illustrated portrait of Phillis Wheatley

To His Excellency General Washington

by Phillis Wheatley

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How does Phillis Wheatley personify the American colonies in "To His Excellency General Washington"?

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Wheatley personifies the American colonies as a warrior goddess named Columbia. She wears armor, "flash[ing] dreadful in [her] refulgent arms." Columbia takes up "freedom's cause," moving "divinely fair" with her golden hair and many charms and graces. She leads armies, and she seems to exist always in the "bright beams of heaven's revolving light." Columbia also wears "Olive and laurel" branches in her hair. In Greek mythology, the olive is associated with the warrior goddess, Athena, and Columbia's power and majesty benefits from this association with this most powerful goddess. Further, laurel is associated with the god, Apollo, and is a symbol of victory.

Thus, the symbolism of Columbia's ornaments seems to hint at both her undeniable power and beauty and intelligence, as well as her inevitable victory over Britannia, the personified colonizer: England. When "Columbia's arm prevails," Britannia's head drops, and she accepts defeat, "Lament[ing] [her] thirst of boundless power too late." In the end, then, when Wheatley describes Washington as having "A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading," as a leader with "virtue on [his] side," she associates him with the gods as well, describing him like an Olympian.

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In Phillis Wheatley's homage to George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, the poet creates a goddess she calls Columbia to personify the American colonies. The goddess wears olive and laurel to symbolize peace and victory and inspires admiration—and fear—in those who would oppose her. Wheatley refers to Eolus, the Greek god of the winds, as a peer of Columbia's, but the goddess was Phillis Wheatley's creation.  

The line "Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write" refers to the state of the colonies when she wrote the poem and sent it to George Washington in October 1776. The outcome of the Revolutionary War would not be known for another seven years. Wheatley's poem was meant to honor Washington and encourage him to continue to lead "Columbia" to victory.

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