Tag Archives: Phillis Wheatley

“Phillis reverences Cain in line 7.”

Reading extensively in an author’s works, or even with deep involvement reading a single work by an author, can lead us to feel an intimacy with the writer that is almost like a personal relationship, albeit one-sided in that only the reader is aware of the relationship. It’s also possible to fall in love with, or develop protective feelings for, a character in a literary work (again, one-sided—alas, if that character is Lord Peter Wimsey and the reader falls so deeply in love with him that no flesh-and-blood man can compete…). But even then, the reader does not begin referring to the writer, or the character, by nickname, in the case of the character, or first name, in the case of the author. In an earlier time, not even the characters called each other by first name: how late in Pride and Prejudice before Elizabeth Bennet permits herself to call the man she comes to love anything but “Mr. Darcy,” for instance?

Students, on the other hand, seem to get chummy very quickly with the characters and authors they read, blithely throwing protocols to the wind.  At its most extreme, this practice can blow a student to some pretty strange places. I once had a student who wrote that her favorite composer was a German gentleman called Bay Toven. (Evidently she knew of him only by way of her ear…) After the first sentence, she referred to him for the rest of the paper simply as “Bay”: “Bay could not hear his own music, being unfortunately deaf.” This was, remember, her favorite composer.

On a side note, I have to mention that some students don’t use any kind of name for their professors. In the last few years I have received many emails that begin simply “Hey.” I might not mind so much if they went on, “I just had to say THANX for that great class!” But they rarely do; usually it’s “I lost the syllabus, so could you send me another one?” or “I worked hard on that paper and think a C is too low of a grade.” Yeah, Hey.

But let’s get back to Phillis.

“Phillis” is Phillis Wheatley, a serious and delightful poet of the eighteenth century, the second published African American and first published African-American woman. Named Phillis after the ship that brought her from Africa as a slave, and Wheatley for the family who bought her in Boston, she showed aptitude for classical languages and literature at an early age, talents the Wheatleys supported and helped to develop. She was freed at their death, but had never truly been treated as a slave while with their family; they had even traveled to England for her sake because they thought she had a better chance there of being recognized as a writer. My students expect protest poetry from her, but what they read instead is elegant verse in the forms and styles popular at the time, and expressions of gratitude for the life she lived.

The poem my student is referring to is one of the latter: “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She praises the good fortune that brought her to a land where she could become a Christian. The poem is lovely, if somewhat disturbing to a modern reader whose “racial” ideas are less accepting of 18th-century definitions than hers. Here it is, although you can follow the link above and read it at The Poetry Foundation with links to more information:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Would you refer to her as “Phillis”?

Now, let’s get to my other problem with this sentence: the word “reverences.” Of course my student didn’t mean “reverences”—that is, “regard[s] or treat[s] with reverence,” “reverence” here meaning “honor or respect felt or shown” or “a gesture of respect, such as a bow.” He wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I asked him why he thought Phillis was bowing to Cain in line 7. But he had heard, on many an educated lip, “reverences” used in the way he uses it, meaning “refers to,” and he wanted to use it too. He hasn’t read many educated papers, though, or he would know that the mot du jour he heard is not “reverence,” but “reference.”

He’s chosen a word that’s doubly wrong: the one he’s written doesn’t mean what he thinks it does (and is completely bizarre when used with Cain!), and the word he thinks it is shouldn’t be used that way either. But I may be the last living objector to the use of “reference” as a verb, and especially as the kind of verb he’s trying to use.

What ever happened to words and phrases such as “alludes to,” “refers to,” “makes reference to,” “mentions,” “points to,” “compares…with”? I know English is a living language, but “references” as a verb seems to have swept all these other, more traditionally correct, terms suddenly away. I hear it from the mouths of scholars as well as the mouths of babes; it peppers academic papers so thickly as to cause sneezing. Why it caught on I cannot say, unless it just sounds so intellectual? or is so lazy? or maybe both?

Here’s friend Webster’s New Collegiate as of 1973, which to me isn’t so long ago:

“Reference (n): 1. the act of referring or consulting; 2: a bearing on the matter; 3: something that refers, as allusion or mention, something that refers a reader to another source of information, consultation of sources of information; 4: one referred to or consulted as a person to whom inquiries as to character or ability can be made, a statement of the qualifications of a person seeking employment, a source of information to which a reader is referred, or a book such as a dictionary or encyclopedia concerning useful facts or information.”

Webster does acknowledge a verb form: “Reference (vt): 1: to supply with references, to cite in or as a reference; 2: to put in a form, as a table, adapted to easy reference.”

Neither of these definitions describes the usage employed by my student (and so many, many others).

“Phillis” doesn’t reference Cain; she makes reference to, or refers to, or alludes to Cain. She’s not interested in his opinion, his authority, or his recommendation; she isn’t suggesting that he is a source of information or turning him into a table. Actually she’s using a then-popular figure of speech in an interesting way: the conflation of “black” of skin and “black” of sin implied in the simile becomes one single attribute, and since Christians pray that God refine their own sin-blackened hearts they should also recognize that people who are black can be “refined,” or purified, to fit their souls equally well for heaven. She is urging Christians to view people of the “sable race” as their potential fellow angels. Her mention of Cain is, then, a learned allusion, full of conceptual substance, not a “referencing.”

But I’m afraid that this is yet another battle I am doomed to lose. Once an error or grotesquery becomes widespread among multiple classes of users, one aging prof, armed with no matter how mighty a sword, can’t withstand it. I fear it is too late for the blithe users of “reference” as a verb to have their sin refined away, because far from recognizing it as a sin, they hold it in an unbreakable embrace—yea, reverence it.

I’ll just have to try to become deaf to it. Like Bay.