Friday, August 5, 2011

Required Poet: Phillis Wheatley

I have to start off by saying that I honestly did not connect to Ms. Wheatley’s poetry at all. Something about it just did not resonate with me and I found most of it to be somewhat boring. My only exception would be “On being brought from Africa to America” as I liked its honesty and the fact that a point is strongly made in only eight lines. But despite my lack of interest in her work, I respect Phillis Wheatley a great deal acknowledge her incredible education for a woman of her time and her contribution to African American literature. Of course I will be dealing with four of her poems, but also one of her letters, as well as a poem that was dedicated to her by another African American poet, Jupiter Hammon.


Wheatley was the first published African American poet and first African American woman whose writings were published. Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is credited as having helped create the genre of African American literature.


There were three main elements that Wheatley was known to use in her poetry: Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship. The Christian themes are almost overwhelming if not for the presence of the solar worship, which Wheatley brought with her from Africa. The worship of the sun gods depicts Wheatley’s African culture, which also accounts for her use of different words for “sun” so much in her poetry – words such as Phoebus, Apollo, Aurora, and Sol. Of course, “sun” can also be written as “son,” making a pun on Christ, the son of God, and therefore referencing her religion and biblical ideas on writing.

Classicism is the use of language that maintains the formal aspects of language while refusing the norm and this is what makes Wheatley’s poetry stand out. She not only beat the odds in becoming a published African American woman, but also managed to find a voice of her own in the process and develop a style that was unmistakably her own.

A large number of her poems are dedicated to famous personalities, with an even larger number of them being elegies to people who dies, famous or otherwise. She rarely referred to her own situation as a slave, with one of the few exceptions being in my favorite poem “On being brought from Africa to America.”


As usual, for any African American writer of the time, many white people refused to believe that Wheatley wrote her poetry, and she defended her literary ability in court in 1772. The resulting signed attestation by a group of Boston luminaries that examined her was published in the preface of her book of poetry. Wheatley’s education, that was given to her freely, which is much different from most of her slave counterparts, was not only an excellent education for a slave, but for a woman as well. By age 12 she could already read Greek and Latin classics and the more difficult passages of the Bible. Because of her literary ability, her master, John Wheatley, removed her from household labor and made her education a chief concern.

Upon the death of John Wheatley in 1778, Wheatley was legally freed and later married. Although, after her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784, she became impoverished and died the same year at the age of 31. Needless to say this is an incredibly sad way for her life to end after it having started off so well despite the fact that she was taken from Africa and made into a slave. She never completed another volume of poetry and was buried in an unmarked grave. Hard to believe for someone who had been honored by many of the founding fathers, including George Washington.

And now, I will make an attempt to talk about each item individually.

On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield

This is one of her many elegies dedicated to the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, and English Anglican priest who spread the Great Awakening in Britain and the British North American colonies. Strange to relate, Whitefield actually advocated slavery and asserted that the south could not be prosperous without it. Of course, he also owned slaves himself and had a plantation of his own that he made money from, so he did have his own interests to take care of. However, he was known to treat his slaves well and other slave masters despised him, while his slaves were devoted to him. This makes for a very complicated reading of this poem. It is overtly Christian and mentions the sun, much like the others, but how do you praise a man who preached for enslavement and oppression of your own people for his personal gain?

On Being Brought from Africa to America

This one is my favorite and the one of the few in which Wheatley mentions her own enslavement. In this short poem Whitley describes her journey from Africa to America in order to be enslaved as a great blessing as it brought her out of her “pagan land” and made her a follower of Christ. She ends with telling all Christians that even those with dark skin can be redeemed by God.

To The University of Cambridge, in New England

Once again, Africa is referred to as a “land of errors” with “dark abodes.” Wheatley rejoices at having escaped such a place and landed in America. She then proceeds to overtly and boldly encourage her audience to embrace Jesus Christ while they still have time – redeem their souls before it is too late.

To S.M., a Young African Painter, on seeing his Works

This poem is not as overwhelmingly Christian in its themes as some of the others and leans more towards the sun worship that would be a part of her African heritage. There is mention of the “poet’s fire,” “radiant hinges ring,” and the “rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes.” Wheatley also mentions the muses and tells them to cease at the end as the gloom of night as caused her to no longer see the image before her.

Letter to Rev. Samson Occom (Feb. 11, 1774)

This is a letter Wheatley wrote to the Rev. Samson, a Native American Presbyterian clergyman who was the first Native American to publish documents in English. He was exposed to the teachings of Christian evangelical preachers during the Great Awakening. He was never paid the same as white preachers and spent much of his life in poverty. Wheatley is responding to a letter Occom wrote in which he addressed the natural rights of black people. Once again, Wheatley mentions the “thick darkness which broods over the land of Africa.” She then continues to assert that while of course the slaves would long for freedom, as it is natural for every human being to do so, it may be necessary for them to remain in their current situation if only it means them coming to Jesus and being enlightened. She also believes that God should “grant deliverance in his own way and time,” and in the meantime the slaves should see the “absurdity of their conduct.”

An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley by Jupiter Hammon

Jupiter Hammon was born a slave in New York and died a slave, even though he was a published poet, could read and write, and delivered “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York” that has since been widely published and anthologized. Hammon was a devout Christian and believed in a gradual emancipation, probably because he felt that slavery was so engrained in American society that sudden emancipation would do more harm than good. Although he never identifies himself in the poem, it is believed he felt he could relate Wheatley beings as they were both Christian African American poets born into slavery. Much like many of Wheatley’s poems, Hammon’s poem is overtly Christian and he entreats her to continue reaching to God and let him light her way.

Up next, Olaudah Equiano…yeah, I’m not sure how to say it either.

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