Study Guide

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley Essay - Wheatley (Peters), Phillis

Wheatley (Peters), Phillis

Introduction

Phillis Wheatley (Peters) 1753?-1784

American poet.

Wheatley was the first black woman known to have published a book in the United States. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was used as an exemplar of the power of education by proponents of egalitarian and abolitionist aims, who emphasized Wheatley's command of Western literature and classical mythology, as well as the religious expression strongly evident in her poetry. Composed largely of neoclassical elegiac poetry, which displays the controlled rhythms and rhyme patterns popularized by Alexander Pope, Poems on Various Subjects has sparked a number of critical debates regarding the extent to which Wheatley can be considered a primarily imitative minor poet or whether she employed such mimetic gestures to express in an oblique manner political and moral concerns.

Biographical Information

Believed to have been born in West Africa, Wheatley was purchased at a slave auction in 1761 by the wife of a wealthy Boston merchant. She was renamed by her owner and given the family's surname, as was customary. She displayed a curiosity and aptitude for learning that led the Wheatleys to educate her, primarily through Bible study. Wheatley was taught to read and write English and on her own studied classical and contemporary poetry as well as French, Latin, and Greek literature. She began writing poetry around the age of thirteen; her earliest surviving poem is generally agreed to be "On Being Brought from Africa to America."

Wheatley's first published poem, an elegy commemorating the death of the well-known abolitionist minister George Whitefield, was printed locally in 1770; however, she soon gained national and international attention when this poem was reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies and in England. She traveled to England in 1773 with the Wheatley's son and was treated as a celebrity, especially among English abolitionists, including the anti-slavery activist Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington, who secured publication in London of her collection Poems on Various Subjects. Wheatley was granted an audience with King George III, but was required to miss the meeting and to turning to Boston to attend Mrs. Wheatley on her deathbed. When her owner died Wheatley was freed. There is no evidence that the Wheatley family or any of the Boston elite who had known her had any further contact with Wheatley. Her attempts to publish another volume of poetry were unsuccessful. In 1778 she married John Peters, a free black man, and had several children. The family fell into financial difficulties, Peters was jailed, and two of their children died. Wheatley worked as a maid in boarding houses until her death in December 1784, and was buried with her remaining child, who died shortly afterward, in an unmarked grave.

Major Works

Wheatley was primarily an occasional poet, writing elegies and honorific works to commemorate the lives of friends and famous contemporaries, and poems to celebrate important events, such as Washington's appointment as commander-in-chief of the revolutionary forces. Although these poems follow the then-widely imitated diction, meter and rhyme patterns established by Pope and his school, her work stands apart from that of many of her contemporaries because of her technical skill. Julian Mason notes that "her favorite poetic form was the heroic couplet of English neoclassicism," from which she only rarely diverged.

Poems on Various Subjects contains thirty-nine poems, which form the majority of her extant work and range in subject matter from very personal and philosophical musings, such as "An Hymn to the Morning" and "An Hymn to the Evening," to more conventional neoclassical subjects, as in "On Recollection." Many of the poems combine Christian imagery or scriptural interpretation with classical influences, particularly Homeric allusions. Her poems reflect an attention to the major political events of her day, as well as more mundane occurrences among her acquaintances. Of the extant poems not contained in Poems on Various Subjects, many are, variants of earlier poems, but also include the poem in praise of George Washington and General Lee. Her letters, which were published posthumously, contain a proposal for a second volume of poetry, but this project was never realized.

Critical Reception

Scholarship on Wheatley's poetry has tended to emphasize the unusual fact of the author's identity. The first edition of Poems on Various Subjects was prefaced with the signed testimony of prominent British citizens affirming its authenticity as the work of an African-born slave. Two early London reviews illustrate the concern that the novelty of the author's identity had overshadowed evaluation of the intrinsic merit of the poetry. This concern permeated early criticism of Wheatley's poetry: a favorable review concludes that while the works themselves "display no astonishing power of genius," they have special merit because of their creator. One negative appraisal asserts that "most of those people have a turn for imitation, though they have little or none for invention." Thomas Jefferson's frequently cited remark that "Religion … has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet," in Notes on Virginia (1784) was countered by defenders who citedher popular success and claimed that no Anglo-American poet of her time had produced "more beautiful lines." The abolition debates of the nineteenth century spurred renewed interest in Wheatley's work, which resulted in the publication of her letters in 1864. The argument over the literary status of her work—as simple imitations of neoclassical poetry or as innovative pieces in their own right—has continued to inform critical analyses of Wheatley.

Twentieth-century critics have scrutinized Wheatley's poetry for evidence of racial pride or abolitionist protest. During the revival of interest in black literature of pride and protest in the 1920s, Wheatley was dismissed by many critics as complacently silent on the social injustice that characterized both her early life and that of pre-revolutionary America. Some critics have argued that Wheatley's works must be judged by examining the poetic models and social influences within her restricted sphere, noting the irony of her position: within but not part of Boston's privileged upper class, and forbidden by her owners to have much contact other slaves or with free blacks. Yet more recent critics of her work have contended that her adoption of conventional styles, topics, and imagery allowed her to express a subtle critique of political and social conditions of her time. The social protest woven into her works, according to these interpretations, reveals a level of semantic complexity, evidenced by her "redeployment," in Sondra O'Neale's phrase, of neoclassical images and scriptural allusions, that has remained largely unrecognized, and establishes her as a significant and uniquely American poet.

Wheatley's reputation remains dominated by the conclusion that she was a relatively minor poet who followed the literary fashion of her age, despite much critical supposition about her poetic gifts and potential under different circumstances. Her poetry is still considered a point of departure for the study of black literature in America. Many critics find among her work poetry that excels that typical of her time, and instances of individuality and oblique resistance which acquit her of the common charge of being a mere imitator.

Principal Works

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (poetry) 1773

Letters of Phillis Wheatley, the Negro-Slave Poet of Boston (letters) 1864

Poems and Letters (poetry and letters) 1915

The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (poetry) 1966; revised edition, 1989

Criticism

M. A. Richmond (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Poetry and Fame," in Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784) and George Moses Horton (ca. 1797-1883), Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974, pp. 24-30

[In the following essay, Richmond discusses allusions in two early poems to the political and social conditions of pre-revolutionary America.]

The very title was constructed like a cathedral: "An Elegiac Poem on the Death of the celebrated Divine, and eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the late Reverend, and Pious George Whitefield, Chaplain to Right Honourable the Countess of Huntingdon, &c, &c, Who made his exit from this...

(The entire section is 3120 words.)

Sondra O'Neale (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "A Slave's Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley's Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol," in Early American Literature, Vol. 21, No. 2, Fall, 1986, pp. 144-65.

[In the essay that follows, O 'Neale objects to the identification of Wheatley's use of religious images and ideas with her conformity to Anglo-American culture. Instead, she argues that Wheatley "redeploys" these conventional tropes to define an abolitionist moral stance.]

Any evaluation of Phillis Wheatley must consider her status as a slave. Wheatley was one of only three Americans who were able to publish poetry and prose while they were still in bondage. (The other two were Jupiter Hammon [1711-179?] and George...

(The entire section is 9115 words.)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Phillis Wheatley and the 'Nature of the Negro'," in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the "Racial" Self New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, pp. 61-79

[In the following essay, Gates contends that the debate over the "rights of man" that ensued after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects inaugurated practices of literature criticism that still govern readings of African-American literature in the twentieth century.]

It is difficult to begin to understand the political and social import that the literature of the African bore in the eighteenth century. A fairly detailed study of the critical reception of Phillis Wheatley by her contemporaries...

(The entire section is 8258 words.)

David Grimsted (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Anglo-American Racism and Phillis Wheatley's 'Sable Veil,' 'Length'ned Chain,' and 'Knitted Heart'," in Women in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, University Press of Virginia, 1989, pp. 338-445

[In the following excerpt, Grimsted claims that Wheatley's poetry, rather than avoiding the controversial issues of slavery and independence, obliquely displays a critical sensitivity and attention to racial and political injustice.]

…While Wheatley's race assured continuing attention to her work, it perhaps has also circumvented the interpretive rigor with which it has been treated.13 The appreciative...

(The entire section is 8898 words.)

Helen Burke (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Problematizing American Dissent: The Subject of Phillis Wheatley," in Cohesion and Dissent in America, edited by Carol Colatrella and Joseph Alkana, State University of New York Press, 1994, pp. 193-209

[In the essay that follows, Burke challenges the idea that Wheatley's success as a poet reflects her escape from the oppressive situation of slavery.]

In his History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault argues that our conceptual model of power has not changed very much since the Middle Ages. "At bottom, despite the differences in epoch and objectives," Foucault writes, "the representation of power has remained under the spell of monarchy. In political thought...

(The entire section is 6384 words.)

Phillip M. Richards (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Phillis Wheatley, Americanization, the Sublime, and the Romance of America," Style, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 194-221.

[In the following essay, Richards characterizes Wheatley's poetry as an attempt to acquire and wield authorial status within American society.]

I

In a series of suggestive remarks on Phillis Wheatley, Kenneth Silverman mentions the African-American poet's self-consciousness. Raising this issue, he strikes a chord with various resonances.1 The acute self-consciousness, which Wheatley shares with a number of early-American writers, may well have come from her sense of participating as a provincial in a...

(The entire section is 12758 words.)

Robert L. Kendrick (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Snatching a Laurel, Wearing a Mask: Phillis Wheatley's Literary Nationalism and the Problem of Style," Style, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 222-51.

[In the following essay, Kendrick contests the common biographical and critical assessment that Wheatley was fully assimilated into white culture. He proposes that Wheatley's written works display a distinctive authorial voice that remained aware of her marginal status as a slave.]

Any analysis of Phillis Wheatley's poetry must first reconcile the problems presented by her styl(us), for the central problem that Wheatley herself had to address was that of how to make an inscription that would not leave a clearly...

(The entire section is 14809 words.)

Hilene Flanzbaum (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Unprecedented Liberties: Re-reading Phillis Wheatley," MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1993, pp. 71-81.

[In the essay that follows, Flanzbaum identifies in Wheatley criticism a problematic mixture of apology for the supposed mediocrity of her poetry's literary merits, and an unreflective astonishment that she was able to produce poetry at all. Flanzbaum's own commentary examines the emancipatory bargain that allowed Wheatley to write and publish her work.]

The very fact that Phillis Wheatley, a black female slave, wrote at all has attracted more attention, prompted more theories, and inspired more heated debate than any line of her poetry ever has. From its very...

(The entire section is 5001 words.)

Betsy Erkkila (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Phillis Wheatley and the Black American Revolution," in A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, edited by Frank Shuffelton, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 225-40.

[In the essay that follows, Erkkila emphasizes the revolutionary power of Wheatley's use of republican and religious figurations of enslavement and redemption.]

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, those who advocated a break with England did so in the language of the two primary social tropes: the family and slavery. The position of America was figuratively represented as the natural right of the son or daughter to revolt against a tyrannical parent and the natural right of a...

(The entire section is 6022 words.)

John C. Shields (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Phillis Wheatley's Subversive Pastoral," In Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 27, No. 4, Summer, 1994, pp. 631-47.

[In the following essay, Shields studies Wheatley's adoption of classical tropes and attributes to her poetry a subtle critique of the social injustice of her time.]

Most readers of Phillis Wheatley's poetry have long been aware that she employed the pastoral mode in her poems with some frequency. These readers have not recognized, nevertheless, that this poet manipulated the pastoral mode in a subversive manner. The work of Annabel Patterson instructs us that "what people think of Vergil's Eclogues is a key to their own cultural...

(The entire section is 6253 words.)

William J. Scheick (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Subjection and Prophecy in Phillis Wheatley's Verse Paraphrases of Scripture," College Literature, No. 22-23, October, 1995, pp. 122-30.

[In the following essay, Scheick examines scriptural references in Wheatley's poetry, and claims that she employs these elements in an "appropriated ministerial voice" in order to emphasize the immorality of slavery.]

The critical response to the poetry of Phillis Wheatley (c. 1754-1784) often registers disappointment or surprise. Some critics have complained that this African-American slave's verse is insecure (Collins 78), imitative (Richmond, Bid the Vassal 54-66), and incapacitated (Burke 33, 38)—at its worst the...

(The entire section is 3912 words.)

Marsha Watson (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "A Classic Case: Phillis Wheatley and Her Poetry," Early American Literature, Vol. 31, 1996, pp. 103-32.

[In the essay that follows, Watson examines the neoclassical blend of conventional diction and imagery in Wheatley's poetry. She argues that the innovative use of these elements becomes a "weapon of racial memory," despite the critical considerations of her work as imitative of or subordinate to Western literary traditions.]

I

Following the death of her mistress in 1774, the recently manumitted American colonial poet Phillis Wheatley wrote to philanthropist John Thornton concerning advice he had just given her regarding her future:...

(The entire section is 12652 words.)