The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Liberty and Peace,” by Phillis Wheatley, is a sixty-six-line meditation celebrating the genesis of the United States of America as a country separate from Great Britain: “Lo! Freedom comes.” Written after the successful end of the Revolutionary War as a companion piece to her tribute to George Washington, “To His Excellency General Washington,” Wheatley describes in “Liberty and Peace” the figure of “Peace,” a woman “divinely fair,/ Olive and Laurel bind[ingl her golden Hair,” descending from heaven to grace the new country, called “Columbia,” with her presence after the long years of turmoil: “So Freedom comes array’d with Charms divine.” “Peace,” a messenger from heaven, comes to earth to force the tyrannical “Britannia” to “submit to Heaven’s decree” and allow America to detach itself from its colonial forebears.

Wheatley’s poem recounts the numerous years of repression that America had suffered from its colonial master, Great Britain, primarily due to the superiority of her natural gifts: “Each Art and Science now with rising Charms/ Th’ expanding Heart with Emulation warms.” As a “Realm of Freedom,” America’s impending rivalry with Britain caused great jealousy: “E’en great Britannia sees with dread Surprize,/ And from dazzl’ing Splendor turns her Eyes!” Consequently, Wheatley says, Britain began a series of controlling measures upon America to keep it from becoming a power in its...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like all but five of Phillis Wheatley’s surviving poems, “Liberty and Peace” is a poem that relies primarily on the English neoclassical devices of the heroic couplet: end rhyme, iambic pentameter, and the caesura. Wheatley’s imitation of Alexander Pope apparently led her to attempt to duplicate, more or less successfully, the form of his rhyming couplets, along with all the problems inherent in the use of such forms. The irregular spelling and punctuation of eighteenth century English made Wheatley dependent on the frequent use of elision and odd pronunciation of certain words to maintain the required iambic pentameter: “Britain, whose Navies swept th’ Atlantic o’er.”

Further, she sometimes duplicated the worst faults of the neoclassical tradition in the use of clichés, stale syntax, and overapplication of personification. “Liberty and Peace,” in particular, is a good example of this neoclassical fault because of Wheatley’s depiction of not only the inanimate qualities of “Liberty” and “Peace” but also the warring countries of the Revolutionary War as personages: “Columbia,” “Britannia,” and “Hibernia”—a veritable surfeit of personification.

Like Wheatley’s elegies, “Liberty and Peace” also tends to be somewhat impersonal and artificial in sentiment; despite its morbid content, the line “And mutual Deaths, all dealt with mutual Rage” lacks any real suggestion of sympathy and horror at the...

(The entire section is 451 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Carretta, Vincent, and Philip Gould, eds. Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

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