Phillis Wheatley

Essay by sumdream December 2003

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When I read the writings in the course packet, I couldn't understand the poems at all. Therefore, firstly, I investigated about the author, Wheatley and I read her other poems. That made me more comfortable to understand her poems. Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal in about 1753. She was captured by slave traders and brought to America in 1761. Purchased by John Wheatley, a tailor from Boston, Phillis was taught to read by one of Wheatley's daughters. Phillis studied English, Latin and Greek and in 1767 and began writing poetry. Her first poem, on the death of George Whitefield, was published in 1770.

Wheatley's sense of herself as an African and an American makes her in some ways a dual provincial in relationship to the eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic cosmopolitan center. The art of her poetry resides in her capacity to make her political, cultural, and poetic self-consciousness a literary subject in and of itself.

She gives us one of the most searching portraits available of the American provincial consciousness.

Moreover, her poems ably and imaginatively suit the neoclassical poetic norms of her day, yet she was not accepted by whites of her generation. Indeed her life evidences the effects of racial injustice. Wheatley's poems say little about her origins in Africa or her status as a slave. The neoclassic style in which she was tutored, and after which she closely modeled her style is very impersonal. Most of her poems reflect her religious and classical New England upbringing. Writing in heroic couplets, many of her poems consist of elegies while others stress the theme of Christian salvation. Although racial equality is not a theme to be found in Phillis Wheatley's poetry, one allusion of injustice appears in one of her poems.

Phillis Wheatley defied all expectations of her...