Summary: For this week’s reading assignment, we had five Phillis Wheatley poems to read. Each poem’s title is more or less the main idea of the poem. “On Being Brought from Africa to America” details Wheatley’s gratefulness for being saved from the “Pagan land” (1) of Africa. She views her Christianity, which is a result of her being brought to America, as protection against the evils of the world. Though some view her “sable race with scornful eye” (5), Wheatley claims embracing Christianity and praising God may redeem her fellow Africans. “On Imagination” includes the great heights Wheatley’s imagination can take her. She imagines many things happening in which the new world of the states has “amaz[ed] [her] unbounded soul” (22). There are many allusions to Greek and Roman mythical figures such as Tithon (lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn) and Aurora (Latin for dawn). She tries to hold on to the “pleasing views” (48) of her mind for as long as she can until the coldness of “Winter” (50) comes to dampen her mood. “On Virtue” is about Wheatley’s opinion on which values should be cherished such as “celestial Chasity” (12), for example. Personifying virtue, Wheatley asks for virtue to “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss” (17), meaning she always wants to display her high moral values. “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth” is a poem directly addressed to William Legge, the secretary of state for the earlier colonies. She appeals to the earl in the hopes of getting his support in abolishing slavery because she never wants other people to “feel tyrannic sway” (31) the way she did when she was brought from Africa to America. “To S.M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works” is another poem that is directly addressed to a person, this time a young poet, artist, and slave named Scipio Moorhead. Wheatley states the process an artist goes through with each piece of art they create, similar to a poet and their writing process.
Historical Context/Literary History: Each poem was written by Phillis Wheatley, an African slave, at around 1773. While there are no exact dates for all the poems, her works are estimated to have been written and published in America in the 1770s, before the abolition of slavery. Wheatley’s poems, at least the ones we read, are semi-auto-biographical (“On Being….America”) and religious in nature. There are several allusions to God and God’s “heaven-born” beings (“On Virtue” 9) throughout Wheatley’s poetry, especially the “On…” poems. She wrote and published her poems in the middle of the American Revolution, not only as a woman but as a former slave. Phillis Wheatley was the first of her kind in the literary world because of her style of writing, her race, and her gender. She expresses her disapproval of slavery most powerfully in “To… Dartmouth” when she asks for the earl to join her in abolishing such a cruel act. Wheatley’s poems reflect the concerns of its historical moment, nationally and globally, by expressing the oppressive effect slavery has had on her life. Her relationship with Christianity is used to escape the possible mental and emotional damage slavery caused her at such a young age.
Genre: Wheatley’s poems build on the generic traditions that precede it by including her first-hand experience with slavery into her religious poems. Like many other Western classical and religious poems, Wheatley includes many allusions to the Bible, such as Cain and cherubs. She also alludes to, and repeats, Greek and Roman mythology throughout her work, particularly the mythology of Aurora, which is Latin for dawn. She connects such religious and mythological figures to slavery, particularly to highlight how morally wrong slavery is.
Theoretical/Analytical Questions: Keeping in mind the current racial tensions in America, how might Phillis Wheatley’s poems (“On Being Brought from Africa to America” in particular) be used to understand (America’s race relations?) I’m not great at writing possible essay questions about an analysis of the texts, so I’ll just discuss the possible ways my classmates and I could analyze the texts on the exam. “On Being… America” is probably Phillip Wheatley’s most famous poem, so I imagine many of us could use Wheatley’s direct reference to her journey as a slave across the ocean as a primary text to discuss 18th century American literature. One could even try to unpack the lines “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain/May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train” (7-8) for its historical significance. “On Imagination” may be more challenging to use since there are so many allusions to Greek/Roman mythology, as would “To… Dartmouth” if you didn’t know who William Legge was. However, the second half of the second stanza is full of Wheatley’s frustration with the American legal system, much of which can still be applied today.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.
In the poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Wheatley clearly describes her journey to America as a slave. The concept of race is already identified in the poem. She uses her words symbolically, as they are imbued with innuendos of racism. She says, “’Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too;”
• By keeping within the limits of supposed ignorance, Wheatley is broadcasting that her land was “pagan” and the white man has showed her God through mercy. The underlying notes of race are readily available if you choose to see them.
• It becomes even clearer in her lines, “Remember Christians, Negros, black as Cain, May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train.” She is expressing here that the white’s need to remember that the blacks can go to heaven as well, that it’s not just for the whites. While presented subtly, that’s Wheatley shoving it in the white’s faces that the blacks are just as good as they are to go to heaven.
• In this, she is saying the color of your skin does not matter. Because it is veiled by this subtlety, Wheatley’s meaning may be easy to overlook. In this case, her poem relates again to the consequences of language.
• What Wheatley is saying is that regardless of the “untamed” nature of black people, they can achieve the same things that the whites can.
• This can relate to Inferno, where Dante uses the pretext of religion to expose his own feelings on that matter.
This comes back to the idea of censorship. How much could be said was restricted in both Wheatley and Dante’s moment. If they both expressed what they truly wanted to say, it would not have been published. This ties back into Milton, because he fought for the freedom to be able to publish what you want. However, for Wheatley, there were still restrictions in what could and could not be said. Again, this can also tie into Morrison’s view on language as an act of consequences. However, sometimes, as in Wheatley’s case, those consequences can be manipulated.
On being brought from Africa to America by Phillis Wheatley we can see she write in rhyming couplets that form a black in classic iambic pentameter, 5 beats per line. This 18th-century poem discusses her voyage from Africa to America and her dealings with life as a former slave.
A break down of the poem shows:
• “Brought me from my Pagan land” God’s mercy saved her from her ignorant ways. She is showing humility and accepting the graciousness of the Christian ways. She was brought from “darkness” to the truth.
• “There’s a God, that there’s a savior too” She gained knowledge of God and not the gods from her land. Her savior is Jesus and she is a believer.
• Some view black people with contempt and scorn. No better than the animals traded (Sable can mean either black or a type of animal traded for its dark fur). This is anti-Christian and she reminds them that all are capable of going to heaven.
To SM a young Painter is a poem written to a slave of a Presbyterian minister who was an artist and a poet.
Poems break down:
• She strives to comprehend his creative process that she and the audience enjoys.
• She encourages him to enjoy his time here on earth with his joy and his fame and reminds him that it is nothing compared to the glory of Heaven.
• In heaven, they will be purer with their gifts and will not be subject to writing or drawing about Damon or Aurora.
• Art grants them the freedom regardless of their standings on earth, their physical shackles
• It brings a spiritual fulfillment and it is something that can enhance their religious achievement.
This can be related to Dante’s Inferno and Levine’s form and Federici’s body. it can also be paired with Beatty’s the sell out as both characters use their talents to escape the world around them.
Comments are closed.
Spam prevention powered by Akismet