Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Wheatley’s New England education, acquired through informal tutorial sessions, influenced her poetry. According to Margaretta Matilda Odell, who wrote a brief account of Wheatley’s life, that education consisted of astronomy, ancient and modern geography, ancient history, the Old and New Testaments, and Greek and Roman mythology. Odell also observed that Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer was one of Wheatley’s favorite books. As a consequence of this education, Wheatley’s poetry emphasizes the classics and the Bible.

Wheatley’s exposure to the classics influenced her to write in the neoclassical style of the time. Examples of that style abound in Poems on Various Subjects. Like other neoclassical poets, she wrote public poetry celebrating events of historical importance. In “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty,” Wheatley expresses the nation’s gratitude to King George III for the repeal of the Stamp Act. In “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North-America,” Wheatley praises an administrative appointment to the colonies. It should be noted that in writing these and similar poems, Wheatley was the first American female poet to speak of politics.

Another example of the neoclassical influence is the personification in Wheatley’s poetry of such abstractions as virtue, recollection, imagination, and humanity. Yet another is her use of invocation to the muse. The opening lines of “Goliath of Gath” resound with an invocation, as do those of “Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo.” Wheatley did not restrict the invocation to these two epic-like poems; she used it in at least nine other poems in her book. Additional evidence of Wheatley’s neoclassicism can be seen in her Latinate vocabulary, circumlocution, formal tone, and closed heroic couplets.

Finally, allusions to...

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