Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral Essay - Critical Essays

Phillis Wheatley


As neoclassicism demands, Wheatley’s poetry recognizes the human being as a limited, imperfect creature in need of instruction, order, and harmony; imagination is highly regarded, but it is never an alternative to the harsh realities of life. Neoclassical poems were valued for their instruction, and they avoided both the adverse and the highly imaginative aspects of nature. This restrictive form suited Wheatley’s social status as a slave and conformed to the Christian idea of an individual as an imperfect being whose only hope of salvation rests in the figure of Christ.

Wheatley’s poems often begin with the neoclassical appeal to the Muses and often employ Greek deities and legends, remaining mindful of the structured Greek universe; in her poetry, however, God is the highest deity. Wheatley’s focus is on salvation and resurrection, as is apparent in her numerous elegies, in which the idea of the well-ordered universe extends to human suffering; even the death of an infant is the will of God and should be looked on as such. Wheatley constructs her elegies (which frequently resemble one another and which were often written in only a few days) of several components that do not always occur in the same order. First, she stresses that death itself comes from the hand of God: “His fatal sceptre rules the spacious whole” (“To a Lady on the Death of Three Relations”). Second, she graciously acknowledges and pictures the mourners’ suffering: “Thy sisters, too, fair mourner, feel the dart/ Of death, and with fresh torture rend thine heart.” Third, she includes an appeal to mourners to transform their sorrow to joy: “Smile on the tomb, and soothe the raging pain.” Often, the dead themselves speak to the mourners from above. (In some elegies to male figures who were prominent in the church, Wheatley emphasizes their earthly deeds, as if petitioning for their entry into the state of bliss.) Finally, a new vision of the deceased is offered to the onlooker: “From bondage freed, the exulting spirit flies.”

With few exceptions, the lines of Wheatley’s poems are predictably structured in iambic pentameter, each line consisting of ten syllables, five of...

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