'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand
What in the world is "'Twas"? The night before Christmas? Not exactly. It's like saying "it was." So why does that matter? Well, for a few reasons. One reason is that it dates the poem. This was written in the late 1700s. So, you know, it's old. Our speaker is writing in the vernacular of her day.
The second reason is formal. Yup, we're gonna get technical right off the bat. This is only the first line of the poem, but it's obviously written in iambic pentameter. (For more on this, check out "Form and Meter.") Spoiler alert: it won't last throughout the whole poem, but writing "'twas" makes for only one, unstressed syllable, while "it was" is two syllables—one stressed and one unstressed—and that would change the metrical rhythm of the poem. That's a lot of formal talk for an informal beginning, right? We'll get more specific in the form and meter section, but for now, let's just say it sounds like our speaker is paying attention to the rhythm of her lines.
The speaker says she was brought from a "Pagan" land. Where would that be? And why is it italicized? It's probably Africa, because, ummm, the title is "On Being Brought from Africa to America," but it's also a country that didn't practice Christianity. That is, Africa represents a pre-Christian state for the speaker.
Why is "Pagan" italicized? Anything written in squiggly lines must be important, right? Italics are used for titles and emphasis, but there is more than one way to read them in her poem: (1) The italics could be ironic, as if the speaker is saying to the audience, sarcastically, "Yeah, I came from a 'Pagan' land. No God. Just a bunch of uneducated, heathen fools. Yeah, just like that." But notice she used "Pagan" instead of "heathen" or "savage" or words that tend to have more negative connotations in the context of slavery and Africa. (2) So, the italics could be read as the speaker's emphasis that she came from a Godless country. Religion is obviously an important issue in her poem, and the speaker wants us to focus on her movement from her old country to her new religious and spiritual enlightenment (those italics are our emphasis: remember that for later). "Pagan" keeps the focus pretty narrow on the religious aspect of Africa alone. We don't know for sure what the speaker intends, but so far, we know where she's from is important. P.S. Watch out for more squiggly lines in the future.
And don't forget, it's "mercy" doing the bringing. We'll call that personification, since it gives human abilities (bringing) to an inanimate or abstract thing (mercy). At first glance, it's easy to say that Wheatley is grateful for the mercy of the whites who brought her to America, but this personification is a tricky little clue that there could be a deeper meaning. Was Wheatley brought to America by the mercy of whites or by the mercy of God (an "inanimate or abstract thing")?
So, the speaker seems to be saying it was a good thing that she was brought from her homeland. "Mercy" brought her and it also "taught my benighted soul to understand," although what she understands is unstated. What's important is that the speaker feels like "mercy" in her life is, in a good way, responsible for taking her from home and enlightening her soul.
What is "benighted"? Why the big words? "Benighted" means to be overcome with darkness, or to be morally and intellectually in the dark. Like, to "be nighted," right? As in, dark as the night. And if the speaker's soul is dark, then we know she's saying that, before "mercy," her soul was in the dark: unsaved, pagan, ignorant, etc. Emphasis on her soul—this line probably isn't about the color of her skin and the ignorance that's often associated with it during her time. But it's also probably not an accident that skin color would be thought of when reading that word, right?
You know those famous lines from Amazing Grace, "was blind but now I see"? If not, listen to Elvis belt it out for you and then come back. Okay, so the speaker is talking about some sort of change from darkness to light, via mercy, and that's the point.
One more thing. Line 1 ends with "land" and line 2 ends with "understand." Houston, we have an end rhyme. That's right. So far, our speaker is writing in iambic pentameter and now she's rhyming. Rhymes bind the two lines together as a small unit called a couplet but, because of their iambic pentameter, these guys are known as a heroic couplet. (Because, as you know, iambic pentameter gives you super powers.) For tons more on the rhythm and the rhyme of this poem, you can check out "Form and Meter" and "Sound Check." Just keep an eye out for more rhymes in the future and listen for how they bind the poem together.
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too: Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
The speaker states what mercy taught her: God exists, and God saves. Red alert: more mysterious italics. So, now we've got "Pagan" and "Saviour" capitalized and italicized. This could still be read with sarcasm, but it seems unlikely. The speaker's tone seems sincere, and she's emphasizing the contrast between "Pagan" and "Saviour." Through mercy, the speaker was taken from the "Pagan" land and taught that there's a God who can save her. Additionally, "Saviour" refers to God and/or Jesus, and since God was already mentioned, we could also venture into a double meaning and interpret that Wheatley's referring to Jesus, a guy who suffered but still ended up rising from the dead to be God's right-hand man (a.k.a. was saved). Sound similar to the plight of the slave at all?
There's some repetition going on in line three, too. Ready for it? "That there's" is repeated. Why? In her case, this repeated phrasing can express the speaker's passion about her topic. It's like listening to someone get excited about what she's talking about. But, there's more. Not only has "mercy" taught the speaker "that there's a God," but also that God is a "Saviour." In other words, the repetition works as a doubling effect for the new God that the speaker has learned about. Now that there's a good use of repetition, no? (See what we did there?)
Next, the speaker says she never knew about redemption or that there was a God who could save her. And she wasn't searching for redemption either.
Notice the syntax of her line. Why does she say "sought nor knew," instead of the other way around? She couldn't have sought something she didn't know about, so why not say, "I neither knew nor sought"? One reason is that, like all good neo-classical styled poets, she wants to keep her rhyme scheme going.
"Too" and "knew" rhyme. "Too" and "sought"? Eh, not so much.
Also, our speaker is someone who has gone through a change. Remember, she feels like mercy was a gift that allowed her to be brought from her "Pagan" land to the knowledge of God. The last line of her couplet is referring to a time before the speaker was changed. "Once" means, like, back then, in the good ol' days, before mercy—at least, before the speaker knew mercy. Because she was a "Pagan." In the dark.
Could there be a little irony here? Even though Wheatley's stickin' to the rhyme scheme, this "Once" breaks the iambic pentameter, and maybe she's emphasizing the change we talked about in the "Why Should I Care?" section. At one time, Wheatley didn't know Christianity, but she found it. And not only that, but she can be saved, too.
First impressions? The first half of this poem illustrates a saving—Wheatley was grateful for the kindness the whites showed her and the Christianity she was introduced to. But, maybe she was also saying what the whites wanted to hear. She was a slave, with little power, and these lines sound a bit like the very arguments whites used to justify slavery. Food for thought. The next half of the poem will dig into these lines even more.