'An Hymn To Humanity (To S.P.G. Esp)' by Phillis Wheatley

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1773O! for this dark terrestrial ball
Forsakes his azure-paved hallA prince of heav'nly birth!

Editor 1 Interpretation

An Hymn To Humanity (To S.P.G. Esp) by Phillis Wheatley: A Masterpiece of Empathy and Compassion


Phillis Wheatley was an American poet and slave who lived in the 18th century. She was the first African American woman to have her poetry published and recognized by the literary world. Her poetry was not only a testament to her talent but also a window into the lives of slaves and their struggles. One of her most poignant pieces is "An Hymn To Humanity (To S.P.G. Esp)", a poem that speaks to the humanity that connects us all.


"An Hymn To Humanity" was written in 1772 and is addressed to a man named S.P.G. Esp. Not much is known about Esp, but it is likely that he was a member of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, an Anglican organization that supported missionaries in North America. Wheatley was a devout Christian and wrote many of her poems about faith and God. However, "An Hymn To Humanity" is unique in that it focuses not on religious devotion, but on a universal sense of empathy and compassion.

Structure and Form

The poem is structured as a hymn, with each stanza beginning with the word "Hail". This repetition creates a sense of unity and harmony, as if the poem is calling out to all of humanity. The language is elevated and formal, with complex syntax and archaic words like "thou" and "thy". This formal tone adds to the sense of reverence for humanity that the poem expresses.

The poem is divided into two parts, with the first six stanzas addressing humanity as a whole, and the last four stanzas addressing the plight of slaves in particular. This structure reflects Wheatley's own experience as a slave, as well as her belief in the essential dignity of all human beings.

Themes and Interpretation

The main theme of "An Hymn To Humanity" is the interconnectedness of all human beings. Wheatley writes, "All human race are sons of one great sire", emphasizing the idea that we all come from the same source and are therefore bound together. She also writes, "Thy essence is the same in ev'ry clime", suggesting that our humanity transcends cultural and geographic boundaries.

This sense of unity is further emphasized in the second half of the poem, where Wheatley addresses the plight of slaves. She writes, "Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn, / Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn". This line refers to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, which was a landmark moment in the struggle for freedom and equality. By celebrating this moment, Wheatley is highlighting the fact that the liberation of one group of people benefits all of humanity.

Another important theme in the poem is empathy and compassion. Wheatley writes, "From thee are all the joys of life derived", suggesting that our ability to feel love and happiness is rooted in our capacity for empathy. She also writes, "O may thy influence, like the heav'nly fire, / Propagate itself from breast to breast". This line expresses the hope that our sense of compassion can spread from person to person, creating a more just and humane society.

Literary Devices

Wheatley employs a number of literary devices in "An Hymn To Humanity" to convey her message. One of the most striking is her use of personification. She personifies humanity as a "queen", a "sovereign", and a "nurse", imbuing it with a sense of dignity and importance. She also personifies freedom as a woman who "rose New-England to adorn", suggesting that freedom is not just an abstract concept but a living, breathing force.

The poem also contains a number of biblical allusions, reflecting Wheatley's deep faith. For example, she writes, "Hail, holy love, that first began to move / On the first chaos in eternal mind". This line echoes the opening lines of Genesis, which describe the creation of the universe out of chaos. By connecting love to this primal moment, Wheatley suggests that love is a fundamental force in the universe.

Finally, the poem also contains a number of rhetorical questions. For example, Wheatley asks, "Is there a heart that music cannot melt?" and "Is there who, with a sceptic's eye, can look / Upon this fair creation, and deny?" These questions are designed to provoke the reader's imagination and encourage them to consider the poem's themes more deeply.


"An Hymn To Humanity (To S.P.G. Esp)" is a powerful poem that speaks to the essential dignity and interconnectedness of all human beings. Through its use of personification, biblical allusions, and rhetorical questions, it conveys a sense of empathy and compassion that is as relevant today as it was in Wheatley's time. By celebrating the abolition of slavery and emphasizing the importance of love and compassion, Wheatley offers a vision of a more just and humane society.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

An Hymn To Humanity: A Masterpiece of Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry, was a remarkable figure in the history of American literature. Her works were not only a reflection of her own experiences but also a powerful voice for the abolitionist movement. One of her most famous poems, "An Hymn To Humanity," is a masterpiece that celebrates the beauty and dignity of all human beings.

The poem, dedicated to S.P.G. Esp, is a hymn that praises humanity as a whole. It begins with a description of the creation of the world and the birth of humanity. Wheatley writes, "Lo! Earth receives him from the bending skies; Sink down ye mountains, and ye valleys rise; With heads declined, ye cedars, homage pay; Be smooth, ye rocks; ye rapid floods, give way!" These lines set the tone for the rest of the poem, which is a celebration of the power and majesty of humanity.

Wheatley's use of language is particularly striking in this poem. She employs a range of poetic devices, including alliteration, metaphor, and personification, to create a vivid and powerful image of humanity. For example, she writes, "See, from the brake the whirring pheasant springs, And mounts exulting on triumphant wings: Short is his joy; he feels the fiery wound, Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground." Here, Wheatley uses personification to bring the pheasant to life, and the metaphor of the "fiery wound" to describe the pain and suffering that all creatures experience.

Throughout the poem, Wheatley emphasizes the importance of treating all human beings with respect and dignity. She writes, "All-conquering virtue, Heaven-ascending flame, Thou who on Raphael's pinion didst aspire, High as the glories of th' etherial frame, And like the lightning's blaze, and inake of fire!" These lines suggest that virtue is the key to achieving greatness, and that all human beings have the potential to reach the heights of the "etherial frame."

Wheatley also addresses the issue of slavery in this poem, although she does so indirectly. She writes, "Say, ye who best can tell, ye happy few, Who saw him in the softest light of love, His tenderest passions in the bosom glow, Can ye deny the source from whence they flow?" These lines suggest that even those who are enslaved are capable of experiencing love and tenderness, and that their humanity should be recognized and respected.

In conclusion, "An Hymn To Humanity" is a powerful and moving poem that celebrates the beauty and dignity of all human beings. Wheatley's use of language and poetic devices creates a vivid and powerful image of humanity, and her emphasis on the importance of treating all people with respect and dignity is particularly relevant today. This poem is a testament to the power of poetry to inspire and uplift, and to the enduring legacy of Phillis Wheatley as a writer and a voice for justice and equality.

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