- Human Nature Delineated:Richard Lewis's A Rhapsody
Richard Lewis, best known as a nature poet for his topographical poem "A Journey from Patapsko to Annapolis, April 4, 1730," examines human nature in his poem A Rhapsody, which appeared in the following year. In A Rhapsody, Lewis versifies a then well-known prayer from English deist William Wollaston's book The Religion of Nature Delineated, but sets the prayer within a context that critiques Wollaston's rationalistic deism and instead emphasizes the centrality of emotion in human perception and spirituality. His recontextualization uses the conventions of classical pastoral elegy, shows the influence of works of other deists, especially Shaftesbury, and anticipates the solitary conversion narratives that would emerge in English belles-lettres over the next decade.
Wollaston's prayer appeared in the final chapter of The Religion of Nature Delineated , his rationalistic treatise on morality. The book became popular, going through at least nine additional English editions, and was soon published in French and German editions. Its popularity in the American colonies, especially in the mid-Atlantic literary circles to which Lewis had connections, is documented in the correspondence between Pennsylvanian colonial leader James Logan and the Quaker poet Susanna Wright (Blecki and Treese 240). The prayer, which summarizes the theist position Wollaston has reached in the preceding chapters, also became popular, circulated independently, and was published appended to other authors' essays.
Lewis's A Rhapsody first appeared in broadside on 1 March 1731/2 and was reprinted, in the colonies, in a 1733 Maryland Gazette and, in London, in a 1734 issue of the Gentleman's Magazine (Lemay 364). The poem provides a setting, speaker, and narrative context for Wollaston's prayer. It narrates the thought process of a man prompted to contemplate both his own mortality and the instability of his emotional state by wandering alone among rural scenery. Lines 1 through 44 describe and extol the scene, and [End Page 63] at line 45, the speaker begins analogizing aspects of the natural scene to the stages of human life. At line 92, the poem becomes a versification of Wollaston's prayer, acknowledging the source in a marginal note.
In Wollaston's text, the prayer begins with an invocation and continues with petitions:
Almighty being, upon whom depends the existence of the world, and by whose providence I have been preserved to this moment, and injoyd many undeserved advantages, that He would graciously accept my grateful sense and acknowledgments of all His beneficence toward me: that He would suffer no being to injure me, no misfortune to befall me, nor me to hurt myself by any error or misconduct of my own: that He would vouchsafe me clear and distinct perceptions of things; [that] having faithfully discharged my duty to my family and friends, and endeavored to improve my self in virtuous habits and useful knowledge. I may at last make a decent, and happy exit, and then find myself in some better state.(120)
In Lewis's poem, the prayer is presented with few changes other than those required by versification. The prayer begins with an introductory apostrophe:
Almighty Lord! thy Providential Care Hath kept me, since I first drew vital Air; And tho' Misfortunes have my Life annoy'd, Desertless, many Blessings I've enjoy'd. Oh! graciously accept my grateful Sense, Acknowledging thy great Beneficence:(92–97)
Lewis continues, versifying Wollaston's petitions:
From all my Faults and Follies set me free, From their ill consequences deliver me; And with such Pow'rs my fickle Mind endue, That I my future Course may safe pursue: In all those Trials I am doom'd to bear, While thro' the stormy Sea of Life I steer, Let Reason guide me with unfailing Care. And that with Comfort I may act my Part, May Piety and Wisdom fill my Heart. [End Page 64] Let no injurious Being cause my Thrall, Nor let Misfortune heavy on me fall. Let not my own Misconduct work my Woe, Nor Error make Me to my self a Foe. That I may Truth obtain divinely fair, Let my Perceptions be distinct and clear.(107–12)