Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

by Phillis Wheatley
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is the collection of poems produced by a nineteen-year-old Colonial American slave, Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman ever to be published. The significance of this publication can be understood best in terms of the author’s identity and social position, and less...

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Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is the collection of poems produced by a nineteen-year-old Colonial American slave, Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman ever to be published. The significance of this publication can be understood best in terms of the author’s identity and social position, and less by the poetry itself, which is largely imitative of the style and material that were popular at the time. Wheatley was brought as a captive from Senegambia (now Senegal and Gambia) to New England when she was approximately seven years old and was educated by the family who bought her. She was considered a prodigy, since she learned the English language within less than two years of her arrival and successfully studied Latin, the Bible, and English poetry—especially the work of Alexander Pope and John Milton. At age thirteen, she wrote her first religious verse, which was published. Her work became widely known after her elegy on the death of the popular preacher George Whitefield was published in 1770.

Wheatley’s collection is written almost entirely in the popular neoclassical form. Neoclassicism is an emulation of what the English believed to have been the Greek ideals of reason and restraint in art. Most of the thirty-nine poems are elegies, which are formal poems wherein the author meditates on a solemn occasion or theme, such as death. Wheatley is best known for her elegies, and she was often commissioned to write them. Her subjects include widows, widowers, parents who had lost children, and numerous popular male figures who were usually respected members of the clergy. Besides elegies, Wheatley’s collection contains two stories from the Bible transformed into couplets (pairs of rhyming lines), one Latin translation, several patriotic praises (one to George Washington), and tributes to morning, evening, the imagination, and African American Bostonian artist Scipio Moorhead.

Wheatley lived in an age when there was a great debate among the white slave-owning population over the humanity of African Americans. Her education and poetry demonstrated that African Americans were indeed intellectually capable of engaging in the “arts and sciences,” even if her work was limited and was censored by her audience, which acted as both patron and oppressor. Before her poems could be published, Wheatley had to be “examined” by eighteen of Boston’s most prestigious male minds, who signed a document attesting the authenticity of her work. This document was appended to the book before it was published, since the work otherwise would not have been believed to be hers. Wheatley’s membership in the church, even though it, too, was segregated into black and white, provided the only possibility for freedom and equality in her life and in her art, and the theme of spiritual salvation is prevalent throughout her writing.

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Wheatley’s poetry was well received as an example of superior African intellect. Her work was used as an evangelical tool among slave-holders who wished to convert their slaves to Christianity. Her poems were also held up by the abolitionists as proof of the humanity of African Americans. In other words, she was well received to the extent that she served the purpose of others, as her role as an African American, woman, slave, and Christian patriot in Colonial America dictated.

Wheatley was censored by her audience, and she was unable to publish without approval and verification; her situation was comparable to that of black writers in South Africa under the system of apartheid, which was rendered untenable by the laws of censorship, banning, and exile. Wheatley was further censored by her obligation to the Wheatley family for her privileged position in their household. It must be recognized that even her skill as a writer was “owned” by someone else, and that it was the only survival skill available to Wheatley.

Critics have complained about, ignored, and indicted Wheatley’s poetry on the ground that it lacks feeling, racial identity, and warmth. One must consider what she was allowed, however, and that her privileged status did not make her any less a slave or any less censored—perhaps it made her even more so, judging by the poetry of the more outspoken (and less privileged) George Moses Horton, which was published with hers by abolitionists in 1838. Wheatley can also be viewed as more isolated than other African Americans because she was cut off from other slaves. Her greatest friend and lifelong correspondent, Obour Tanner, mirrored rather than ameliorated this isolation, since she, too, was a domestic slave who was literate and was a member of the church.

There is much irony in the fact that the material produced by the first published African American woman does not make explicit her achievement or reveal the significance of that achievement to African American and female writers who followed her. Perhaps proving the fundamental fact that African Americans were human and literate was the only public achievement that could have been allowed Wheatley during her lifetime; she was forced to imitate the white culture in order to gain ground and hold a place for the more diverse and authentic African American expression that was to follow.

Wheatley’s life after her publication demonstrates further irony; her own attempts to continue selling her work in America were cut short by the Boston Tea Party in 1773 (in one of her poems, Wheatley admonishes England as a harsh mother, unduly taxing her overburdened son), and then made impossible by her unexpected acquisition of freedom in 1778 (two years after the United States declared its independence) when the elder Mr. Wheatley died, at which time she married, cutting herself off from the remaining Wheatley family. Wheatley spent the end of her short life working with her hands; she and her three infants died soon after she gained her freedom, in poverty and obscurity.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 358

O’Neale, Sondra. “A Slave’s Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley’s Use of Biblical Myth and Symbol.” Early American Literature 21 (Fall, 1986): 144-165. In this article, O’Neale examines Wheatley’s careful use of words to describe color and her use of words to describe sin, arguing that Wheatley both admonished Christians and attempted to change their perceptions of African Americans through her word choice. She also shows how Wheatley used biblical allusions to elevate the status of the African American in the eyes of white Christians.

Richmond, M. A. Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on The Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. This book examines the poetry of two African American slaves in order to discover what impact the institution of slavery has had on African American identity; what is left unsaid in their poetry is more important to this discovery than what remains in print.

Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. New York: Garland, 1984. This book is so far the most complete collection of Phillis Wheatley’s writings, including extant poems and letters, a facsimile of her published volume, annotations, a sketch of her life and of Boston during her times, and an examination of her poetry. A selected bibliography is included.

Robinson, William H. Phillis Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1975. This book offers a new perspective of Wheatley’s poetry, considering it from the social, religious, and literary standpoints of Colonial America. It argues that Wheatley was conscientiously aware of her racial identity and African roots.

Wheatley, Phillis. Life and Works of Phillis Wheatley, edited by G. Herbert Renfro. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. Written in the late 1800’s, this book is significant in that it provides the contemporary reader with an account of Wheatley’s life written by a sympathetic and well-educated man who lived just after her times. It is both interesting and ironic in that it is a positive account of her life yet is laced with inherent sexism. For example, Renfro claims: “Nature had designed Phillis for a queen, not for a slave.”

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