Jupiter Hammon Criticism - Essay

Oscar Wegelin (essay date 1915)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Biographical Sketch," in America's First Negro Poet: The Complete Works of Jupiter Hammon of Long Island, edited by Stanley Austin Ransom, Jr., Kennikat Press, 1970, pp. 29-31.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1915, Wegelin appraises Hammon's poetry as "commonplace" but concludes that his role as America's first black poet is noteworthy.]

As a poet Hammon will certainly not rank among the "Immortals." His verse is stilted, and while some of his rhymings are fairly even, we can easily comprehend that they were written by one not well versed in the art of poesy. They have a sameness which is wearying to the reader and there is too much reiteration, in some cases the same or nearly the same words being employed again and again.

His verse is saturated with a religious feeling not always well expressed, as he did not possess the ability to use the right word at the proper time. Hammon was undoubtedly deeply religious, but his religion was somewhat tinged with narrowness and superstition, a not uncommon fault of the time in which he lived and wrote.

Although grammatically almost perfect, it seems certain that an abler and more experienced hand than his own was responsible for this.

Compared with the verses of Phillis Wheatley, his lines are commonplace and few would care to read them more than once. When we consider, however, that this poor slave had probably no other learning than what he had been enabled to secure for himself during his hours of relaxation from labor, it is surprising that the results are not more meagre....

(The entire section is 686 words.)

Kenny J. Williams (essay date 1970)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "A New Home in a New Land," in They Also Spoke: An Essay on Negro Literature in America, 1787-1930, Townsend Press, 1970, pp. 3-49.

[In the following excerpt, Williams compares Hammon's poetry to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American religious verse.]

[Hammon's] first publication was a poem of eighty-eight lines entitled An Evening Thought; Salvation by Christ, With Penetential Cries. The title page carries his name and asserts that he is a slave "belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen's Village, on Long Island," and the poem is dated December 25, 1760. As the title pages of his publications indicate, Hammon belonged to three different members of...

(The entire section is 1622 words.)

Sidney Kaplan (essay date 1973)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jupiter Hammon," in The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770-1800, New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1973, pp. 171-80.

[In the following excerpt, Kaplan briefly comments on the prominence of religion in Hammon's verse.]

It is altogether possible that Jupiter Hammon was a preacher to the slaves in the communities of Long Island and Connecticut where he labored for the Lloyds. An Evening Thought, an antiphonal poem echoing the word "Salvation" in twenty-three of its eighty-eight lines, has all the ringing ecstatic hope for heavenly freedom with "tender love" that charges the earliest spirituals of the enslaved. The preacher calls and the flock responds—thus the "Penetential Cries."

Jupiter Hammon wrote this hymn on Christmas Day of 1760, and for the next forty years, whenever he cried out in print to his black brothers and sisters, his theme, more or less, was always salvation. Yet there are hints towards the end of his career of a certain impatience, a feeling that freedom was possible—and desirable—in the Here as well as in the After.

It seems significant that his next poem of record, printed as a broadside eighteen years later when he was sixty-seven years old, is An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly in twenty-one scripture-glossed quatrains, "published by the Author, and a number of his friends, who desire to join with him in their best regards" to "the Ethiopian Poetess." Five years after Phillis's Poems of 1773, Hammon echoes her sense of miracle in being rescued from pagan Africa.

But did Hammon detect in her, at times, a note of frustration, even protest (which he took pains to conceal in his own poems)?

The "holy word" of this stanza is tagged to Psalm XIII, in which "David complaineth of delay in help."

How long wilt thou forget me O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?

How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.

R. Roderick Palmer (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jupiter Hammon's Poetic Exhortations," in CLA Journal, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, September, 1974, pp. 22-8.

[In the following excerpt, Palmer criticizes Hammon's poetic style and his "intoxication " with religion, suggesting that Hammon could have made a stronger statement against slavery.]

Throughout his life, Hammon was able to reach remarkable stages of self-awareness and self-assertiveness. In this regard, Hughes and Bontemps state that "Hammon was an intelligent and privileged slave, respected by his master for his skill with tools and by some of his fellow slaves for his power as a preacher" [Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, eds., The Poetry of the...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)

Lonnell E. Johnson (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dilemma of the Dutiful Servant: The Poetry of Jupiter Hammon," in Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 105-17.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson discusses factors that might have influenced Hammon's writings. These factors include Hammon's religion, his life as a slave, eighteenth-century politics and society, and the works of other writers.]

The poetry of Hammon reveals a devoutly religious man who assimilates the predominant religious views of colonial New England. Because of this he has been accused of being too conciliatory in his attitude toward enslavement....

(The entire section is 2695 words.)

Sondra A. O'Neale (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries" and others, in Jupiter Hammon and the Biblical Beginnings of African-American Literature, The American Theological Library Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993, pp. 41-59, 66-75, 134-41, 191-204.

[In the following excerpt O'Neale argues that Hammon was actually one of this country's first African American protest writers. And given the context of eighteenth century society, and especially the fact that he was a slave, Hammon had to couch his criticism of slavery in religious terminology. O'Neale insists that critics who fault Hammon's poetry for its apparent focus on religious salvation rather that...

(The entire section is 7422 words.)