Frederick Douglass the Mystic,
And the Hidden Structure of His First Autobiography:
His Employment of the Mystical Psalms Ladder
Frederick Douglass’ first autobiography, entitled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, has long been known as an immensely powerful account of the evils of slavery, and of the kinds of sufferings undergone by millions of slaves. Additionally, Frederick Douglass’ skills as a writer, thinker, orator, champion of moral Truth and decency, and tireless worker for Justice, are also known and enshrined in national and global memory. He may be the most authentic American hero we have.
What has not been known is that Frederick Douglass is also a mystic. His Narrative is overflowing with references to hidden mystical realities in the Bible. Shakespeare does this too. Douglass himself will nod to Shakespeare’s hidden discussion of the Mystical Psalm Structures, as we shall see.
A central Psalm Structure is the Ladder.
The entire Narrative has been carefully constructed by Douglass to present anew the Mystical Psalms Ladder in the very architecture of his book. He does this in multiple ways.
This essay is a first attempt to chart how Douglass incorporates the Mystical Psalms Ladder into the very structure of his Narrative.
As a prelude to the discussion of the Ladder, the first part of the essay will discuss how Frederick Douglass was in a mystical relationship with God, with the Holy Spirit. Douglass, like other mystics, was in a living relationship with the Holy Spirit.
After that treatment of the holiness of Frederick Douglass, the rest of this essay will discuss how he engineered the Mystical Psalms Ladder into his work. Part II will discuss the Ladder Structure he uses for his work, the amazing Chapter X of the Narrative, and other realities. At the end of the work is a discussion of how Douglass and Shakespeare also make
(The text used for this essay is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Written by Himself), in the edition by Barnes and Noble. The fine Introduction and Notes for this volume are written by Robert G. O’Meally.)
Frederick Douglass the Mystic:
His Direct and Indirect References to the Holy Spirit
Frederick Douglass became closer to God. While he does not speak much about his relationship with God, what he says is revealing.
To say it from another angle: It being the case that there are hidden mystical structures in Douglass’ book, it should not be surprising that he speaks directly (if briefly) of his relationship with the Holy Spirit. Here is an excerpt from the next-to-last paragraph of Chapter V:
…Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors. I regarded the selection of myself as being somewhat remarkable.
And two sentences later, the final paragraph of Chapter V:
I may be deemed superstitious, and even egotistical, in regarding this event as a special interposition of divine Providence in my favor. But I should be false to the earliest sentiments of my soul, if I suppressed the opinion. I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom. This good spirit was from God, and to him I offer thanksgiving and praise.
However, after this initial declaration of the Holy Spirit’s closeness to him, and the obvious fact that he is a beloved child of God, the references to the Holy Spirit become more veiled. The rest of this section shall explore these later allusions to experiences of the Holy Spirit.
In the third paragraph of the next chapter, which is a long paragraph, his current ‘master’, Mr. Auld, scolds Mrs. Auld, because she had the audacity to teach young Frederick the initial lessons of reading. Mr. Auld goes on a tirade about why this would be a bad development for white people, who benefit from the unpaid work of slaves, and for the slaves themselves. Now, this conversation had a profound effect on young Douglass. Immediately after Auld’s rant, Douglass writes:
These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master.
Now, this might seem less like the Spirit’s guidance, and more like overhearing a nasty conversation between the master and his wife. However, a Spiritual teacher once said that we can learn from any thing that we might hear, spoken by anyone. To say it differently: the Holy Spirit can give us valuable hints and knowledge through any medium the Spirit chooses, including words of idiots and enemies. In the second sentence of this paragraph, Douglass indeed calls this discovery a “special revelation.”
Words of people can hold messages that last a long time for us. In Chapter VII, he meets two kind Irishmen who suggest to him that he break for freedom. He remembered their suggestion for a long time afterwards, starting a habit of thought that helped lead to his eventual freedom.
The long Chapter X is perhaps the most important chapter of the Narrative. It begins with Douglass, on his first day at a new farm with a new master, being ordered to do something he had never done before. The evil Mr. Covey gives too-hasty instruction to Douglass about the means to guide the left-hand and right-hand oxen of the cart he was to move and load. Why does Douglass give us this information? The story he tells could as easily have been told without this information about the ox on the right and the ox on the left. And Douglass does not waste words.
However, it happens that “left” and “right” are part of the language of the Holy Spirit. Chapter X is full of hints and allusions to the subtle but direct communication of the Holy Spirit, as we shall see. Douglass begins the chapter with a nod to a concrete and real part of the (yet hidden) language of the Holy Spirit.
Right after this is a strong allusion to a highly spiritual author, Dante. In the Comedy, his main work, various guides appear and lead Dante through the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, resulting in a glimpse of the Beatific Vision. After the yoke of oxen take off running out of control, crash the cart, and cause general chaos in the forest, Douglass writes, “…How I escaped death, I do not know. There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me.” This solitude in a new strange forest is a direct reference to the first words of Dante’s Inferno.
Because of this fiasco with the oxen, Douglass is severely whipped.
A few pages later, we come to one of the low points, a nadir, a depth, such as we encounter in the Inferno. Douglass says that he has finally been broken by the evil Mr. Covey. “I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!” And paragraphs later we have another echo of the Inferno, as Douglass says, “I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me!”
It is telling that Douglass speaks of the “soul” and the “dark night.” The “dark night” is a technical term in spiritual conversation. It is a time when God enters our life more intimately. It seems at first to be all smoke, confusion, pain, chaos, and suffering. However, it is ultimately positive, as God is doing powerful healing work in our soul, and equipping and preparing us to be greater accomplices of the Holy Spirit. The “dark night” yokes us to the Holy Spirit. Recall the yoked oxen from the beginning of the chapter. St. Luke, the Beloved Physician, competes with St. John as the most spiritual writer of the Bible, if such an outrageous statement can safely be made. In his Gospel and in his Acts of the Apostles, Luke shows numerous times how profoundly he understands the ways in which the soul and the Holy Spirit can learn to work and dance together. If we learn how to access the deep subterranean rivers of Luke’s work, he is teaching us constantly the language of the Holy Spirit! This journey that Luke describes has difficult times and suffering, but leads to union with Christ, and to Paradise.
Back to Dante: In his journey to Paradise, Dante must pass through the depths of hell first. St. John of the Cross, who is one of the best writers on the “Dark Night of the Soul,” says that we must pass through the Cross.
This is a cross-time, a crucifixion, for Douglass. Having escaped the worst evils of slavery in his early youth, the first part of this year that he is forced to spend with evil Mr. Covey, however, is a living hell.
He was tempted to murder Covey, then to take his own life. However, he “…was prevented by a combination of hope and fear.” This too is the Holy Spirit at work. The Holy Spirit understands humanity with more intimacy than we can imagine. The Spirit knows precisely how to activate our emotions to assist us along the path that we must walk in the healing and growth that the Spirit wants to give us. “Hope” keeps us going. “Fear” keeps us sane and stable while we undergo the wildness of the Spiritual Journey. “Fear of the Lord” is a great virtue in the Bible; it could also be translated as “Awe of the Lord,” and could be interpreted as “Frequent Sheer Amazement with new parts of the Journey and of Life.” When we really see the handiwork of the Holy Spirit, it is stunning. Frederick Douglass knows that there is a Divine friend helping him. Quoting Job, Douglass says he knows that, “There is a better day coming.”
A few pages later, still in Chapter X, we see Douglass working hard in the afternoon of one of the hottest days of August that year. He was sick, and he collapsed. Mr. Covey hears the stoppage of the work, and comes storming over. Evil Covey takes a wooden stick, and smashes Douglass’ head, which will soon cover him in blood, from the “crown of my head to my feet.” We are reminded of the Passion of Jesus. Douglass collapses back to the ground. However, right after this, Douglass is able to make a temporary escape from evil Covey to his main “owner,” a move which saves Douglass’ life and prepares the way for his eventual permanent escape. A very slight line, just four words, shines a hidden but huge light upon the close observation of the Spirit upon the situation of Douglass. In fact, in this very slight line, it seems that the Holy Spirit directly intervenes. Right after Douglass receives this shattering blow to the head, when he is already sick and weak, Douglass says: “In a short time after receiving this blow, my head grew better.” Well, how did that happen? Usually, people who are sick, weak, and undernourished, when they are struck a vicious blow on the head, tend to become more unwell and immobile! So how did “my head grew better” to be able to walk the 7 miles to his more permanent master and to effect the eventual escape that will propel Douglass to a new mode of existence? Perhaps this was a direct intervention by the Holy Spirit. There is not a document scribed in gold to mark the occasion. Rather, there is a subtle but clear healing. He is able to rise, temporarily escape, and find refuge 7 miles away. A few minutes later, Covey realizes Douglass has fled. Furious, Covey pursues him, but fails to find him.
Finding a temporary haven with Master Thomas, he rests that night, and achieves some recuperation. However, the next day, Master Thomas sends him back to the evil Covey. Covey spots his arrival, and approaches Douglass with “…his cowskin, to give me another whipping.” Seeing this, Douglass gives him the slip and hides in the cornfield. It was as if he did this unconsciously. He says, “My behavior was altogether unaccountable.” This too is highly Spiritual. When we are working more deeply with the Holy Spirit, sometimes we do things that surprise us. We react and respond in situations with new skills we did not know we had, as if a sudden inspiration bequeathed new gifts to us.
Douglass makes another temporary escape-retreat, and runs into his acquaintance Sandy Jenkins, a slave who has a free wife. Sandy gives him a mysterious lesson about the ways and language of the Spirit. “He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey; but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me.” (The italics are Douglass’.) Douglass is immediately skeptical, and rejects the idea. However, Sandy really got his attention, “with much earnestness,” imploring and reasoning with Douglass to do it. Douglass did it. It worked.
Now: Neither the Holy Spirit nor Douglass abide by witchcraft or spells or other forms of “magic.”
However, Sandy could be impressing upon Douglass some truth about the right side.
In the language of the Holy Spirit, the “right side” often means “No.” It can also signify to the person receiving the signal that they should resist whatever is happening, or being said, in an encounter with another person. In the remaining six months that Douglass would spend with Covey, perhaps the Holy Spirit was shifting gears with Douglass, teaching him powerful skills of resistance.
So the main import of this story is not the magical talisman effect of the unnamed “root.” Rather, the Holy Spirit was coaching Douglass on the activation of the hitherto dormant portions of his animus (that part of the psyche complementing the anima), bringing his soul to a greater state of integration and power. After this, Douglass indeed becomes more and more an eminently powerful person, and will grow in virtue and strength for the rest of his life.
The new posture, the new attitude of Douglass, will soon be tested. In one of the most thrilling episodes of the book, Covey cunningly bides his time, and then eventually tries to corner Douglass and give him a severe whipping and beating for his previous disobedience and independent behavior. What happens next is nothing short of a revolution in the life of Douglass, enabling everything that follows in his glorious life to develop.
In the fight that Douglass eventually has with Covey, Covey and his sidekick “attempted to tie my right hand.” They failed. It is as if they are trying to restrict the developing portion of Douglass’ psyche, his ability to resist. Douglass sharply kicks Covey’s assistant under his ribs, knocking him out of the melee.
Another liminal, spiritual event occurs later in Chapter X. Douglass and several of his friends were planning to escape on a Saturday evening. Friday night was a sleepless one for Douglass, as one might imagine. He was especially anxious, because he was the leader of the group. He writes of Saturday:
“The first two hours of that morning were such as I never experienced before, and hope never to again. Early in the morning, we went, as usual, to the field. We were spreading manure; and all at once, while thus engaged, I was overwhelmed with an indescribable feeling, in the fulness of which I turned to Sandy, who was near by, and said, ‘We are betrayed!’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘that thought has this moment struck me.’ We said no more. I was never more certain of any thing.”
Why would the Spirit inform him that his first attempt at escaping was about to fail? Perhaps so that he would not be stunned when the owners and authorities confronted them. He would be prepared when it happened.
Additionally, he had to destroy the fake permission-to-travel letter that he had previously written, and he needed to have his wits about him to destroy it. Indeed, the destruction of that letter seems to be another plan of the Spirit. When the slaves are captured before they could make their departure, a fight broke out between them and the authorities: “During the scuffle, I managed, I know not how, to get my pass out, and, without being discovered, put it into the fire.” The Spirit was helping him here.
In conclusion to this part of the essay, near the end of Chapter X, when Douglass is kicked in the eye, this may be a reference to a mystical experience that accompanied the difficult incident. We shall discuss this more below.
This section has considered ways in which Douglass clearly or quietly alludes to events that reveal action of the Holy Spirit.
An Overview of the Mystical Psalms Ladder
In the Narrative
Frederick Douglass’ first autobiography is in the shape of a Ladder, specifically, the Mystical Psalms Ladder that the Holy Spirit hid in the Book of Psalms.
Some necessary background: The Holy Spirit chose the least organized book of the Bible, the Book of Psalms, to be the bearer of amazing mystical patterns, which are both beautiful and important, and which carry a great deal of meaning and application for us today. A forthcoming book shall present these wonders. Because is has not been published yet, this part of the essay could be a bit dense; however, one may still understand the basic developments that are being charted in this present essay. Here is a rough draft of the introduction of the Psalms material; this introduction provides pictures and information about the Ladder of the Psalms:
In the first 12 or 13 centuries after Christ, there are at least twenty theological Christian writers who know of the Mystical Psalm Structures. All the Evangelists and most of the New Testament writers know these marvels. Later Christians who know the Mystical Psalm Structures include St. Antony of Egypt, St. Evagrius Ponticus, the unknown author of the Gospel of Thomas, St. Benedict (Founder of Western monasticism), and, much later, St. Teresa of Avila, her friend St. John of the Cross, and, in Greece, St. Gregory Palamas.
Perhaps with Petrarch in the 13th century, the river of “those-who-know” picks up and switches riverbeds, over to the poets. From Petrarch, the knowledge eventually moved to some of the English Sonneteers, including Philip Sidney, William Shakespeare, Lady Mary Wroth, and later, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
It makes sense that the poets learned, or were shown, these wonders. After all, the Psalms are poem-prayer-songs.
Later English-speaking poets who know include Wallace Stevens, Owen Dodson, and Maya Angelou. (Angelou alludes to several features of Frederick Douglass’ work.)
Rainier Maria Rilke, the German poet, knew, as do Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, who wrote in Spanish.
Although theological themes inundate his book, and although his writing is often inspired and extremely powerful, Douglass’ Narrative is neither poetry nor theology. It is prose literature. And the Narrative may be the first prose literature to include a knowledge of the Mystical Psalm Structures. The fact that this literature is an autobiography of a slave who becomes free is telling.
A bit more background: Until now, all of these authors have kept their knowledge secret. They have not shouted out what they knew about these Mystical Realities in the Bible. This is fully in accord with the plan of the Holy Spirit, who wanted and planned for these matters to be kept in precise small circles of those who know. Now, however, is the time for Humanity to embrace these wonders—indeed, they are not for Christians alone, but also have tendrils and rivers of connection to Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and more.
Such a thing might seem impossible. However, it is true.
The Shape of the Narrative
The hidden Ladder of the Psalms has 12 steps. Douglass’ Narrative has 12 parts. Using Roman numerals, there are 11 numbered chapters in the Narrative, I – XI. And there is the Appendix, which is the 12th part.
The 12 parts (11 chapters, plus the Appendix) of the Narrative form a direct parallel with the Ladder and its 12 steps. This is an important and basic feature of the Narrative; it is one of the ways in which Douglass’ work incorporates the structure of the Mystical Psalms Ladder.
Here is the shape of the Mystical Psalms Ladder, from the link given above. The numbers that make the Ladder are the numbers of those Psalms:
Note that the left side of the Ladder is formed by the numbers that are multiples of 12, all the way to “12 squared,” 144. The 25 Psalm title numbers that form the Ladder are all multiples of 6.
Douglass gives us many clues that he knows about the Ladder, and uses it as the main architectural structure of his book.
THE WORD “LADDER”
The word “ladder” appears once in the work, in Chapter VII. It is in a paragraph that begins, “In the same book, I met with one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches on and in behalf of Catholic emancipation. These were choice documents to me. I read them over and over again with unabated interest. They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance. The moral which I gained from the dialogue was the power of truth over the conscience of even a slaveholder. What I got from Sheridan was a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights.” Douglass is here referring to the Irish and Catholic fight for liberty out from under the horrific enslaving and colonization of Ireland by Britain. Ireland won its fight for freedom in the early 20th Century, but the repercussions from their brutal enslavement are still being worked out and healed in the society today. (Today, the Irish are champions of liberty, helping people in other parts of the world in their struggles for freedom and Justice.) In Northern Ireland, the British still rule over the land, a situation which had led to a great deal of fighting. Recently, in the 21st Century, a fairly successful peace has been in place for some years now.
Sheridan’s book helped Douglass awaken and realize the sheer injustice of slavery. At first, Douglass had no idea what to do in the predicament, that is, the predicament of his better understanding the history of slavery and its wrongness. Douglass: “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.” (Emphasis added.)
The “pit” is actually in the Psalms Ladder, at its bottom. Psalms 6 & 12, which form the bottom and first step of the Ladder, are both strong laments. Psalm 6 has personal bodily illness and suffering, and Psalm 12 has societal sickness (which applies well to the scourge of slavery). Additionally, the three Psalms on the lower right side of the Ladder, Psalms 6, 18, and 30, all have the pit of hell mentioned, “sheol.”
Of those people in history who have known of the Mystical Psalms Ladder, the vast majority (of whom I am aware) are Catholics. Did a Catholic at some point teach Douglass of these mystical realities? Did a Christian from another denomination teach him? Did the Holy Spirit teach him directly? These are questions I would like to discuss with scholars of Frederick Douglass.
The next paragraph in Chapter VII again mentions Irish allies. Douglass says, “The light broke in upon me by degrees. I went one day down on the wharf of Mr. Waters…” This is an allusion to the opening lines of Plato’s great dialogue, The Republic. We shall discuss another Platonic dialogue later. Returning to the quotation: “I went one day down on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a scow (large boat) of stone, I went, unasked, and helped them.” A conversation ensues, and it is here that the Irishmen suggest that he escape to freedom. This conversation helped move the teenage Douglass to further consider the option of escape. He “remembered their advice, and from that time I resolved to run away. I looked forward to a time at which it would be safe for me to escape.”
THE NUMBER 12
Another powerful reminder of the Psalms Ladder in the Narrative is the frequent appearance of the number 12. (Recall, the Ladder has 12 steps.)
There are many numbers that appear in the Narrative, and a disproportionately large occurrence of the number 12 features among them.
12 is the first number that appears in the book, and it appears 3 times in the short Chapter I. The number 12 will appear 9 times in the volume, including a matched pair of instances of the word “dozen.”
7, 12, AND THE ANGELS CLIMBING ON LADDER
The Ladder of the Psalms represents many realities. One of the realities symbolized by the Ladder is the Feminine, the Woman.
The fourth paragraph of Chapter I is a heart-wrenching account of how his mother visited him a handful of times when he was a child. She had to walk 12 miles, after her work was done, at night. (Jacob, in Genesis 28, sees an early version of the Ladder at night.) She then had to be back to her place by dawn the next day to work. She left when she had gotten little Frederick to sleep. (Jacob saw the Ladder in a vision in his sleep.) This appearance of “12” is already the third appearance of the number in the book, and it appears close to the number “7,” in the same paragraph.
It is clear that at this early point of his book, Douglass is referring in many hidden ways to the Ladder. These hints dance in the liminal space of our psyche. Further, the placement of “12” near “7” is not an accident:
Psalm 12 has the number “7.” Every literary mind knows that 7 x 12 = 84. This formula is hidden in Psalm 12, and sends the angels in flight to their next destination, Psalm 84, at the middle of the Ladder. This is the first flight of the angels on the Ladder, and it starts the long flight process of the angels up and down the Ladder. St. Luke the Evangelist, in his Gospel, gives us this same formula in Chapter 2, when the Holy Family enters into the temple. The Prophetess Anna is exactly 84 years old at the time. She was previously married for 7 years. She was a member of the tribe (of which there were 12) of Asher. In case we miss this appearance of the number 12, a few verses later we are told of Jesus being in the temple again when he is 12 years old.
Douglass’ mother was an angel ministering to him, at night, as often as she could, until she died when he was a tender 7 years old.
21 & 12: THE PILLAR AND THE LADDER
A quiet and understated fulfillment of the Narrative is in Chapter XI (Chapter 11) when Douglass marries his wife, Anna.
In the Psalm Structures, the first structure is the Pillar, which is made of the Psalms that are multiples of 21. These 7 Psalms form the Pillar. Here is a representation of the Psalms Pillar:
The masculine Pillar goes with the feminine Ladder. And the climbing of the angels on the Ladder can represent physical love between husband and wife.
The Ladder and the Pillar have three shared numbers: 42, 84, and 126. These numbers are also alluded to in the Narrative.
Chapter VII has the number 7 in its first sentence, just as the number 12 is in the first chapter of the book, in Chapter I. However, there are other numbers in Chapter VII that we’ll here focus on.
Later in Chapter 7, Douglass says to some young friends on the street, “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one (21), but I am a slave for life!” (The italics are Douglass’.) Three sentences later, Douglass reflects, “I was now about twelve (12) years old, and the thought of being a slave for life began to bear heavily upon my heart.” (Again, the italics are Douglass’.) So we have two sentences that are connected to each other by the same words being italicized by the author, Douglass. And in these two sentences are the numbers 12 & 21.
The words “I am” are also italicized in the first sentence. This is the name of God, a name which Jesus applies to himself, and which he encourages us to use as well, like the man born blind in John 9, who also applies the name to himself. (See also Jesus’ discussion of Psalm 82 in John 10.) In John’s Gospel Jesus wants to give us the fullness of life. However, it is obvious that a slave might find it rather difficult to experience the fullness of life while a slave. Likewise, it could be difficult to know oneself to be a child of God, while a slave.
He describes his won freedom in Chapter XI, and this is something like Paradise at the top of the Ladder. Soon after Douglass escapes slavery, he marries Anna, and 12 & 21 unite. They will have five children together.
This section of Part II has considered how the shape of the Narrative is intentionally echoing the shape of the Mystical Psalms Ladder.
Apparent Departures from the Ladder Schema,
And the Amazing Chapter X;
Cross and ‘Chi’;
The Ladder Re-Built
Section A has considered how the Narrative directly incorporates the shape of the Mystical Psalms Ladder. However, there are also ways in which the Narrative departs from, or makes changes to, the form of the Ladder.
The first 9 chapters of the Narrative are fairly short. In the editorial arrangement of the fine Barnes and Noble edition, each of the first 9 chapters is between 3-6 pages. However, Chapter X jumps out to a sharply contrasting, much longer, 29 pages in length. This is intentional. Douglass is telling us something. What is he telling us?
Following Chapter X, Chapter XI also more-than-doubles the length of all the first 9 chapters, at 12 pages long. And the Appendix is 7 pages long.
(I am not attributing significance to the “number of pages” of the chapters, which is an editorial happenstance of each particular printed edition; however, the title numbers of the chapters themselves, like the numbers of the Shakespeare’s sonnet titles, are specifically chosen by the author. Nevertheless, the number of pages of each chapter is a reliable benchmark for showing relative lengths, which is the only point I’m making here.)
We’ll now turn to the vital Chapter X:
Some Features of Chapter X
Why is Chapter X, the 10th chapter, so long?
This is the chapter where Douglass stands up to one of the most evil masters he had, and turned the tables on him. There are many other things occurring in Chapter X as well.
The length of Chapter X does at least three things:
1) It makes the shape of a Cross.
2) It makes the shape of the Greek letter chi, which looks like ‘X’, and which is connected to the literary technique of chiasmus.
3) It makes the Human Person, with two arms and two legs, represented by the letter ‘X’, situated on/in the Ladder.
Please bear with me here. We’ll tap a few different topic areas, but they are all related with each other.
-The New Testament’s original language is Greek. Christ is spelled like “Xristos.” The Greek letter chi sounds like a “K” and looks like a large X. Entire lectures could be given around these facts. The ancients report that the shape of chi, the X, is writ large in the heavens, and re-presents Christ there. We shall discuss this below.
-The Psalms Ladder also forms the shape of a human person, as well as the shape of a house.
-Chapter X is the chapter in which Frederick Douglass beats the system and stands up straight, an erect freedom-searching man who has taught himself to read and write, and who is consciously planning his escape. And he slaps down a violent attacker, a “master,” who intended to do him harm. It is the great pivot point in the life of Douglass. His soul, his person, stands up straight for the first full time.
-The erect person is one of the themes of the chapter. The “ X “ represents the full measure of a man, of a human person, who is in the image of Christ.
-This erect standing person is between two straight lines. The Roman numeral X is flanked by numbers IX and XI. So with some contraction, we have:
I X I (the person within the two sides of the Ladder)
This is the tall standing person in/on the Ladder, in the House. The ‘I’ on either side of the person, ‘X’, are the two sides of the Ladder. Recall that ‘X’ represents the person, standing tall and strong. The dignity of God’s image and likeness.
The comparative great length of Chapter X represents Frederick Douglass standing up straight, standing tall, climbing the Ladder, being the Ladder, and eventually heading up, north, due north, to freedom. To a more ‘heavenly’ status. (There are other meanings too.)
Chiasmus and Cross
The shape “X” is also connected to the literary form known as the “chiasmus.” In his excellent introduction, Robert G. O’Meally speaks of how Douglass utilizes chiastic structures throughout the Narrative. I am indebted to Professor O’Meally for pointing out the central chiasmus of the book. In Chapter X, Douglass says:
You have seen how a man was made a slave;
You shall see how a slave was made a man.
Robert Louis Gates also speaks of the importance of this chiasmus.
If we take this sentence and present it in its chiastic elements, we could portray it like this:
You man slave
You slave man
More simply, we could put in letters as symbols for the words “man” and “slave”:
A C : C A
As we see, the “man-slave” and “slave-man” arrangements form an X. This is the basic form of the Chiasmus, which is frequently found in the Bible, other forms of ancient literature, and some kinds of poetry.
The pages of the Bible are overflowing with this kind of literary structure.
The word “chiasm” itself has the letter “chi,” X, in itself.
With his repetition of “You,” that is, “Us,” he establishes his own personal journey of development as a new model springing directly from the ancient Biblical model. And he sends out a bridge from himself to every person who reads his work. Douglass has become a Full Member of the Body of Christ. Like the great saints before him, he can speak with a fuller authority now. The Spirit has taught him.
The form “X” also represents the cross, especially the Cross of Christ. Many of the ancient theologians of the Early Church spoke of how the chi, “X,” is written in the heavens in the meeting of the celestial equator and the ecliptic. (There are many internet sites that discuss this phenomenon in our astronomy.) Together, the celestial equator and the ecliptic form a giant “X” in the heavens, from our perspective here on Earth. The ancients spoke of how this is both Christ, and the Cross, writ large in the Universe. Plato’s Timaeus discusses this 400 years before Christ. The character Timaeus, from this dialogue of the same name, later appears blind in Mark’s Gospel, and is healed by Jesus! The Christian writer and martyr, Justin, also claims this as a sign of Christ (Xristos in the original Greek) writ large in the skies. Here, however, the Cross is also the Door, the Portal, the Gate, that it truly is. Here the Cross is written in a large glorious letter in the Heavens.
Paul says, “Through the cross of Christ . . . the cosmos has been crucified to me, and I to the cosmos.” (See Galatians 6:14) This powerful act of joining, having traversed the portal of the cross, becomes a good joining, a glad union. Today, we might connect this to Jungian Synchronicity: A sign of spiritual maturity is when external events in the world/cosmos have a special correspondence, or ‘synchronicity’, with internal events in our thoughts, imagination, or past. This is a sign that our personal self, the microcosm, is coming into alignment with the macrocosm, the exterior cosmos. It is the Holy Spirit that guides this process.
The same happens for Frederick Douglass. Early in Chapter X, there is the beautiful and poignant account of how on Sunday Douglass stands looking down on the Chesapeake Bay, and sees many sails of wondrous ships moving on the water, travelling around the globe. The globe is here known to be a sphere, and represents the macrocosm. At the end of Chapter X, the microcosm that is Frederick Douglass will achieve enlightenment when his “eyeball” nearly explodes from a vicious kick. The spherical “eyeball” represents Douglass, in his semi-spherical “head” (another theme of the Timaeus); through his suffering and virtue, Douglass has come into harmony with the sphere of the cosmos. Spiritual awakening. The microcosm of the person achieves synchronicity with the vast macrocosm of the universe. After this, the language of the Holy Spirit is constantly available to him now.
The Length of Chapter 10 Forms the Cross-Bar of the Cross,
and a Line of the Chiastic ‘X’
The chi-X-structure is also in the structure of the Narrative; at the same time, the structure of Douglass’ work is also a Cross: The first 9 chapters are uniformly short. Chapter X is long, much longer than the previous 9. It is the Crossbar of the Cross; it is also the second line of the chiastic ‘X’. The slave is Christ on the Cross. The freed slave, having passed through the chiastic portal, is similar to the Resurrected Christ, or is similar to the tall person (X) standing on the Ladder.
What is the Cross? It is a door, and it is also a time of passage. Paul, again, sees the cross as the instrument of his mature joining to the cosmos. Through the Cross, Paul and Douglass learn the language of the Holy Spirit. Because it is so important for us today, let us repeat: part of the language of the Spirit is Synchonicity. Carl Jung speaks of this. We have “inside” us a cosmos that is the endless infinite glorious expanse of each individual soul. And we have “outside” us the cosmos that we physically see and participate in. When a soul advances in direct relationship with the Holy Spirit, that soul may experience many instances of Synchronicity. We might think of Synchronicity as “Meaningful Coincidence.” It has been said that “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Such a concrete, discrete, accumulation of events of coincidence, of Synchronicity, in the life of a growing soul, is a sign that the person is growing in relationship with the Holy Spirit, and is achieving Integration.
Paul and Frederick Douglass and Christ, through the Cross, have been joined to the cosmos, and the cosmos to them. They became Integrated Beings.
Frederick Douglass teaches, as do Christ and Paul, that through our sufferings, through our crosses, we attain greater dimensionality, a fullness of relationship to the cosmos. If you look at a photograph of Douglass, you know that you are seeing an enlightened human being.
Douglass stands up. Chapter X jumps out to great length. His long trek north is not narrated in this book, surprisingly, because Chapter X represents it in a more full way. He escapes from 2 dimensions of reality into 3 dimensions of reality, or to greater dimensionality. Like Christ and Paul and so many others before him, he is joined to the great ‘X’ of the heavens, and his interior cosmos, his soul, enters a state of greater conscious relationship with the cosmos that we see day and night, the universe about us.
The Ladder Person, or, the Person Who Climbs the Ladder
There is much more happening in the Narrative.
The shape of the book itself, from first chapter to last, shows this astounding growth of the Human Person. Above, we discussed this shape, the image of the Ladder Person, the Person Climbing the Ladder:
I X I
Notice that there is some, but not much, discussion of love and marriage among the slaves, because the “masters” made life so difficult for them, and would often break up relationships and families when they sold slaves.
Nevertheless, Douglass makes literary connections between the growing stature of the person, and their participation in love relationships.
Here is yet another way of seeing a structure of the Narrative:
Chapter I The desecration of person & marriage
Chapter X Growth and Desire
Chapter XI True Marriage Achieved
Appendix Mockery of erect person—a warning for us
Chapter I has the shocking description of the whipping of his Aunt Hester by the evil rapist Mr. Plummer, whom Douglass describes as a “savage monster.” As we shall see, his is like the evil demon Asmodeus from the Bible’s book, Tobit. He kills the marriage relationship, among other things.
At the end of Chapter I, we see a false and brutal elongation of the human person, a mockery of the Ladder Person. Hester is a beautiful woman. The evil Mr. Plummer takes her to the kitchen to whip her savagely. “After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose.” Notice that he chooses the verb “crossing”; additionally, Hester’s hands and arms now form an “X,” the “chi” that we have discussed. She will be crucified, like Christ.
“He made her get upon the stool [Ladder mockery], and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal [Psalm 6 of the bottom Step 1 of the Psalms Ladder has the word “hell,” or “inferno”] purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes.”
Her position here is a mockery of the full stature that the person achieves in Chapter X. Her status and the treatment of her body and her entire person is a mockery of the person represented by the Ladder, which the forthcoming book refers to as the Ladder Person.
She is fully stretched, not for glory yet, but for torture and demonic hatred.
She is brutally whipped by Plummer, as the “warm, red blood” flows, “amid heartrending shrieks from her.”
The child Frederick, terrified and shocked, hid in the closet.
Why did Plummer do this to Hester? He wanted to rape her, and she wasn’t there in the evening to be raped by him. So he was angry with her.
Why wasn’t she there? Because she was friends with another slave, Ned Roberts, and had spent time that evening with him. This is the reason for Plummer’s brutal treatment of Hester. Not only did his plans for rape/entertainment get foiled by her not being there, but she was also independently enjoying a love relationship with a man that she truly cared for. He really is like Asmodeus.
In Chapter X, the human person grows. Specifically, it is Frederick Douglass, of course, but it is also a template for all of us. Chapter X has the central chiasmus of the book, which we discussed above, in which Douglass tells us that we will see a slave transform into a man.
Douglass says, in the middle of his fight with Covey, “I rose.” The verb “rise” is a Resurrection term from the Gospels. Eternal Victory achieved through the Cross.
Again, as discussed above, using Roman numerals, the shape of:
I X I represents also the Ladder Person, which will be discussed more in the book on the Mystical Psalm Structures.
In Chapter XI Douglass marries his love, Anna.
In what seems like a modest description of a modest wedding, when Douglass has made his escape, he is joined by his “intended wife,” Anna.
It is also a felicitous coincidence, perhaps divinely arranged, that the name “Anna” itself has a chiastic structure! Her name is also a palindrome; it is spelled the same forwards and backwards.
In Chapter I, Hester’s tied wrists formed a terrible chiastic x.
In Chapter XI, the Beloved Anna’s name forms a chiastic X, as does every loving couple.
However, in the Appendix, there is the mockery of the erect, standing person. We shall discuss this below.
Doors and Gateways
Jacob, in Genesis 28, has a mystical experience. He sees a divine ladder in the night. God and angels are there. Angels are ascending and descending the ladder, which connects and joins Heaven and Earth. (This ladder is alluded to by Jesus at John 1:51; Jesus gives us something far better than what Jacob was made to understand. In John’s Gospel, Jesus, and Humanity, become the Ladder. We are the Ladder. Douglass is teaching us this fact too.)
The next morning, Jacob is completely thunderstruck at what he had experienced in the preceding night. He says, “This is none other than . . . the gate of heaven!” (Gen 28:17)
The Psalms Ladder, which is related to the ladder Jacob saw, is also a gate.
Douglass uses “gate” and “door” language in a fascinating way in the Narrative.
In the final words of Chapter XI, the last chapter, Douglass says that doing the work of speaking up for Justice can be like a cross for us. Yet this is also a door of promise. Perhaps Douglass is giving us, here and now, a prophetic message: Solving race relations in the world today is not easy; however, it is the door, the only door, to the survival and thriving of our human family. Each person must become aware that every human person is made in the image and likeness of God. Let us proceed in Love. If we can achieve this realization, everything else will be taken care of.
The Terms “Door” and “Gate” in the Narrative
The words “door” and “gate” occur 27 times in the Narrative. 16 of these appearances, well over half the appearances of these words, occur in Chapter X. Again, Douglass is trying to get us to see something.
Among other themes, some of which we have discussed, this chapter is emphasizing how it is a portal of the book, and of Douglass’ life. As the chiastic structure of the cross nears its center, where the crossbar is nailed to the cross, here in the density we find the door to life and the expansion of the human heart.
The Numbers “12” and “6” in the Narrative
One of the complexities of mystical writing is that the author may be referring to several things at once. This is the case with much writing that employs metaphor and symbol. However, there is a special density of intersecting meanings when the Psalm Structures are involved in a literary work.
A Slight Digression with Psalms 114 and 120
Chapter X, the 10th chapter, is, as we have mentioned, parallel to the 10th step of the Mystical Psalms Ladder. The 10th step of that Ladder is formed by Psalms 114 & 120. We shall see references to both these Psalms in this chapter. When Douglass fights the evil Covey, and grabs him by the neck, Covey is terrified. “He trembled like a leaf.” In Psalm 114, terrified mountains, at the sight of the exodus, jump up and down, trembling, as it were. When he grabbed Covey hard by the throat, at the same time he says that “I rose.” This is also like the exodus, the journey of spiritual maturity, that occurs in Psalm 114.
Psalm 120 is especially about the anger and rivalries and the tough fighting, the bitter strife with others, that often occur in life. Chapter X has the only four references, all subtle, to the number 120 in the book: 1) “6 miles” and “20 years old” appear in adjacent sentences, within a very bitter story of a woman who was forced to get pregnant and bear twin slaves whom would be owned by Covey (6 x 20 = 120). 2) When Douglass has his epic battle with wicked Covey, the struggle lasted for two hours (120 minutes). Does this seem a bit long? Is Douglass employing poetic license here? He could well be poetically expressing the human bitterness that occurs in life, especially a life that has known much suffering, especially the life of a slave. 3) Later, when he is about to be betrayed the first time he is planning their escape, he says, “The first two hours (120 minutes) of that morning were such as I never experienced before, and hope never to again.” This describes the dread and tension of the waiting period, before they found that they had indeed been betrayed. 4) While working at the shipyard, he states that he needs “a dozen pair of hands,” which would be 120 fingers. This may seem humorous, but it’s a typical example of the mystical authors’ language, which includes mathematical formulae, when they refer to the Psalm Structures.
In the language of the Holy Spirit, one of the things that the number 120 represents is bitter strife. Additionally, Psalm 120 is on the 10th Step of the Ladder, which is parallel to Chapter X of the Narrative. Hence, the four subtle appearances of the number 120 in this chapter.
Back to “12” and “6”
So as we have seen, Chapter X is true to its place on the Ladder, and speaks of Psalms 114 and 120. However, there seems to be a new true beginning in Chapter X. Douglass enters the most mature phase of his life. For this reason, we celebrate a good appropriation of the 1st step of the Ladder, a joyful sense of the entrance to the Ladder. So Douglass will return us, in this same Chapter X, to a new consideration of the numbers 6 and 12, which we find on the first, or bottom, step of the Ladder, far below 114 and 120.
In the above diagram of the Ladder, we see that the bottom step is formed by Psalms 6 & 12. Douglass has subtle references to the numbers 6 and 12 at perhaps ten places in the Narrative. However, six of these ten references to “6 and 12” occur in Chapter X. This is again a tremendous concentration of a particular literary theme in Chapter X.
The Ladder is a door, a gateway, as we have discussed. Psalms 6 & 12 have a special role as the “gate of the gate.” Their being the first step emphasizes their role as a portal. They are also the only Psalms to have the musical term “hasheminith” (which appears in the Hebrew superscriptions of both Psalms), emphasizing their partnership, like a pair of decorated gateposts at a gate. The only time this word appears in the Book of Psalms is in the superscriptions to Psalms 6 & 12.
Chapter X has the great turning point in Douglass’ life, when he turned the tables on the evil Covey, and fought for his own dignity. This is the crucial prelude to his escape.
We are at the center, in several ways. There are the multiple appearances of 6 (6 of 12) months.
The “center” or “turning point” is also emphasized by the fact that Chapter X has a heavy emphasis on pairs. The chapter begins with the pair, the yoke, of oxen. Right after this story, Douglass says, “I lived with Mr. Covey one year. During the first six months, of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.” This is the first time that Douglass divides the year into two groups of six months each. A bit later in the chapter, “wretched woman”, the “miserable woman,” Caroline, gives birth to twins. Another pair. Douglass begins the next paragraph: “If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.” This is the chapter’s second mention of the division of the year into a pair of 6-month halves.
Douglass continues to emphasize the neat division of the year into matching halves: “I have already intimated that my condition was much worse, during the first six months of my stay at Mr. Covey’s, than in the last six.” Note that here we have the word “six” twice in the one sentence. He continues: “The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me form an epoch in my humble history. You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man. On one of the hottest days of the month of August, 1833 . . . (emphasis added)”
Back to the chiasmus: Here, at the third mention of the division of the year into two very different six-month segments, we find the moral center of the book: the powerful transformation that happens in the soul and life of Frederick Douglass. This is the portal through which he passes to become the champion of humanity we know him as. At the same time, he is placing subtle if strong emphasis on the numbers 6 & 12, which Psalms form the first step of the Ladder, the “gateway of the gate.”
Yet there is more happening here too. Due to the contract signed by his master, he spent a calendar year working for Covey, from January 1, 1833, to January 1, 1834. The beginning of the story of his radical transformation happens in August, which, as Professor O’Meally also notes, is the 8th month of the year, not the center of the year. So again, the author Douglass is employing artistic license in forming his story, dividing the year into two halves of six months. Now, this could be simply to form a nice doorway through which he will emerge to freedom. Or, by his real emphasizing of the numbers 6 & 12, he is pointing to his true discernment of the Ladder and his flight up this Ladder to the North, and to a stage of life closer to Paradise.
That Douglass is taking his turn as the “Person on the Ladder” is brought home after his minor escape from Covey, when he returns to his more permanent master: “From the crown of my head to my feet, I was covered with blood.” This reminds us of the cruel treatment of Aunt Hester in Chapter I. However, it is also more positive than that: this is also Douglass’ beginning passage into the state of an enlightened, stronger soul. It is an image of a warrior on the battlefield, or of an infant being born.
Two pages later, the emphasis of Douglass being born through a portal appears again, when he is “half out of the loft,” working hard, when Covey attacks him, beginning the epic battle. In the beginning of the fight, they converse. Douglass writes, “He asked me if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did, come what might; that he had used me like a brute for six months, and that I was determined to be used so no longer. With that, he strove to drag me to a stick that was lying just out of the stable door. He meant to knock me down. But just as he was leaning over to get the stick, I seized him with both hands by his collar, and brought him by a sudden snatch to the ground.” This is the fourth time he mentions the division of the year into two halves of six months.
We emerge into the better, second half of the year: “The whole six months afterwards, that I spent with Mr. Covey, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger.” This is the fifth and final reference to the numbers 6 & 12 of that year.
The next paragraph, glorious, is full of allusions to the Ladder:
This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact. (italics and underlining added)
His resurrection traces the direction of the Ladder. The Psalms Ladder has hell at the bottom of the Ladder and heaven at the top. There are more allusions to the Ladder throughout the rest of the chapter. Speaking of the year following the pivotal year with Covey, Douglass says, “The year passed off smoothly. It seemed only about half as long as the year which preceded it.” Why does Douglass add this impression? “Half as long….” This is another re-fashioning of a year into a 6-month segment. AH! He is building the next steps of the Psalms Ladder. St. John, in his Gospel, does the same! Both authors are building the Ladder before our eyes! If we take half a year and add it to the 12 months of the preceding year, we have 18 months. And Psalm 18 is the first half of the second step of the Psalms Ladder. The conclusion of the second year takes us through 24 months. And so we have the full second step of the Psalms Ladder, smartly worked into the text by Douglass.
This warping of time by Douglass matches and reverses another similar experience. In Chapter VIII, he must go back to his original master’s place: “I was absent from Baltimore, for the purpose of valuation and division, just about one month, and it seemed to have been six.” Yet again, we have the time span of 6 months. This time, however, it is imaginary, an entity of our inner experience, just like our experience of the Psalms Ladder!
At this point, an earlier text appears in a new light: the first sentence of the same Chapter VIII has the phrase “three years and six months” in it. Three years is 36 months, and Psalm 36 is the second Psalm of step 3 of the Psalms Ladder. The extra “6 months” he mentions would make a total of 42 months. And Psalm 42 is the first Psalm of step four of the Psalms Ladder. If we have not yet connected this to the Ladder, he gives us an additional clue: “ . . . after a sail of about twenty-four (24) hours, I found myself near the place of my birth.”
“42” is also an interesting number because, as a multiple of both 6 and 21, it is both a Pillar Psalm and a Ladder Psalm. Psalms 84 and 126 are the only other Psalms that share this quality. Later in Chapter X, there shall be an allusion to the number “84.” And there are also very subtle allusions to the number “126.”
Enlightenment and the Psalms
The conclusion of Chapter X has other sets of connections to the Psalms.
Near the end of the chapter he is working much more independently, building ships at Fell’s Point, in Baltimore. He assisted “in building two large man-of-war brigs.” When he arrived there, there was a rush, driven by the yard owner’s contract, to quickly finish building the ships, and Douglass found himself “…at the beck and call of about seventy-five men.” The number 75 reminds us of the journey of the ancient Israelites into Egypt, from which they would make their exodus hundreds of years later. (See Acts 7:14) That journey of about 75 persons was led by Jacob, on the way to see his son, and former-slave, Joseph; and Jacob had previously seen the ladder in Genesis 28. However, 75 is also half of the number of Psalms, 150. And in the small part of the chapter that follows, we shall have that number, 150, referenced three times.
There is also a lot of chiaroscuro in the rest of the chapter, a combination of light and shadow. At first, despite the hard work, the shipyard seems to be a relatively happy and free workplace, where “white and black ship-carpenters worked side by side,” with many of the black men being free. Eventually, however, troubles arose, and Douglass found himself about to be attacked by four white men: they “…came upon me, armed with sticks, stones, and heavy handspikes. One came in front with a half brick. There was one at each side of me [like the crucified Jesus], and one behind me. While I was attending to those in front, and on either side, the one behind ran up with the handspike, and struck me a heavy blow upon the head.” Douglass was stunned, and fell. The four began beating him. Douglass regathered his strength, and began to rise. “Just as I did that, one of their number gave me, with his heavy boot, a powerful kick in the left eye. My eyeball seemed to have burst.” At that point, the attackers left him alone.
When Douglass is perfectly surrounded by his attackers here, he is alluding to Psalm 88, which is the most hopeless Psalm in the Psalter. The enemies form a perfect circle around the Psalmist, as if an atom is about to be split. Yet directly after this Psalm, according to the sequence of another of the Psalm Structures (the Interwoven Menorahs), there is resurrection.
While the injuries were painful, the nearly-exploding eyeball could also represent enlightenment, as is discussed above. Douglass was tenderly cared for by his master and mistress after this, and perhaps, unknown to them, he was also visited by God’s own angels, who taught him mystical realities, including the Psalm Structures. Immediately after the fight, Douglass writes, “All this took place in sight of not less than fifty (50) white ship-carpenters, and not one (1) interposed a friendly word…” This “1 and 50” is the first allusion to the number 150. This is exactly the language that people enlightened by the Holy Spirit use to speak of such things.
In the second-to-last paragraph of this long chapter, there is an evolutionary hint about the movement from the 7-branch menorah to the more universal 9-branch menorah. Douglass also says, “…my wages were a dollar and a half a day.” This, of course, makes $ 1.50.
In case we don’t get this, Douglass underlines and emphasizes it at the beginning of the chapter’s final paragraph: “I was now getting, as I have said, one (1) dollar and fifty (50) cents per day.” (emphasis added)
In the Appendix, he will write the word “psalm.”
After this conclusion to the chapter, my own partially-educated guess is that Douglass had the Psalm Structures revealed to him directly by the Holy Spirit, by God or God’s angels.
Chapter XI (Chapter 11) and the Ladder
The discussion of the Ladder continues. Douglass speaks of the underground railroad and the upperground railroad (his italics) in the same sentence. This is not an actual rail line, but the secret system of helping slaves escape along certain routes and sheltering havens to freedom in the north. Harriet Tubman is a famous conductor of this railroad. Literally, however, the train tracks of a physical railroad are the shape of the Ladder: the two rails are the two sides of the Ladder, and the wooden railroad ties are the steps or rungs of the Ladder. Maya Angelou, another mystic who knows of the Ladder, will make use of this fact in her poetry.
In the same paragraph, he mentions “step,” “footprints,” twice mentions “flying,” once mentions “flight,” and “hover over him.” These are all terms that allude to the climbing motion on the Ladder. In the same paragraph, the terms “south,” “north,” “line,” “infernal,” “enlightening,” “watchfulness,” and “light” all allude to various stations along the journey on the Ladder.
Frederick Douglass and William Shakespeare, Employers of Irony
(Parodies of the Ladder Schema)
Frederick Douglass was born a slave and suffered exceedingly in the first two decades of his life, until he won his freedom.
Shakespeare’s was a different kind of suffering in his very young years, as a forthcoming book will discuss.
Both men are great writers, wordsmiths at the uppermost reaches of their art.
Yet both men knew incredible suffering, and had, either in their past or at the time of their writing, anger at God. Such anger at God is righteous, and, happily, it is not permanent. It is a necessary part of our developmental process. God can take our anger; human beings are much less equipped than God is to receive the brunt of our anger.
The Psalms often direct anger directly at God. This is Scripture. God likes it when we take out our anger before God. When a person has reached that level of growth, that level of intimacy with God, then God likes direct and frank conversation. The Psalms can help us to express our anger to God. One Psalm calls God a drunken warrior who missed the battle. Another Psalm refers to God as the shepherd who let his sheep be plundered by the enemy (Douglass makes fine use of this latter image).
Both Shakespeare and Douglass vent major spleen, either towards God, or about people, utilizing the Mystical Psalm Structures. Each does this in unique ways.
The forthcoming book on Shakespeare discusses how Shakespeare was badly abused as a child. Without the help of psychologists, it took him quite a few years to get himself sorted out and recollected again. And the recollection left astonishingly wide spaces and gaps in his psyche. He seems to have been in love with both a man and a woman—such confusing situations can happen in the wake of childhood abuse. (We are just now beginning to have mature understanding and conversations about such trauma in the lives of people; this will bear positive fruit, as we can better help their healing, and prevent such abuse in future generations.)
For now, however, let us leave the discussion of Shakespeare’s life at that; enough has been said for the purposes here.
Shakespeare’s re-presentation of the Mystical Psalms Ladder in the Sonnets is an amazing achievement. It is highly complex and richly textured, incorporating many levels of reality and Scripture and poetry and history, in the volume’s 154 sonnets. (Douglass published his Narrative when he was a very young 27 years old; the Sonnets is a work that Shakespeare spent decades on, by far his most complex and developed work…) However, Shakespeare also pulls a prank on God. The top step of the Psalms Ladder is formed by Psalms 138 and 144. In Shakespeare’s parallel Sonnets 138 and 144, Will makes a stunning parody of the Ladder:
Please permit a brief discussion of some of the poems near the end of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I do not want to take the attention away from Douglass, here at the end of the essay; however, to see the lethally cutting parody that Douglass is here employing, we need to take a look at Shakespeare’s treatment of the same part of the Psalms Ladder.
Shakespeare and the Top of the Ladder
Psalms 138 and 144 are the top of the Ladder. Psalm 150 is the heavens above the Ladder.
It is striking that Shakespeare’s parallels to these, Sonnets 138 and 144, were known to have been shared by Shakespeare years before the publication of the Sonnets in 1609. Perhaps Shakespeare had planned, early in the process of the composition of the Sonnets, to have 138 and 144 in their respective places, forming the top rung of the Sonnets’ version of the Ladder.
One can see why Shakespeare has done this.
Both Psalms are parodies of relationship, and more and less humorous. However, in comparison with their parallel partners in the Psalms themselves, these two sonnets are spastically funny.
Psalm 138 speaks of an arriving among the Elohim—this term “Elohim” could mean “God,” or “angelic beings,” or even real, virtuous leaders among humanity. In this wonderful company, whoever belongs in this gathering, praise of God shall be sung. One is meant to receive the strong impression that a good sense of fulfillment and happiness and community accompanies this pure joyful singing.
Shakespeare, however, is reflecting in Sonnet 138 about how lovers may lie to each other to avoid having their relationship hit rocky turbulence. The imperfections of the two individuals have not yet been worked out, “And in our faults by lies we flattered be.” (138.14) So instead of Psalm 138’s health, arrival, and celebration of friendship in realms divine, the two self-conscious lovers lie and, topically flattered by these lies, achieve an uneasy peace and harmony.
He sews the structure of the Psalms Ladder into this sonnet, saying that “On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed,” alluding to the two sides of the Ladder. (138.8)
On the top step of the Psalms Ladder, Psalm 138 is paired with Psalm 144, which is a celebration of incredibly joyful human community. In a rare appearance of the words “daughters” and “sons” both, together, there is also a cosmic fecundity; Mother Earth responds to this peaceful joyful human community by blessing us, all of us, with bounteous harvests in every way.
Constructing the top step of his version of the Psalms Ladder, Shakespeare pauses to reflect on the hurts of his own life. The ungodly sufferings he went through as a child, most of which the world has not yet known about… The ruptured community he grew up in, and suffered in, following difficult religious civil wars… The awful parodies of human relationships that he was trapped in as a mere child in school, tricked and treated badly by an adult… The very difficult, albeit finally successful recovery from these things, having been ultimately saved by Anne Hathaway…
Shakespeare is speaking to God directly in Sonnet 144.
Will is saying, “You really mauled me God. (Or, God, you stood by while these things happened to me.)” Now, Psalm 144 celebrates sweetness of community and growth among humans. So Shakespeare responds to this by saying that this blessed community of Psalm 144 is an unfulfilled promise, unreal—or, if not unreal, well, it has certainly not yet been achieved in his own life. (Douglass was a stronger person than Shakespeare; and Shakespeare, fairly strong and good at recovery, may here be simply making humor; as a mystic, Shakespeare had faith that God will follow through on his promises, and he had reaped much bounty himself in life, knowing his plays and poetry are among the best ever made…) Nevertheless, his Sonnet 144 is a parody of the Psalms Ladder, of Psalm 144, and of the Holy Trinity, as his sonnet has a love triangle, the passing of venereal disease, much cheating, psychological doubt, the failure of what today we might call the “normal binary” of male-female sexual relations, intentional betrayals, and generally vile behavior and attitudes.
Mocking the Ladder, angels fall from heaven to hell. And even the upward climb of the angels on the Ladder is mocked: A good angel gets fired out of hell like a cannonball, after having suffered corruption!
Conversions happen, but bad ones: an angel becomes a “fiend.” (In Chapters VI and VII, Frederick Douglass recounts his shock when his new mistress treats the young Frederick with kindness and love. However, the “fatal poison” of being involved with slavery in any capacity turns this once kind person into a nasty one, “and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.” Douglass is here seizing upon the fallen angel of Sonnet 144, comparing the angel repeatedly to his fallen mistress!
Forming a nice parallel to the words “both sides” (of the Ladder) that appear in Sonnet 138, so too does Sonnet 144 have the words “both” and “side.”
What are we to conclude? Here at the top of the Ladder, has Shakespeare turned on us, or will he show us the way, through tremendous suffering and hurt, to love?
The Triumph of Love in Sonnet 150
Humanity is growing. Love is growing among humanity.
The sonnet begins, “O, from what power hast thou this powerful might/ With insufficiency my heart to sway?”
A bit later the plaintiff asks, “Who taught thee how to make me love thee more [?]”
Something amazing happens in the final line of Sonnet 150, which is a parallel place to the very end of the entire Book of Psalms.
Shakespeare writes the word “beloved.”
“Beloved,” in Hebrew, is cognate with the word “David.” It is also cognate with God’s nickname for Solomon, “Jedidiah.” Jesus, a much later fruit of the “line of David,” is also called “Beloved” by God. Douglass called his fellow slaves, with whom he studied the Scriptures for a blissful though brief time, “beloved.” (see Chapter X)
Psalm 150 is a rocking party jazz dabka big band swing throw-down blues concert fiesta party in the house, in the gathering place, in the town square, in heaven. There is much music and dancing and pure celebration. It is a par-tay.
Psalm 150, and the Book of Psalms, concludes, “Praise Yah!” Allelu-Yah!
This “Yah” is a diminutive of YHWH. A nickname for YHWH. Like ‘Jedidiah’.
YHWH is still the great God of the Old Testament.
But Shakespeare is playing with this, and he’s replaying what Psalm 84 does, in the orbit of equidistant (and largely identical) Psalms 60 and 108. All three are Ladder Psalms. All three Psalms have the word “Beloved.” But Psalm 84 applies this, right in the center of the Psalms, to God! God is the little beloved darlin’ of humanity! Yahweh is a love object, hunted and pursued by humanity!
Shakespeare makes it all a glorious hot mess.
If we read Sonnet 150 from the point of view of God, then God is the beloved, and wants to be beloved of humanity.
If we read Sonnet 150 from the point of view of Humanity, then Humanity is the beloved, wanting to be beloved of God. Knowing that we have earned this (sic—theology would not agree, however…).
So. After the rough and tumble of life, Shakespeare has realized that God’s plan is really good. Love grows. That’s the basic reality of the state of things.
We all want to love, and we all want to be loved.
Douglass’ Appropriation of Shakespeare
Douglass knows what Shakespeare is doing. He knows that Will is mocking the top step of the Ladder.
But Douglass’ situation is more urgent. And Douglass doesn’t merely mock the top step, no, he throws it right out the window. Into the trash. There is no Chapter XII. He stops short. He blows up the bridge.
Or does he?
He knows that slavery is rotting the heart of the nation. It is evil for slaveowners, for slaves, and for those who have to live anywhere near this situation. Douglass would strongly get our attention focused on this great evil in society. Because he knows its corrosive affects on all souls involved.
He is saying that if we do not fix this great injustice in society, we will be crippling our community, and rendering everyone incapable of accessing the Ladder. Although there is no Chapter XII, Douglass does provide for us a 12th part, the Appendix to the book. Like Shakespeare’s 12th step, this Appendix is also a parody of the top step of the Psalms Ladder.
The Bard makes of bawd of Psalm 144, and the entire Ladder, and life under God, in the ludicrous Sonnet 144.
But Douglass has a far more urgent situation in which he exists than does Shakespeare. Millions of his brothers and sisters are living in the hell that is slavery. And Douglass is writing this 20 years before the end of the Civil War. Perhaps it is tough for him to imagine what would have to happen for slavery to end.
When Douglass figured out Shakespeare’s Ladder schema, and his mockery of the Psalms, he perhaps smiled briefly? Perhaps he was not able to laugh. Maybe he laughed later, after the Civil War? I don’t know. (For the first time in decades, I picked up the Narrative mere weeks ago, saw his structure, and realized that I could not delay in writing this initial survey. From this present point of my life, I shall be studying Douglass until they bury me.)
Douglass does not engage in the poetic burlesque of Shakespeare. He keeps his language and his content much more noble than Shakespeare’s language and conversation; however, Douglass is just as familiar with the worst ills that can appear in human society, the just plain boiling livid situations that sometimes obtain. Douglass wants us to rise and meet the challenge. To overcome the ills that happen. He wants for Christians to actually be Christian. For all to get along in love and harmony. Although the Appendix is a parody, actually, parts of Chapter XI of the Narrative show the paradise that is promised in Psalms 138 and 144, atop the Ladder. We can achieve a just and a loving society. He urges us to.
So we see here that Douglass is doing something more serious than Shakespeare. And yet, there is much more than this going on in the final parts of the Narrative.
Frederick Douglass is doing something far more serious. He is saying that if we do not become a society of love and equality, then we will destroy the Ladder, for all people.
Either we all climb the Ladder, or none of us do.
This is the challenge for our time.
Douglass’ referrals to Shakespeare’s parodies are not humorous. Nor are they subtle personal conversation between him and God. No. They are directed at all people on earth. They are for you and me, today. It is the perfect time capsule from the past to the present now. Douglass is grabbing us by our lapels, saying, Now! Now! Now! Now is the time for people to drop the fear and the greed that has been destroying our progress, causing more evil wars, and making a mockery of our political institutions. Now is the time to reach out to each other in the reality of trust, mutual respect, and love. Because this is the only reality that a future humanity can abide in. If we do not now reach this societal stage of sharing, interdependence, and love, we are all going to be toast. Goodbye, world. Goodbye, humanity. What a horrid thing to do to our children.
Let us look more closely at the Appendix of the Narrative.
After a fairly happy Chapter XI, the attack on false religion, especially false, fundamentalist Christianity, takes off in the Appendix.
Douglass begins the Appendix by making a big distinction between the “slaveholding religion” and true Christianity. He says that there is the “widest possible difference” between them.
Frederick Douglass will have many references to Shakespeare’s parodies in this Appendix. For example, he gives us selections from two poems, which is itself an allusion to the two poems of Shakespeare at the top of his Ladder, Sonnets 138 and 144.
The second of these Appendix poems is actually entitled “Parody.” This is a shocking statement, coming at the end of the book.
There are more ways that Douglass recasts his angst and anger, similar to the Bard. We have discussed Sonnet 144, and the absolutely side-splittingly funny mockery of the Mystical Ladder that Shakespeare has made for us, and especially for God. Sonnet 144 is like Shakespeare’s own complaint to God.
Douglass alludes to Sonnet 144 five times in the Appendix! He does so also elsewhere in the Narrative, but the Appendix has a flashing neon light pointing right at Sonnet 144! It is very clear. However, Douglass is directing this anger to us, not to God.
In the first paragraph of the Appendix, Douglass quotes the Scottish poet Robert Pollok. Regarding the evil admixture of slavery in Christian society, he says, “Never was there a clearer case of ‘stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in’.” While this instance here is a direct quote from Pollok, it is not too far from the sentiments of Sonnet 144. Douglass shall soon draw much closer to Shakespeare. He makes a close pass to the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures: “The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time.” Maybe this is why none of the slave owners were led to an awareness of the Mystical Psalm Structures.
In the above essay we have traced the development of the Ladder Person, that is, how the emerging and growing human person rises in stature, integrity, and true nobility. But the more full stature of humanity, which has begun to arrive to us in Chapter X and Chapter XI, is also mocked by Douglass here in the Appendix: “The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other.” (Emphasis added.)
There is the Appendix’ second allusion to Sonnet 144: “Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”
A bit later Douglass quotes most of Matthew 23, where Jesus really lays into the Pharisees, chief priests, and scribes! This quotation contains the words “heaven” and “hell,” and so we have a third echo of Sonnet 144.
Douglass then says what Pope Francis and so many other great Christians have said: “They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy. They are they who are represented as professing to love God whom they have not seen, whilst they hate their brother whom they have seen.”
Then Douglass presents a mocking song-poem entitled “A Parody.” It is a parody of a popular hymn from the South called “Heavenly Union.” The first line of the parody has “saints and sinners,” a fourth allusion to Sonnet 144.
The 4th and 5th lines of A Parody say, “And preach all sinners down to hell,/ And sing of heavenly union.” This is the fifth allusion to Sonnet 144.
The parody also has allusions to the Psalms and the Ladder: “We wonder how such saints can sing,/ Or praise the Lord upon the wing…,” and “lay up treasures in the sky,” and “fly.” Quoting a creature from the Psalms, they’ll “preach and roar like a Bashan bull,” and two verses later “seize old Jacob by the wool.” Here, Jacob, who saw the ladder in Genesis 28, is a slave.
Perhaps the harshest part of A Parody is this stanza near the end:
Another preacher whining spoke
Of One whose heart for sinners broke:
He tied old Nanny to an oak,
And drew blood at every stroke,
And prayed for heavenly union.
Douglass seems well aware of several mystical veins of ore in the Bible, not just the Psalms. He is strongly alluding here to the death of Absalom, dangling in the “heart” of the “oak tree,” when nasty Joab comes over and drills three javelins through his “heart.” Slaveowners are, um, Joab. Or even worse than Joab. And Absalom is a difficult foreshadowing of the crucifixion of Jesus. In the Old Testament, if parallels the “raising” of Solomon to the throne, and for a brilliant nanosecond, Solomon represents the integration that will permanently enter Creation through the Cross and painful elevation of Christ.
But just because Jesus made this possibility of global integration possible for us, it does not mean that we have automatically achieved this (sic)!
No, we have to work on our implementation of the good human integration that Jesus and the Cross have made possible to us. Jesus wants all of us to become mystics and holy and strong and good and intelligent and integrated and wide-seeing and big-hearted and loving people, just like Frederick Douglass.
Obviously, we have not gotten there yet. Some people have, but we have yet a mighty ways to go.
Part of our challenge is learning how to share the more-than-ample resources that we have in the world. There is no reason for people to be starving or homeless or uneducated.
Frederick Douglass knows the Bible and the Bard. But his message is more urgent and more Biblical than Shakespeare’s. And by virtue of his incredible journey, Frederick Douglass can command more moral authority than Shakespeare. Today, Douglass is a voice of prophetic Justice. He speaks of the demands of Justice for all our world today.
Let us thank God, and Frederick Douglass, for this stunningly beautiful and Truthful work of American literature. A prayer: May we learn from him.
For those wishing to do research on the Narrative, some notes and links, including all the numbers in the text of the Narrative, are available here: