Venus, 'midst her smiles and loves:
She views around the supplicating train,
And shakes her graceful head with stern disdain,
Proudly she turns around her lofty eyes,
And thus reviles celestial deities:
"What madness drives the Theban ladies fair
"To give their incense to surrounding air?
"Say why this new sprung deity preferr'd?
"Why vainly fancy your petitions heard?
"Or say why Caeus offspring is obey'd,
"While to my goddesship no tribute's paid?
"For me no altars blaze with living fires,
"No bullock bleeds, no frankincense transpires,
"Tho' Cadmus' palace, not unknown to fame,
"And Phrygian nations all revere my name.
"Where'er I turn my eyes vast wealth I find,
"Lo! here an empress with a goddess join'd.
"What, shall a Titaness be deify'd,
"To whom the spacious earth a couch deny'd!
"Nor heav'n, nor earth, nor sea receiv'd your queen,
"Till pitying Delos took the wand'rer in.
"Round me what a large progeny is spread!
"No frowns of fortune has my soul to dread.
"What if indignant she decrease my train
"More than Latona's number will remain;
"Then hence, ye Theban dames, hence haste away,
"Nor longer off'rings to Latona pay;
"Regard the orders of Amphion's spouse,
"And take the leaves of laurel from your brows."
Niobe spoke.The Theban maids obey'd,
Their brows unbound, and left the rights unpaid.
The angry goddess heard, then silence broke
On Cynthus' summit, and indignant spoke;
"Phoebus! behold, thy mother in disgrace,
"Who to no goddess yields the prior place
"Except to Juno's self, who reigns above,
"The spouse and sister of the thund'ring Jove.
"Niobe, sprung from Tantalus, inspires
"Each Theban bosom with rebellious fires;
"No reason her imperious temper quells,
"But all her father in her tongue rebels;
"Wrap her own sons for her blaspheming breath,
"Apollo! wrap them in the shades of death."
Latona ceas'd, and ardent thus replies
The God, whose glory decks th' expanded skies.
"Cease thy complaints, mine be the task assign'd
"To punish pride, and scourge the rebel mind."
This Phoebe join'd.--They wing their instant flight;
Thebes trembled as th' immortal pow'rs alight.
With clouds incompass'd glorious Phoebus stands;
The feather'd vengeance quiv'ring in his hands.
Near Cadmus' walls a plain extended lay,
Where Thebes' young princes pass'd in sport the day:
There the bold coursers bounded o'er the plains,
While their great masters held the golden reins.
Ismenus first the racing pastime led,
And rul'd the fury of his flying steed.
"Ah me," he sudden cries, with shrieking breath,
While in his breast he feels the shaft of death;
He drops the bridle on his courser's mane,
Before his eyes in shadows swims the plain,
He, the first-born of great Amphion's bed,
Was struck the first, first mingled with the dead.
Then didst thou, Sipylus, the language hear
Of fate portentous whistling in the air:
As when th' impending storm the sailor sees
He spreads his canvas to the fav'ring breeze,
So to thine horse thou gav'st the golden reins,
Gav'st him to rush impetuous o'er the plains:
But ah! a fatal shaft from Phoebus' hand
Smites thro' thy neck, and sinks thee on the sand.
Two other brothers were at wrestling found,
And in their pastime claspt each other round:
A shaft that instant from Apollo's hand
Transfixt them both, and stretcht them on the sand:
Together they their cruel fate bemoan'd,
Together languish'd, and together groan'd:
Together too th' unbodied spirits fled,
And sought the gloomy mansions of the dead.
Alphenor saw, and trembling at the view,
Beat his torn breast, that chang'd its snowy hue.
He flies to raise them in a kind embrace;
A brother's fondness triumphs in his face:
Alphenor fails in this fraternal deed,
A dart dispatch'd him (so the fates decreed:)
Soon as the arrow left the deadly wound,
His issuing entrails smoak'd upon the ground.
What woes on blooming Damasichon wait!
His sighs portend his near impending fate.
Just where the well-made leg begins to be,
And the soft sinews form the supple knee,
The youth sore wounded by the Delian god
Attempts t' extract the crime-avenging rod,
But, whilst he strives the will of fate t' avert,
Divine Apollo sends a second dart;
Swift thro' his throat the feather'd mischief flies,
Bereft of sense, he drops his head, and dies.
Young Ilioneus, the last, directs his pray'r,
And cries, "My life, ye gods celestial! spare."
Apollo heard, and pity touch'd his heart,
But ah! too late, for he had sent the dart:
Thou too, O Ilioneus, art doom'd to fall,
The fates refuse that arrow to recal.
On the swift wings of ever flying Fame
To Cadmus' palace soon the tidings came:
Niobe heard, and with indignant eyes
She thus express'd her anger and surprise:
"Why is such privilege to them allow'd?
"Why thus insulted by the Delian god?
"Dwells there such mischief in the pow'rs above?
"Why sleeps the vengeance of immortal Jove?"
For now Amphion too, with grief oppress'd,
Had plung'd the deadly dagger in his breast.
Niobe now, less haughty than before,
With lofty head directs her steps no more
She, who late told her pedigree divine,
And drove the Thebans from Latona's shrine,
How strangely chang'd!--yet beautiful in woe,
She weeps, nor weeps unpity'd by the foe.
On each pale corse the wretched mother spread
Lay overwhelm'd with grief, and kiss'd her dead,
Then rais'd her arms, and thus, in accents slow,
"Be sated cruel Goddess! with my woe;
"If I've offended, let these streaming eyes,
"And let this sev'nfold funeral suffice:
"Ah! take this wretched life you deign'd to save,
"With them I too am carried to the grave.
"Rejoice triumphant, my victorious foe,
"But show the cause from whence your triumphs flow?
"Tho' I unhappy mourn these children slain,
"Yet greater numbers to my lot remain."
She ceas'd, the bow string twang'd with awful sound,
Which struck with terror all th' assembly round,
Except the queen, who stood unmov'd alone,
By her distresses more presumptuous grown.
Near the pale corses stood their sisters fair
In sable vestures and dishevell'd hair;
One, while she draws the fatal shaft away,
Faints, falls, and sickens at the light of day.
To sooth her mother, lo! another flies,
And blames the fury of inclement skies,
And, while her words a filial pity show,
Struck dumb--indignant seeks the shades below.
Now from the fatal place another flies,
Falls in her flight, and languishes, and dies.
Another on her sister drops in death;
A fifth in trembling terrors yields her breath;
While the sixth seeks some gloomy cave in vain,
Struck with the rest, and mingled with the slain.
One only daughter lives, and she the least;
The queen close clasp'd the daughter to her breast:
"Ye heav'nly pow'rs, ah spare me one," she cry'd,
"Ah! spare me one," the vocal hills reply'd:
In vain she begs, the Fates her suit deny,
In her embrace she sees her daughter die.
* "The queen of all her family bereft,
"Without or husband, son, or daughter left,
"Grew stupid at the shock.The passing air
"Made no impression on her stiff'ning hair.

* This Verse to the End is the Work of another Hand.

"The blood forsook her face: amidst the flood
"Pour'd from her cheeks, quite fix'd her eye-balls
"Her tongue, her palate both obdurate grew,
"Her curdled veins no longer motion knew;
"The use of neck, and arms, and feet was gone,
"And ev'n her bowels hard'ned into stone:
"A marble statue now the queen appears,
"But from the marble steal the silent tears."

Editor 1 Interpretation

Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo: A Masterpiece in Literature and Art

The story of Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo has been a popular theme in literature and art. From the Greek mythology to Ovid's Metamorphoses, and from classical paintings to modern sculptures, the tragic tale has captivated the hearts and minds of people across ages and cultures. But perhaps no one has captured the essence of this story better than Phillis Wheatley in her poem, Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo, From Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VI. And From A View Of The Painting Of Mr. Richard Wilson. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve deeper into the themes, symbolism, and imagery used in the poem and explore how Wheatley's poetry resonates with the painting of Richard Wilson.

Background and Summary

Before we dive into the poem, let us first understand the background and summary of the story. Niobe was a queen of Thebes and wife of King Amphion. She had fourteen children, seven sons, and seven daughters, whom she was proud of and boasted about to the goddess Leto. Leto, who had only two children, Apollo and Artemis, was offended by Niobe's arrogance and asked her children to avenge her honor. Apollo, the god of music, poetry, and prophecy, killed all of Niobe's sons, and Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, killed her daughters. Heartbroken and grief-stricken, Niobe turned into stone, and her tears continued to flow, forming a stream that bore her name.

Phillis Wheatley's poem is based on this myth, and the painting of Richard Wilson depicts the same tragic scene. Niobe is shown in a state of distress, surrounded by the lifeless bodies of her children, while Apollo, with his bow and arrow, looks on. The painting captures the agony and pain of Niobe, and Wheatley's poetry provides a voice to her suffering.


One of the primary themes of the poem is the consequences of pride and arrogance. Niobe's boastful attitude towards Leto and her children leads to her downfall, and she pays a heavy price for her hubris. Wheatley's use of the word "proud" in the opening line of the poem sets the tone for this theme and emphasizes the tragic consequences of overconfidence.

The theme of maternal love and grief is also prominent in the poem. Niobe's love for her children is evident in her pain and suffering, and her grief knows no bounds. Wheatley's use of imagery, such as "her streaming eyes" and "her swollen heart," highlights the intensity of Niobe's emotions and portrays her as a mother who has lost everything.

Another theme that emerges from the poem is the powerlessness of mortals in the face of the gods. Niobe, despite being a queen, is unable to protect her children from the wrath of Apollo and Artemis. The gods, with their immense power and authority, are depicted as a force that mortals cannot resist or defeat. Wheatley's use of the word "Fate" in the final stanza of the poem reinforces this theme and suggests that Niobe's tragedy was predetermined by a higher power.


The use of symbolism in the poem adds depth and meaning to the story. The tears of Niobe, which turn into a stream, symbolize her eternal grief and serve as a reminder of her tragic fate. The stone into which she transforms represents her immobility and inability to move on from her loss. The arrows of Apollo symbolize the swift and inevitable nature of death, while the bow represents the power and authority of the gods.

The use of colors in the painting also adds a symbolic layer to the story. Niobe is depicted in a red dress, which symbolizes passion, love, and anger. The lifeless bodies of her children are draped in white, which symbolizes innocence, purity, and peace. Apollo, with his golden hair and bow, is depicted in a dominant position, representing his power and authority.


The imagery used in the poem and painting is vivid and evocative, creating a sense of pathos and tragedy. Wheatley's use of visual imagery, such as "the mother's agony," "the lifeless group," and "the cruel shafts," paints a picture of the scene and captures the emotions of Niobe and her children. The use of auditory imagery, such as "her piercing cries," "her lamentations," and "her doleful voice," creates an aural landscape that amplifies the sense of grief and sorrow.

The painting of Richard Wilson also uses imagery to depict the tragedy. The lifeless bodies of Niobe's children are arranged in a composition that creates a sense of depth and perspective, while the positioning of Niobe, with her arms outstretched and her head tilted back, portrays her agony and despair. The use of light and shadow adds a dramatic effect and creates a contrast between the lifeless bodies and the living ones.


Phillis Wheatley's poem and Richard Wilson's painting are masterpieces that capture the tragedy of Niobe in a powerful and poignant way. Wheatley's use of language, symbolism, and imagery creates a sense of empathy for Niobe and her children and evokes a sense of pathos and grief. The painting of Richard Wilson, with its use of colors, composition, and light, adds a visual dimension to the story and reinforces the themes and symbolism of the poem.

The story of Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo is a cautionary tale about the consequences of pride and arrogance. It reminds us that no one is invincible, and everyone, even a queen, is subject to the power of the gods. It is also a story about the power of maternal love and the intensity of grief, reminding us that a mother's love knows no bounds and that loss can be devastating.

In conclusion, Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo, From Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VI. And From A View Of The Painting Of Mr. Richard Wilson is a masterpiece in literature and art. The poem and painting capture the essence of the tragic story in a powerful and poignant way, and their themes, symbolism, and imagery resonate with readers and viewers across cultures and ages. It is a testament to the enduring power of the story and the skill and talent of its creators.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Niobe In Distress For Her Children Slain By Apollo: A Masterpiece of Tragedy and Art

The story of Niobe, the queen of Thebes, is one of the most tragic tales in Greek mythology. Her pride and arrogance led to the death of her fourteen children, who were slain by Apollo and Artemis as punishment for her boasting. The story has been retold in various forms, but one of the most famous versions is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VI. Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry, was inspired by a painting of Niobe by Richard Wilson and wrote a poem about it. In this analysis, we will explore the themes and symbolism in both the painting and the poem, and how they capture the essence of Niobe's tragic story.

The Painting: A View of the Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson was a Welsh landscape painter who lived in the 18th century. He was known for his romantic and picturesque paintings, but his painting of Niobe is a departure from his usual style. The painting depicts Niobe in a state of distress, surrounded by her dead children. The figures are arranged in a pyramid shape, with Niobe at the top and her children at the bottom. The painting is dark and somber, with muted colors and a sense of stillness. The only light comes from the moon, which casts a pale glow over the scene.

Wheatley's poem is a response to Wilson's painting, and she describes it in detail:

"See Niobe, in sorrow's pomp array'd, With streaming eyes, lament the heavy load, While the dim shadowy forms of all her race, In silent anguish, hover round the place; And each sad muse, with faded garland crown'd, With more than mortal grief, her sorrows sound."

Wheatley's description captures the mood and tone of the painting. Niobe is "in sorrow's pomp array'd," which suggests that she is both dignified and tragic. The "dim shadowy forms" of her children are a haunting presence, and the "sad muse" adds to the sense of mourning. Wheatley's use of language is poetic and evocative, and it sets the stage for the tragic story of Niobe.

The Poem: Niobe In Distress For Her Children Slain By Apollo

Wheatley's poem is a retelling of the story of Niobe, but it is also a meditation on the nature of grief and loss. The poem is divided into three parts, each of which explores a different aspect of Niobe's tragedy.

In the first part, Wheatley describes Niobe's pride and arrogance, which led to her downfall:

"Proud, haughty, vain, her taunts the gods provoke, And thus offended, thus insulted, spoke: 'Why should Latona's offspring, heavenly bright, Thus persevere to do me mortal spite? More dear to me, the queen of heaven is known, And Phoebus never felt my favours shown.'"

Niobe's words are a challenge to the gods, and they are a reflection of her own pride and arrogance. She believes that she is superior to the gods, and she taunts them with her words. This is the beginning of her downfall, and it sets the stage for the tragedy that follows.

In the second part of the poem, Wheatley describes the punishment that the gods inflict on Niobe:

"Swift as the word, the god his arrow drew, And through her heart the feather'd weapon flew; The queen, for ever now depriv'd of breath, Fell from her high estate, a prey to death."

The punishment is swift and brutal, and it is a reminder of the power of the gods. Niobe's pride has led to her downfall, and she is now a victim of her own hubris. The image of the arrow piercing her heart is a powerful one, and it captures the finality of death.

In the third and final part of the poem, Wheatley describes Niobe's grief and despair:

"Her husband's gone, his fate unknown, she said, His loss alone with me remains to mourn; I, I alone, have caus'd this fatal day, And from my crime, relentless justice prey. Ye gods! who have this cruel sentence pass'd, Was't not sufficient that my empire last? Was't not enough, that you with power divine Your vengeance wreak'd on this devoted line? But this my last, my fond request deny'd, Let me, ah! let me with my children hide."

Niobe's grief is overwhelming, and she is consumed by guilt and despair. She blames herself for the death of her children, and she begs the gods for mercy. Her final request is to be allowed to be with her children, but even this is denied to her. The image of Niobe alone with her dead children is a haunting one, and it captures the tragedy of her story.

Themes and Symbolism

The story of Niobe is a cautionary tale about the dangers of pride and arrogance. Niobe's downfall is a result of her own hubris, and it serves as a warning to others who might be tempted to challenge the gods. The punishment that the gods inflict on Niobe is a reminder of their power, and it reinforces the idea that mortals are at their mercy.

The painting and the poem both use symbolism to convey the themes of the story. The pyramid shape of the figures in the painting is a symbol of the hierarchy that exists between mortals and the gods. Niobe is at the top of the pyramid, but she is also the most vulnerable. The dead bodies of her children are at the bottom, and they represent the consequences of her actions.

The moon in the painting is a symbol of the gods' power. It is the only source of light in the painting, and it casts a pale glow over the scene. The moon is a reminder that the gods are always watching, and that mortals are subject to their whims.

In the poem, the arrow that kills Niobe is a symbol of the gods' wrath. It is a swift and brutal punishment, and it is a reminder of the consequences of challenging the gods. The image of Niobe alone with her dead children is a symbol of the isolation and despair that comes with grief.


Niobe In Distress For Her Children Slain By Apollo is a masterpiece of tragedy and art. The story of Niobe is a cautionary tale about the dangers of pride and arrogance, and it is a reminder of the power of the gods. The painting and the poem both capture the essence of Niobe's tragic story, and they use symbolism to convey the themes of the story. Richard Wilson's painting is a haunting image of Niobe in a state of distress, surrounded by her dead children. Phillis Wheatley's poem is a meditation on the nature of grief and loss, and it captures the overwhelming despair that comes with tragedy. Together, the painting and the poem are a powerful reminder of the fragility of human life, and the consequences of challenging the gods.

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