The devastating events that Wheatley witnessed shaped her into the poet she was. On top of being kidnapped from Africa, she was in very poor wealth and remained in poverty after being freed from her owners (“Phillis Wheatley.” Biography). However, she used these experiences as motivation to become a poet. She also did not look at being enslaved as bad. She felt that if she had not been brought to America, she would not have become a Christian (Antin).
By reading Phillis Wheatley’s poems, one may find some of her views on race and religion.
Because she was enslaved while writing these poems, she did not openly talk about slavery (Lewis). Wheatley did not truly discuss her feelings about slavery until a long time after she was freed (Khomeini). The poem “On being brought from Africa to America” elucidates Wheatley’s view on Christianity. At the beginning of this poem, she describes slavery as being a propitious act of mercy that brought herKhomeini lines 8-9, she reminds caucasian people and fellow black people that black people will be offered salvation in the afterlife just like Caucasians will (Wheatley 12).
Since the audience of her poems was mainly slave owners, Phillis did not write a lot about her experiences or views on slavery. However, two of her poems reveal her opposing views on life in Africa before she was enslaved (Khomeini). In the poem, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” she talks about being taken away from Africa. The lines “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate” and “was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat” explain how she felt about her misfortune, and how happy the land of Africa was.
In contrast, To the University of Cambridge, in New England negatively talks about Africa. In lines 3-4, Wheatley says that Africa was a land of errors, and calls it “Egyptian gloom.”
Literary devices are important parts of poetry. Some of the common literary devices used in Wheatley’s poems are alliteration, allusion, and metaphors. Many of her poems were written in couplet form (Phillis, Poetry). A couplet is two lines of a poem that make up a sentence or thought (Wager). Phillis Wheatley used iambic pentameter and heroic couplets (Phillis, Poetry). An iambic pentameter is a line of poetry that has five syllables with a pattern of unstressed syllables followed by stressed ones (YourDictionary). Heroic couplets are usually used with iambic pentameter and makeup pairs of rhythmic lines (Wager).
“On being brought from Africa to America” shows a few of these literary devices. The couplet “‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land, taught my benighted soul to understand” shows iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme of the poem. Line 6 is an example of alliteration because Wheatley uses the words diabolic dye. She uses these words to explain how dark the skin of black people is. Line 7 states “Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain.” In this line, Phillis Wheatley is making an allusion referring to Cain, a man in the bible who killed his brother Abel (Spacey).
Along with the literary devices stated above, there are various themes in Wheatley’s poems. Some of her themes included Christianity and slavery, while other themes were thank-you notes to famous politicians (Phillis Wheatley, Poetry). “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” is a prime example of one of her thank-you letters. Line 5, “elate with hope, her race no longer mourns,” emphasizes that since Earl Dartmouth freed the colonies the citizens have a reason to be happy or elated. Furthermore, stanza 3 provides readers with an image of her being snatched from Africa and a better understanding of her parents’ feelings.
There are many opposing views on Phillis Wheatley’s poetry. Some scholars view her poems as authentic and essential to the African-American race, but others dismiss them and say it is not relevant. During the time these poems were published, many people could not believe that Phillis Wheatley wrote them. Boston Governor Thomas Hutchinson, along with sixteen others, investigated her poems, just to make sure she had written them (Phillis Wheatley – Boston).
In 1772, Wheatley tried to publish her work in a local Boston newspaper. Because she was African, the publishers would not support her. She sent her poems to Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, and she agreed to help Wheatley with her career. After this, Wheatley began preparing for her book (Phillis Wheatley Poetry). This may have been the first time she was rejected because of her ethnicity, but it surely was not the last.
Many historical figures supported Wheatley’s work. These historical figures include John Hancock, Andrew Oliver, and Dr. Benjamin Rush (Phillis Wheatley Poetry). Although these men supported her, there was one specific man who did not. Thomas Jefferson opposed Wheatley’s poetry. He felt that Wheatley was copying Caucasian poets (Phillis Wheatley – Boston). He also felt like her poems had no importance to poetry as a whole. Jefferson stated, “Religion could produce a Phillis Wheatley, but could not produce a poet” (Who was Phillis Wheatley). Furthermore, Thomas Jefferson indeed believed that Africans were inferior to Caucasians, and not capable of being smart and creative (Khomeini).
Despite historical figures supporting Wheatley’s work, countless amounts of African-Americans denied the relevance of her poems (Who was Phillis Wheatley). She did make history by becoming the first African-American female poet, but many scholars believe she accepted the fact of being a slave. However, it is a fact that Wheatley was not treated as a normal slave, therefore she could not relate to the others outside of where she lived. She was taught by her slave owners how to read and write, while most of the other slaves were not (Who was Phillis Wheatley). Thus, it makes sense for her poems not to be the traditional discussion about the negative experiences of slavery.
In a final analysis, Phillis Wheatley is an important attribute of poetry as a whole. From being taken away from Africa at the age of seven to becoming the first African-American female poet, she proved that one race is not inferior to the other. She also proved that women can be just as smart as men. Through her works, she emphasized various historical events, showing Americans that they should appreciate their freedom because she did not have hers. Everything she witnessed or experienced inspired her poems, even if it is not directly discussed within the poetry. Phillis Wheatley overcame all obstacles and set the stage for generations to come. How are you proving that the impossible is possible? Do you let your negative experiences motivate you? Or do you use these experiences as an excuse not to do something?