“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 own right: “Britain, whose Navies swept the Atlantic o’er,/ And Thunder sent to every distant Shore.”
America’s rebellion, meant to finally shake off Britain’s restrictive policies regarding American trade—its “Manners cruel” and “Thirst of boundless Power”—is supported by France (“For Galia’s Power espous’d Columbia’s cause”). King Louis XVI, remarks Wheatley, “Sees the fierce Wrong, and to the rescue flies,” since Britain’s “Tyrants” are abhorrent to the observing eyes of other countries.The Revolutionary War was not, however, without its costs, as Wheatley so carefully demonstrates. The “fraternal Arms” of Britain and America battled, killing many people and destroying much property. Wheatley reports that the earth itself complained at being soaked with “kindred Gore,” and that Britain’s soldiers “plunder’d” America’s “Treasures” and burned Charlestown: “In one sad hour the savage troops despoil.” Only France, “fair Hibernia,” Wheatley says, was moved enough to enter the fray and assist the new country in it struggle for freedom.
However, these losses were mitigated by peace’s return at the end of war: “And in her Train Commerce and Plenty shine,” as America begins open trade with other countries: “Hibernia, Scotia, and the Realms of Spain:/ And great Germania’s ample coast.” The war being over and peace between nations restored, Wheatley saw a grand future rising for the new country and celebrated both the richness of America’s natural resources and the strength of its determined citizenry. With the return of peace after the cessation of the “Din of War,” even Britain could return to a peaceful reconciliation with the new country: “Now sheathe the Sword that bade the Brave attone/ With guiltless Blood for Madness not their own.”
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...
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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 real bloodshed taking place literally around the young poetess. Again, however, like the faults of language seen in “Liberty and Peace,” Wheatley’s lack of sentiment tends to be the fault of her reliance on the English neoclassical tradition in verse rather than any lack of poetic ability.
Wheatley’s imitation of Pope was not always a bad thing, however, as numerous critics have noted. Quite a number of Wheatley’s most elegant and fluid lines bear the marks of Pope’s fluency of thought and sublime expression: “She, the bright Progeny of Heaven, descends/ And every Grace her sovereign Step attends.” That she could connect such inspired imagery to events happening in her life, albeit events of such dramatic importance as the Revolutionary War, demonstrates her ability to give an elevated, historical perspective to day-to-day colonial life.
The companion poem to “Liberty and Peace,” “To His Excellency General Washington,” received such high favor that its subject, George Washington, personally invited Wheatley to visit Cambridge for the purpose of meeting the then general in 1776. When the young poetess died in 1784, her death was noted in The Boston Magazine and The Independent Chronicle as a loss not just to the African American community of the day but also to the reading public as a whole. “Liberty and Peace” helped establish Wheatley as an American poet of note, a title still with her.
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