No one could deny Wheatley’s remarkable achievement in being the first African American of either sex to publish a book in colonial America, a time and place where slaves’ very humanity was questioned. The publication of a slave girl’s poems attested to the spiritual and intellectual capacities of Africans kept in bondage. However, while the accomplishment is noteworthy, the poetry itself has always received an ambivalent response, from both her contemporaries and from some modern readers.
Some of the early criticisms can be attributed to a lack of ease with the poetry’s source; for example, Jefferson’s dismissal of Wheatley’s work suggests his unwillingness to credit the idea of art from the hand of a slave. Nonetheless, even her supporters have observed that her poetry was good but not exceptional. Although the quality of her work has long been debated, it is an unfair judgment to suggest that her interest lies primarily in her unusual circumstances and historical significance.
European culture was a heavy presence in early American writing, and the neoclassical influence is clearly seen in Wheatley’s poetry in its polished poetic diction, conventional figures of speech, classical allusions, decorum, and emotional restraint. The works of Alexander Pope, one of the great neoclassical poets, were an important part of Wheatley’s early education, and his translation of Homer’s Iliad (c. 725 b.c.e.) was her favorite piece of literature. She modeled her poems on Pope’s heroic couplets.
Many of Wheatley’s works were occasional poems, verse written to celebrate public events and achievements or to mourn the deaths of, usually, public figures. Whatever emotion is expressed in such poems is restrained. She emphasized morality and duty—both Christian duty and duty to one’s country and its leadership. The subject matter and the audience of the poetry are the white people of Boston, the society in which she lived. Her fellow slaves, denied education, could not have read her work.
Although Wheatley has been criticized for not striking a blow for the emancipation of her people and denouncing slavery in her poetry, this charge ignores the fact that the poet could publish only what was permissible in the world she inhabited. However charmed members of the privileged class of Boston were by her accomplishments, to a large extent she published her works by their indulgence. Nonetheless, there is a certain subversion in her poems. Wheatley often draws the reader’s attention to her African heritage and servitude. She implies, however, that it is God alone who owns her and to whom she must ultimately submit, the implication being that her masters, too, will someday have to account for themselves as slave owners.
She does not overtly confront the establishment but employs irony and ambiguity in her poetry and takes lessons from Scripture and popular sermons to overturn the racial assumptions and expectations of her readers. Additionally, the irony of a people fighting for their liberty from a tyrannical government while at the same time exercising the tyranny of slavery over another race was not lost on the poet. In subtle ways her poetry points out the hypocrisy of Christians who condone slavery. Divine and social justice are thus linked in her work.
“To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth”
First published: 1773 (collected in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773)
Type of work: Poem
The poet congratulates the earl on being appointed by King George III as secretary of state for North America, then lays out her hopes for his leadership.
Wheatley, a slave, had met William Legge, the earl of Dartmouth, when she was in England for the publication of her collected poems. She knew him to be a friend of the countess of Huntingdon, a supporter of Wheatley’s work....
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