Saturday, September 28, 2013

Phillis Wheatley: Some Biographical, Historical, Literary and Religious Context (with a reading of “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” & one other poem)


I may be offered a paying-gig working on a text to introduce high-school students to some canonical (public domain) poems in the "Common Core Curriculum." Since I hated poetry in high-school (largely because of the way it's taught), I find writing a "sample essay" to be a daunting task--especially as I try to simplify my grad-school theory-speak, but I need a job....so it's worth a shot. Here's one of my first attempts to speak to high school students in writing.



Phillis Wheatley: Biographical, Historical, Literary and Religious Context (with a reading of “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” & one other poem)

I. A Revolutionary War Poet

Phillis Wheatley’s poetry embodies the highest hopes for liberty of Colonial America which the spirit the revolutionary war, at its best, embodied, but the tragedy of her early death also reveals the betrayal of those hopes.

In her poem, “To His Excellency General Washington,” Wheatley adeptly and eloquently employs classical myths and poetic rhetoric to praise General George Washington in the fight for liberty against the tyrannical King of England, George III.

Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

 The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise….

“Columbia” was the word used to describe colonial America in the 18th century, and was often personified as a female goddess in this neo-classical era. Wheatley rarely wrote of her own personal life in her poetry, but these “glorious toils” are also her own:

One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late….

Among George III’s many atrocities was his continued encouragement and legal sanction for the capturing people from Africa to become slaves in the Colonial Empire. As a slave forcibly taken from her native land, Wheatley had great hopes that the demand for “liberty” was not an idle word, and felt tremendous solidarity with the cause that lead to the founding of this country.

In this patriotic poem written in 1775, when she was 22 years old, Wheatley works within the parameters of the classical British and European poetry (Pope, Milton, Horace, Virgil and Homer) in which she steeped herself upon being taken from her native land at the age of 7, but also adeptly includes references to her native culture and religion (in this case “mother earth”) that many other fellow-slaves (literate or not) could relate to, if able to hear. Her intermingling of the traditions of Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship, evident in such poems as her “Ode To Neptune,” suggests one way of creating a distinctly American poetic and religious language that speaks to all the colonists, secular and sacred, free and slave, white and black.

II. A Religious Poet

According to John C. Shields, "her allusions to the sun god and to the goddess of the morn, always appearing as they do here in close association with her quest for poetic inspiration, are of central importance to her." The hierophantic solar worship is what she brought with her from Africa; the worship of sun gods is expressed as part of her African culture. As her parents were sun worshipers, it may be why she used so many different words for the sun. For instance, she uses Aurora eight times, "Apollo seven, Phoebus twelve, and Sol twice." Shields believes that the word "light" is significant to her as it marks her African history, a past which she has left physically behind. He notes that Sun is a homonym for Son, and that Wheatley intended a double reference to Christ.[1]

From a strict Christian religious perspective, even the use of Classical European (Greek and Roman) myths, and invocations of Apollo, Zeus, and Athena, was considered heresy, but accepted because of their literary value. The Gods the African worshipped were not even afforded literary status, since it was primarily an oral culture. It makes sense that Wheatley would see more in common with her native religion in these Greek and Roman myths (which, in most accounts, were derived from African myths in the first place; Homer didn’t write), than in the monotheistic (and increasingly rationalistic Deist philosophies of) Christianity. Yet once she became aware of the Christian evangelists whose mission was to educate and convert, she soon found a way, at a young age, to incorporate the dominant religion of her new land into her parents’ religion.

III. “On Being Brought From Africa To America”

Five years before she had written her poem to George Washington, she wrote a short poem on the death of Calvinist minister George Whitefield, at the age of 17. While this poem is less ambitious, both literarily and religiously, than her later work, it remains her most well-known and anthologized piece.

The 8-line poem in simple end-stopped rhyming couplets begins by placing itself firmly in the tradition of Christian missionary verse and letters from its beginnings with St. Paul, who converted from Judaism, tried to convince others to do the same. Wheatley begins: “Twas’ mercy that brought me from my Pagan land,/Taught my benighted soul to understand/ That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too.” But after these three lines, Wheatley departs from the “missionary” tradition in one crucial way: While most “converts” (from St. Paul to St. Augustine) address those who they are trying to convert, Wheatley’s main audience is not Africans, much less those who were brought to America on slave ships; she’s not trying to convert them to Christianity. Instead, her main audience is white Christians. She’s trying to convert, or at least convince, Christians, or those who call themselves Christians, to show their much-touted virtue of “mercy” on her race, rather than the scorn based on racial prejudice used to justify slave-labor.

As the 17 year-old Wheatley continues:

“Some view our sable race with a scornful eye,
Their color is a diabolic dye.’”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”

If given the chance, we can speak your language, culture, and religion, which you claim is more “refined” than ours. She understands there’s “a Saviour,” but she’s not bragging that she’s been “saved.” Knowing her other poetry helps put these lines in poetic and religious context; she’s not exactly rejecting her “pagan” religion. “Pagan” needn’t not be a judgmental moral term, but rather a descriptive term to describe any religion aside from the dominant one, in this case Christianity. But clearly a light flashed in her head when she saw the similarities between the Christian God, and the Sky-God of her native religion. In this early poem, Wheatley is thus already speaking in code, in what the later writer and statesman, W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as a “double consciousness.”

The ironies of this poem may have fallen on deaf ears to her largely white audience at the time, but it’s crucial to note that she refuses to state in this poem that she’s renouncing, or turning her back, on her native religion. Rather, she’s attempting to “refine” it to fit within the context of the alien culture she’s toiling to make the best of, in an attempt to find continuity with the culture she was forced to leave behind (just as many immigrants from other countries become culturally bilingual; something that was not allowed for the vast majority of African-Americans). And this task becomes more evident in the poetry she wrote in subsequent years. In her tribute to George Washington, for instance, “the land of freedom’s heaven defended race” could refer to both America and her “pagan land.”


Wheatley herself was one of the very few Africans who had been shown even a smidgeon of “mercy” when she arrived in America, and even that was very hard-won. She received “an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, and for a female of any race. By the age of twelve, Phillis was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis' education and left the household labor to their other domestic slaves. The Wheatleys often showed off Phillis' abilities to friends and family” (Wikipedia). But she still met with scorn, and at best was celebrated as a “token” during the war effort. Even when her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) brought her fame both in England and the American colonies, she was brought to court to defend her authorship of the work; some people still couldn’t believe that she could write so “refin’d.”

IV: Subsequent Life and Tragedy

Unfortunately, the course of history took a tragic turn for Wheatley in particular, and for millions of other Africans who were now living in America. The Colonies did gain “independence” from England in this war, but independence was not granted to slaves, or even extended fully to women. Wheatley was thus doubly disenfranchised, and even though she was legally freed from slavery on her master’ death in 1778, such “freedom” resulted in even worse living conditions than she had known as a slave. Shortly after being freed, she married John Peters, a free black grocer. As Wikipedia sums up her life from this point, “They struggled with poor living conditions and the deaths of two infant children. Wheatley wrote another volume of poetry but was unable to publish it because of her financial circumstances, the loss of patrons after her emancipation (often publication of books was based on gaining subscriptions for guaranteed sales beforehand), and the competition from the Revolutionary War.

Her husband John Peters was imprisoned for debt in 1784, leaving an impoverished Wheatley with a sickly infant son. She went to work as a scullery maid at a boarding house to support them. The racism and sexism that marked the era had forced her into a kind of domestic labor that she had not been forced to do while her freedom was held by her masters. Wheatley died on December 5, 1784, at age 31. Her infant son died three and a half hours after her death.”

Forgotten by her early supporters, one of whom was on his way to becoming “the father of the country,” the promise of her early poetry remained unfulfilled, and the tragedy is not merely personal. What Wheatley could have contributed to the new country had she been able to continue to write and publish her work remains a tragedy of the utmost magnitude. Yet her heroic struggle from the chains of the slave ship “Phillis” to writing poetry in the most fashionable and sophisticated style (praised by the likes of Voltaire and Thomas Paine amongst others) in her short life stand as a testimony to the human spirit, but also, alas, of the legacy of slavery, institutional Racism, and the limits of Christian “mercy.”


[1] Shields, John C. "Phillis Wheatley's Use of Classicism", American Literature 52.1 (1980): 97-111. Web. 2 Nov 2009., p. 102.

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