Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

Jay Parini, writing of Wheatley in Columbia History of American Poetry, explains that “from the time of her first published piece to the present day, controversy has surrounded the life and work of America’s first black poet, and only its second published woman poet. . . . Few poets of any age have been so scornfully maligned, so passionately defended, so fervently celebrated, and so patronizingly tolerated.” In Critical Survey of Poetry, English Language Series, John Shields points out that “one of the major subjects of her poetry is the American struggle for independence . . . Wheatley so energetically proclaims America’s success in the political arena certainly attests her sympathies . . . that a people who find themselves unable to accept a present, unsatisfactory government, have the right to change that government, even if such a change can be accomplished through armed revolt.” This poem is a description of that feeling. There has been much dissension in the criticism of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry. One camp derides her for not being more vocal in her dissent against slavery. The other camp proclaims her as a true revolutionary, an African-American female slave in eighteenthcentury New England, writing poetry that excels what was typically being written during her time. In Bid the Vassal Soar, M. A. Richmond recounts that in 1810, responding to a harsh criticism of Wheatley’s poetry by none other than Thomas Jefferson, Samuel...

(The entire section is 301 words.)