MAECENAS, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds played.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
Their noble strains your equal genius shares 5
In softer language, and diviner airs.
While Homer paints lo! circumfus’d in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;
Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heaven quakes, earth trembles, and the shores resound. 10
Great Sire of verse, before my mortal eyes,
The lightnings blaze across the vaulted skies;
And, as the thunder shakes the heav’nly plains,
A deep-felt horror thrills thro’ all my veins.
When gentler strains demand thy graceful song, 15
The length’ning line moves languishing along.
When great Patroclus courts Achilles’ aid,
The grateful tribute of my tears is paid;
Prone on the shore he feels the pangs of love,
And stern Pelides tenderest passions move. 20
Great Maro’s strain in heav’nly numbers flows,
The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows.
O, could I rival thine and Virgil’s page,
Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;
Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn, 25
And the same ardors in my soul should burn:
Then should my song in bolder notes arise,
And all my numbers pleasingly surprise;
But here I sit and mourn a grov’ling mind,
That fain would mount, and ride upon the wind. 30
Not you, my friend, these plaintive strains become,
Not you, whose bosom is the Muses home;
When they from tow’ring Helicon retire,
They fan in you the bright immortal fire,
But I, less happy, cannot raise the song, 35
The falt’ring music dies upon my tongue.
The happier Terence all the choir inspired,
His soul replenish’d, and his bosom fir’d;
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,
To one alone of Afric’s sable race; 40
From age to age, transmitting thus his name
With the first glory in the rolls of fame?
Thy virtues, great Maecenas! shall be sung
In praise of him, from whom those virtues sprung:
While blooming wreaths around thy temples spread, 45
I’ll snatch a laurel from thine honour’d head,
While you indulgent smile upon the deed.
As long as Thames in streams majestic flows,
Or Naiads in their oozy beds repose,
While Phoebus reigns above the starry train, 50
While bright Aurora purples o’er the main,
So long, great Sir, the muse thy praise shall sing,
So long thy praise shall make Parnassus ring:
Then grant, Maecenas, thy paternal rays,
Hear me propitious and defend my lays. 55
Title Maecenas Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (c.70 BC-c. 8 BC), Roman politician, counselor to the emperor Augustus, and wealthy patron of such poets as Virgil and Horace. His name became synonymous with ideal literary patronage by the eighteenth century (Encyclopedia Britannica). Likely a reference to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), to whom Wheatley dedicated her 1773 volume of poems (Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage, p. 106).
1 Myrtle “An evergreen shrub” (OED).
7 Homer Greek poet, famous for epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.
17 Patroclus Beloved friend of Achilles; Achilles The hero and main subject of the epic poem The Iliad. Wheatley is alluding to Book 16, ll. 40-45, in which Patroclus asks Achilles to lend him his armour to lead the Myrmidons into battle with the Trojans (OCD).
20 Pelides Another name for Achilles.
21 Maro Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC – 19 BC), ancient Roman poet, more commonly known as “Virgil.”
22 the Nine The Muses, nine Greek goddesses who ruled over the arts and sciences.
24 Mantuan Sage Virgil was born in Andes, a village near Mantua in northern Italy (OCD).
33 Helicon Mountain sacred to the Muses, “hence used allusively in reference to poetic inspiration” (OED).
37 Terence “An African by Birth” [Author’s Note], Publius Terentius (c.190 BC – c.159 BC), ancient Roman playwright of North African descent (OCD).
46 Laurel “Leaves woven into a wreath worn on the head, given to poets as a reward for excellence” (OED).
48 Thames The river that flows through London. Wheatley traveled to London with Nathaniel Wheatley in 1773 to support the publication of her poems.
49 Naiads Water nymphs “thought to inhabit rivers, springs, etc.” (OED).
51 Aurora Roman goddess of the dawn (OED).
53 Parnassus A mountain in central Greece, home of the Muses.
Source: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773), pp. 9-11 [Google Books]
Edited by Chrisangel Colon