Emerging Freedom in The Female Poet
In early America, to capture the feat of being female poet was extremely rare and was no easy task. Phyllis Wheatley and Emily Dickinson challenged what it meant to be a good poet, though for two completely different reasons. In Wheatley’s poetry, religious repetition and the extended metaphor of refined sugar point to this poet’s structured-drive towards equal freedom for all, whereas Dickinson’s poetry utilizes syntax and personification to argue escaping society for a life of happy isolation is the only true freedom she desires.
As one of the first, successful African poets, Wheatley utilized the education her master, ‘graciously,’ allowed her to have to her fullest capabilities. Her poem, “On Being Brought from Africa,” is perfect in both rhyme and meter illustrating her high-level of schooling and intellect. Wheatley holds a consistent and very structured rhyme scheme for the fullness of her poem. For example, in her opening line, “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land/ Taught my benighted heart to understand,” Wheatley does not stray from the perfect and specific end rhyme of “land” and “understand” nor from the five stressed and unstressed syllables of the lines (13). The heroic couplets and exact meter were very common for the time-period, and Wheatley did not shy away from hoisting her intellect in the air. By employing these scholarly tools, Wheatley emerges as a serious and credible poet, when, in reality, she and the other people of color like her were seen as nothing more than chattel property. Gaining this credibility allows for her readers to acknowledge the gap of equality between the Africans being brought over and their Christian masters as shock would have rang out among the masses of White elites who were reading a female, African, slaves’ poems for the first time.
Wheatley did not just prove her credibility and hope for equality through her form but also through her figurative language. Identifying her race’s hope for freedom as the Lord’s redemption, Wheatley starts by comparing the black race as, “black as Cain” (13). Biblically, Cain is the son of Adam and Eve who committed the first cardinal sin of murder as he slew his brother. Illustrating the connection between the first cardinal sinner and the black race, as a whole, isolates society’s view of their slaves. This view held African slaves as being compared to the very sin of Cain. For if whiteness is deemed pure, by God, then, in opposition, blackness, must be the ultimate color of sin as it is the darkest. Comparing the color of skin to the cardinal sinner depicts Wheatley’s understanding of not only religious texts but also of where and how her race stood in society. Africans were viewed as the lowest on the American hierarchy, and religiously, had to be cursed of something, by God, because of the darkness of their skin color. This simile not only exemplifies Wheatley’s biblical education but also her perspective as a colored woman and the oppression that is granted any individual like her for being born Black.
Wheatley does not stop there though as she continues utilizing analogies to describe the only way to escape this bondage of sinful color and slavery: Christian conversion. Wheatley addresses this escape by comparing conversion to the refining of sugar cane. In the last two lines of the poem, Wheatley pens, “ Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”(13). Sugar cane, that begins very bulky and dark, eventually can become white as snow through the refinement process, and just like the sugar cane practice that many slaves were accustomed too, the Black slaves have the opportunity to accept the deliverance of God and gain the freedom of salvation on the same train as their white masters. Wheatley compares the refining of sugar to the African slave’s refinement from ‘Black pagan-worshippers’ as a way of personalizing the anecdote for any Africans who may have caught wave of her writings, and, in likeness, show that a freedom from this life of bondage is available through her Lord, regardless of skin color and background. Slave or free, and black or white, are all capable of saving, and equal in God’s eyes. To reach freedom for Wheatley, meant reaching salvation with God. For there, her chains of blackness and slavery can no longer bind her or her race.
Wheatley was not the only woman to address the ideals of freedom in early American society. Emily Dickinson also desired a freedom from her figurative societal chains. However, the freedom she sought was from societal norms and the public eye. Breaking some of the poetic rules of structure and form, such as her irregular syntax, Dickinson exerts her desire for a paradise in isolation and freedom from outsiders.
Dickinson is known by many for her outlandish use of uncommon syntax and figurative language. In her poem, “The Soul selects her own Society,” Dickinson personifies the “Soul” as one who “ shuts the Door” allowing the abstract soul the advantages of humanistic actions like being able to physically shut the door(167). This gives the Soul a power of strength and freewill to do what it pleases. In this instance, the Soul is the gatekeeper for the poem’s speaker, presumably Dickinson, on who may enter into her sanctuary and who is not allowed inside the door. Granting this abstract concept humanly form proves to the reader that Dickinson is fighting for her right to choose on the members of her company, and regardless of their elite status, her inner-being will not let them enter, because she has the autonomy to decide for herself who has access and who is cast outside of the gates.
Dickinson also utilizes the art of repetition. In this same poem, Dickinson repeats the word, “Unmoved,” in the second out of three stanzas, in order to exert her freedom from societal orders and positioning. Regardless of who knocks on the door and tries to enter the gates, the speaker remains, “Unmoved”(167). ”. Repeating this word exemplifies Dickinson’s stance and craving for that freedom in isolation. She is uncompromising on her stance of wanting to be alone and selecting the few who can grace her prescence, much like Wheatley was sure of her ability to attain freedom through religious salvation. The poem’s, “Soul,” metaphorically has a nation at her doorsteps, but she chooses her own select society, and needs, nor desires, no more.
The syntax in Dickinson’s poems is what distinguishes her from the likes of her predecessors and Wheatley. She exploits what looks, at first glance, as very random commas, dashes, capitalization, and so on, but for Dickinson, nothing is random. In, “The Soul selects her own Society,” Dickinson artfully capitalizes, “Soul” to personify the abstract; inserts dashes to interrupt the flow of her rhythmic meter, and eliminates the need for ending punctuation. By unyielding the very form that was common in her day, Dickinson is defying the odds of what poetry can be. She keeps to a very specific meter but allows the dashes to interrupt that consistency of rhythm as a way of pointing out her awareness of the day’s poetic structure, but her defiance and desire to be different and free from the societal rules. Eradicating the need for ending punctuation, such as periods, question marks, and the like, Dickinson creatively allows the dash to be the only one she needs just as, “the Soul” of the poem needs and “Chooses” only one (167). The dash allows the reader to understand the poem as one, long, cognitive thought with only short breaks in-between the phrasing. Dickinson capitalizes on her ideal world of selecting only one or two members who can enter her society, just as she craftily only chose the dash to separate her jargon as a way of interpreting her poem as one thought and supporting her argument of a select few being all she needs. This is very unlike the structured meter in Wheatley’s poem and very uncommon for her era.
Dickinson’s application of the dash conveys her insubordination to the societal norms of what poetry is and desire for her ideal freedom from the outside world. Wheatley and Dickinson prove that even early American, female poets have a voice that needs to be heard. They both utilize their educations to rhetorically question some of the oppressive natures of society and set ideals on what will overcome these negative aspects of humanity. They both are uncompromising on what will make them truly free. For Wheatley, she believes her salvation sets her as equal and free as any white man or woman, and Dickinson sees isolation and keeping her mind to herself as the only possible freedom from society’s advances. Whereas, Wheatley utilizes a very structured and formed poetic alleyway to this freedom of salvation, Dickinson opposes those structures and turns them upside-down with her syntax and personification. The fight for freedom unites Wheatley and Dickinson, while their style of writing defines them.
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