Phillis Wheatley statue in the Old South Meeting House (Boston)
While in Boston earlier this August, I had occasion to pick up an Applewood Books publication of Phillis Wheatley’s poems, Poems of Phillis Wheatley, A native African and slave. The significance of this particular publication over other collections of Wheatley’s poetry is that Applewood Books specializes in reprinting historical American works, so not only do I have the poems themselves, but also the editor’s note emphasizing that the poems are indeed the work of an African-born American slave–complete with the names of notable Bostonians who will vouch for her and the promise that a copy of their Attestation with their original signatures may be found by applying to “Archibald Bell, Bookseller, No. 8, Aldgate Street.”
I enjoy these features. It gives context and color to the poems included in this collection. Beyond this, I am impressed with the range of themes and intertextual allusions in the poetry itself. It is clear, that while she was a slave, the relationship between slave and master is very different from the one we often hear or think about. It is also clear that the same relationship and Wheatley’s success could be used to justify slavery as a liberation from savagery [in Africa]. Indeed, some of her own poetry might be used as ammunition for just that.
I want to set this particular aspect of the discussion aside, for now, as it is illuminated much better by the more capable hands of other scholars. I want to look at her poetry from the long perspective of a Western Civilization professor. In this long view slavery has played a consistent role, but there other features revealed in Wheatley’s poetry that speak to the strength of other long-enduring legacies, clearly prioritized in her education.
MÆCENAS, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
Their noble strains your equal genius shares
In softer language, and diviner airs.
While Homer paints, lo! circumfused in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;
Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heaven quakes, earth trembles, and the shores resound.
Great Sire of verse, before my mortal eyes,
The lightnings blaze across the vaulted skies,
And, as the thunder shakes the heavenly plains,
A deep-felt horror thrills through all my veins.
When gentler strains demand thy graceful song,
The lengthening line moves languishing along.
When great Patroclus courts Achilles‘ aid,
The grateful tribute of my tears is paid;
Prone on the shore he feels the pangs of love,
And stern Pelides‘ tenderest passions move.
Great Maro‘s strain in heavenly numbers flows,
The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows.
O could I rival thine and Virgil‘s page,
Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;
Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn,
And the same ardors in my soul should burn:
Then should my song in bolder notes arise,
And all my numbers pleasingly surprise:
But here I sit, and mourn a groveling mind,
That fain would mount and ride upon the wind.
Not you, my friend, these plaintive strains become,
Not you, whose bosom is the Muses’ home;
When they from tow’ring Helicon retire,
They fan in you the bright immortal fire;
But I less happy, cannot raise the song,
The fault’ring music dies upon my tongue.
The happier Terence* all the choir inspired,
His soul replenish’d, and his bosom fired:
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,
To one alone of Afric’s sable race;
From age to age transmitting thus his name
With the finest glory in the rolls of fame?
*He was an African by birth.
Thy virtues, great Maecenas! shall be sung
In praise of him, from whom those virtues sprung:
While blooming wreaths around thy temples spread,
I’ll snatch a laurel from thine honour’d head,
While you, indulgent, smile upon the deed.
As long as Thames in streams majestic flows,
Or Naiads in the oozy beds repose
While Phœbus reigns above the starry train
While bright Aurora purples o’er the main,
So long, great Sir, the muse thy praise shall sing,
So long thy praise shal’ make Parnassus ring:
Then grant, Maecenas, thy paternal rays,
Hear me propitious, and defend my lays.
This is a complex poem. Lacking a knowledge of classic literature, however, would make it far more complicated, still. In the opening pages of the book, her slave master John Wheatley, acknowledges that he bought her when she was brought to America in 1761 at age 7 or 8. In sixteen months time, she had a knowledge of English, “to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.” (John Wheatley, a letter to the publisher included in the first publication of Wheatley’s poems, dated in Boston, Nov. 14, 1772) He further acknowledged that she acquired no schooling outside what the family provided her, led by her own curiosity.
John Wheatley also explains that Phillis was interested and had an inclination for Latin. In “To Mæcenas,” she shares a great knowledge of Greek and Roman classical literature. These references are made in Wheatley’s own request to be so gifted a poet as those she mentions and to receive the patronage of Mæcenas. There would be a great deal to unpack in this poem to do it justice, so it is perhaps unfair (or unwise) for me to reference it, but I do so for these reasons:
- It is loaded with references to the origins of our literary tradition in ancient Greece and Rome–a tradition she gained in the household of John Wheatley;
- Thus, it speaks to the continued reverence for such works evident in colonial Boston (and, therefore, also England), while also attesting to the continued influence of these ancient authors on these Early Modern students, readers, and authors;
- It reveals a complex request from Wheately for patronage–a term loaded with meanings–from Mæcenas to receive the Muses, but perhaps also to receive liberty.
To the University of Cambridge, in New England
WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
‘T was not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy! ‘t was thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.
Students, to you ‘t is given to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the etherial space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science, ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heaven,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands outstretched upon the cross!
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn.
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
He deign’d to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.
Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils; and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heaven.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shunned; nor once remit your guard:
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you, ‘t is your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.
This is a challenging poem. On the one hand, Wheatley appears to be castigating her homeland and the life she would have lived as an African among her people if she had not been enslaved. I think we must acknowledge that Wheatley was genuinely grateful for her education and her Christian faith, two things she would not have gained had she remained free in her African home. The question must be asked, did she believe her knowledge justified her enslavement?
I am incapable of answering this question directly, but in my historical interest of the poem and its time, perhaps some indirect suggestions might be gleaned (and possibly dismissed, as I do not claim proficiency in the literary arts).
Wheatley’s poem to Harvard University, the University of Cambridge, New England (Massachusetts), makes reference to one of the intellectual pursuits of the time: astronomy. That she chose this is assuredly not random, as “traver[sing] etherial space/And mark[ing] the systems of revolving worlds” is connected to the spiritual heavens, “And share with [Son of God] in the sublimest skies/ Life without death, and glory without end.” That this poem reads in part like a sermon or a warning to the students that they cannot neglect to shun sin, “that baneful evil to the soul,” from an African–”the land of errors … those dark abodes”–is rather interesting.
Indeed, it is still more interesting that she links “the land of errors” specifically with “Egyptian gloom.” The heavily Puritan population would no doubt be fully prepared to acknowledge that Egypt, known from the Old Testament, was a land of errors. Would they have credited Wheatley for suggesting that its errors were those of slavery–namely enslaving God’s people, the Hebrews? This would become powerful imagery and iconography among slaves in a later America, but is Wheatley calling attention to it, here? Egypt, throughout most of the preceding centuries, is precisely referenced because of its direct association with the pride of Pharoah in refusing God in the signs of Moses when he demands in the name of God that the Hebrew slaves be freed. The errors of Egypt are the sins of Pharoah. The sins of Pharoah are the enslavement of the Hebrews and his pride in doing so despite God’s demands.
Why she includes this at all, and in her opening stanza no less, is certainly interesting since she intends to warn the students and scholars away from sin. She admires the institutions of learning, she is grateful for what she has learned, and for Christian conversion, but does she imply that there is something more these learned scholars have yet to learn, specifically about her own social station in Boston?