Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 462 words.)