Themes and Meanings

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Any analysis of any work written by Wheatley would be incomplete without a basic understanding of the unusual life circumstances of the author. Unlike most of her poetic contemporaries, whose lives were graced by wealth and privilege, Wheatley stood out during her era as being one of a very few published black authors and probably the only published black female author. In contrast with such writers as Thomas Godfrey and Anne Bradstreet, Wheatley was not a native of her homeland but was brought to America during her early childhood and raised as a slave, albeit a privileged one, in the house of John Wheatley, a fairly well-to-do tailor in Boston.

Further, at the time that her earliest poems were written, Wheatley had been speaking and writing English for only ten years and suffered constantly from ill health. Certainly good fortune played a large part in establishing Wheatley’s poetic fame, but it should also be noted that only a very facile mind could have absorbed such as mass of cultural information as Wheatley did during her youth. Wheatley’s training consisted of astronomy, some ancient and modern geography, considerable Bible knowledge, grammar and rhetoric, and classic literature—training that resulted in the poetess’s considerable fluency in Greek and Latin, her favorite work being Pope’s translation of Greek poet Homer. For any young woman, let alone a household slave, such training was the mark of accomplishment and great natural ability.

Given her status, then, such works as “Liberty and Peace” stand out as being marks of not a good, but rather an exceptional, intellect for a very young woman—merely thirty-one at the time of her death—of African descent living as a slave. Her first poem, “An Elegiac Poem on the Death of George Whitefield,” written in 1770, was the work of a seventeen-year-old servant girl. Nevertheless, the poem attracted the attention of many of the best and brightest in the Boston literary community. The London Magazine: Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer quickly reviewed the 1773 edition of Wheatley’s works and found it to be vigorous and admirable.

Such late works as “Liberty and Peace,” dealing as it does with the society-shaking events of the Revolutionary War, attracted a great deal of admirable press—not least those of George Washington and the governor of Massachusetts. The primary themes, those of loyalty to one’s country and God, further inspired admiration among Wheatley’s readers. Wheatley’s poetic references to the Muses and other mythological figures placed her in the same literary camp as her inspiration, Alexander Pope, which, given his popularity at the time of Wheatley’s writing, did not hurt in establishing a consistent audience for Wheatley’s creative talents. Again and again, critics of Wheatley’s poems have emphasized that she should have a lasting place in history, if not for exceptional poetic ability then definitely for the perseverance of her literary spirit and her patriotic tributes to her adopted country.

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