Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

by Phillis Wheatley
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895

As neoclassicism demands, Wheatley’s poetry recognizes the human being as a limited, imperfect creature in need of instruction, order, and harmony; imagination is highly regarded, but it is never an alternative to the harsh realities of life. Neoclassical poems were valued for their instruction, and they avoided both the adverse and the highly imaginative aspects of nature. This restrictive form suited Wheatley’s social status as a slave and conformed to the Christian idea of an individual as an imperfect being whose only hope of salvation rests in the figure of Christ.

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Wheatley’s poems often begin with the neoclassical appeal to the Muses and often employ Greek deities and legends, remaining mindful of the structured Greek universe; in her poetry, however, God is the highest deity. Wheatley’s focus is on salvation and resurrection, as is apparent in her numerous elegies, in which the idea of the well-ordered universe extends to human suffering; even the death of an infant is the will of God and should be looked on as such. Wheatley constructs her elegies (which frequently resemble one another and which were often written in only a few days) of several components that do not always occur in the same order. First, she stresses that death itself comes from the hand of God: “His fatal sceptre rules the spacious whole” (“To a Lady on the Death of Three Relations”). Second, she graciously acknowledges and pictures the mourners’ suffering: “Thy sisters, too, fair mourner, feel the dart/ Of death, and with fresh torture rend thine heart.” Third, she includes an appeal to mourners to transform their sorrow to joy: “Smile on the tomb, and soothe the raging pain.” Often, the dead themselves speak to the mourners from above. (In some elegies to male figures who were prominent in the church, Wheatley emphasizes their earthly deeds, as if petitioning for their entry into the state of bliss.) Finally, a new vision of the deceased is offered to the onlooker: “From bondage freed, the exulting spirit flies.”

With few exceptions, the lines of Wheatley’s poems are predictably structured in iambic pentameter, each line consisting of ten syllables, five of which are stressed. Wheatley often contracts words, such as “watery” to “wat’ry” in order to conform to the required pattern, using the customary neoclassical rhymed couplet, or pair of rhyming lines. She was skilled in the use of metaphor (identifying one object with another), as the young biblical hero David demonstrates in “Goliath of Gath”: “Jehovah’s name—no other arms I bear.” Her transformative images are also memorable, such as the trees that turn into ships in “To a Gentleman in the Navy”: “Where willing forests leave their native plain,/ Descend, and instant, plough the wat’ry main.”

Wheatley often uses personification, attributing human qualities to objects or ideas. “On Imagination” is an example of personification, celebrating that faculty (imagination) and its marvelous transforming power; sadly, but true to the neoclassic tenets, the poem ends by acknowledging the limits of the imagination, conceding that the reality of “winter” and “northern tempests” must win over the mind in the end: “They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,/ Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.”

Wheatley’s poems abound in skillfully rendered alliteration, the repetition of consonant or vowel sounds in lines, as in the opening of her elegy for the Reverend George Whitefield: “Hail, happy saint, on thine immortal throne,/ Possest of glory, life and bliss unknown.” She also effectively employed the technique of repeating the same word at the start of sentences or clauses (anaphora).

Some critics see Wheatley as having waged an invisible war against slavery in her poetry, mostly in biblical allusions that ultimately admonish Christian slave-holders. Her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is an example of this. In it, she refers to her “benighted soul,” acknowledging the widely held theory of her time that equated dark skin with sinfulness, and quotes Christians who would say of African Americans, “‘Their color is a diabolic die.’” At the same time, Wheatley refutes the connection between skin color and sinfulness, since the reference is to her “soul” before she knew the “light of Christ” and not to her skin color. She also reminds Christians in the same poem that even Cain, who was “black,” could be assured of the salvation of Christ.

Wheatley consistently refers to the dark skin of the African American as “sable” in her poems, and she often alludes to Africa as “Eden,” a reminder to Christian audiences that Eden was thought to have been located in Africa. Additionally, Wheatley also uses the term “Ethiope” to designate African Americans, connecting her race with ancient Ethiopians who are mentioned throughout the Bible, thus elevating the status of the African American through the perspective of Christianity. Many of Wheatley’s poems are didactic and at the same time signal her racial identity, such as “To the University of Cambridge, in New England”: “. . . Ye blooming planets of human race divine,/An Ethiop tells you ’tis [sin] your greatest foe.” Other poems tell of her pride in her African heritage and of her love and admiration for fellow African Americans; “An Ode/On the Birthday of Pompey Stockenridge” praises a fellow African American Christian man, and the poem to Scipio Moorhead is a tribute to African American artists.

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