Phillis Wheatley as a Writer of the People
Phillis Wheatley as a Writer of the People In a time where African American, as well as female, writers would have been greatly oppressed, Phillis Wheatley stood out as an anomaly in the late 18th century. Her work stood as a median between the white oppressors and the black oppressed, bravely covering the topic of politics that others had yet dared to write about. Through her poems, To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty and On Being Brought from Africa to America, Wheatley showcases herself as that median through the use of rhythm and subtle tone shifts, telling her stories in a way that allowed for her to get the information available to the public as well as appeal to all different kinds of people in the social hierarchy that she was an integral part of at the time.
One of the most striking things about Wheatley is often what she chose to write about. She thought of herself as a writer of the people, and it is continuously evident in her poetry that she thought poetry was the greatest median through which to express herself and her ideas. She was a writer in the times before strife between Britain at America had really come to a head. One might think that as a slave, she would not have backed the British government due to her circumstantial lesser status in society brought about by the slave trade. Wheatley actually took the opposite approach in her work, praising people like General George Washington or King George. Her poem, To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, is a primary example of such praise. She speaks directly to those who were above her in status: “Midst the remembrance of thy favours past, The meanest peasants most admire the last May George, beloved by all the nations round, Live with heav’ns choicest constant blessings crown’d!” (Wheatley, pg16, lines 8-11) Her word choice, “beloved by” and “blessings crown’d” are indicative of the idea that King George and all he does for his country, and subsequently the Americas, are the best decisions that could be made. While her poem focuses on King George, it also addresses God, asking him to “direct and guard [King George] from on high” (Wheatley, pg16, line 12). To speak of both in such a lofted manner shows great praise for what they stand for. Not only that, but Wheatley refers to King George as only “George”, excluding his formal title and emphasizing a comfort and familiarity with the name and the idea of him, even though he is a king and far above her social status (Wheatley, pg16, line 10). She uses poetry as a method to level her status and to an extent the status of all African Americans.
A large part of the reason Wheatley could use poetry as an outlet for political conversation was because she was educated. She has been taught to be on a level of education as the white oppressors around her, but still continue to be thought of as a lesser person in rank in society. Poetry leveled the playing field. Addressing King George, as well as speaking highly to the practice of Christianity, is befitting to the white people who called themselves her superiors. It validates her writing because had she chosen to be any more radical her likelihood for getting published would have plummeted incredibly fast. The one line that stands out in the poem, showing she may not be as compliant as her readers of the time would have thought, is the first line of the poem: “Your subjects hope, dread sire—” (Wheatley, pg16, line 1). While the entire poem is in iambic pentameter, as is common with Wheatley’s poetry, this line stands out in iambic trimeter. She is calling attention, in a subtle way, that the king is maybe not as good as the rest of her poem may seem. She does believe in him and what he is doing, as well as the idea that it is the will of God who will stand over him and his decisions, but this particular line exudes foreboding. The use of the word “dread”, which is not normally used in the context of pleasant things, doesn’t paint the king in a wonderful light to being with. The caesura at the end of the line also leaves the words very open, as if Wheatley was giving her readers a pause to think before launching into the thick of her poem.
Rhythm also plays a key part in the way that Wheatley presents her poetry. William Butler Yeats, early/mid nineteenth century Irish poet, wrote an article on symbolism that narrowed down some ideas of rhythm: “The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” (Yeats) This, it seems, is what Wheatley does with the change between the first line of To the Kings Most Excellent Majesty and the rest of the poem. She beautifully changes the rhythm and tone hinting at the need to take her religious ode to King George a little less seriously than one might originally. She did believe in the power of King George and the subsequent power of Christianity, but she was also still aware of her place in society, a slave with barely any rights, and the reason that she got to where she was, was through education and good fortune in the way of her masters. To take what Yeats says a little further, his analysis of rhythm in poetry, that it can symbolize “the moment when we are both asleep and awake”, is on par with racism in Wheatley’s time. The people reading her poetry had the option to be either asleep or awake, blind to her message or pick up on the subtleties.
Wheatley’s poem On Being Brought from Africa to America highlights the dualities that she ever so slightly places in her poetry. She begins with talking of being brought from a “Pagan land” (Wheatley, pg17, line 1). This phrasing grants power to America, that a black woman would renounce where she came from and openly admit that she had better opportunities in the new land. However, by the end of the poem, she is reminding her white readers that colored people are just as equally human beings, that negroes can “be refin’d and join th’ angelic train” (Wheatley, pg17, line 8). This is a good example of Wheatley seeing herself as being a median. She believes that as a good Christian, she is equal to the white people who enslaved her as they will all end up in the same place after death. Yet on the other side, she is still greatly praising them, wanting to be like them, because she is indebted as they gave her the chance opportunity of education and a somewhat better life.
In many ways, Phillis Wheatley was a brilliant woman and poet. She understood her place, was grateful for what she had, but also pushed back to try and change the social order in which she lived. Due to this, her situation could only ever be described as incredibly complex. Had she shunned that hierarchy and taken a deliberate and outright stand, she never would have gotten her work published, let alone any part of her voice heard. For her, it made writing the most important job and one that she was eager to master and successfully and stealthily deliver to the world. She presented herself as a woman of the people, someone who could look at both sides of the coin and see the things that worked as well as the many things that needed to change. In the end, she was incredibly successful and shed light on both sides of a world where it could be ok for her to be thankful for the people that gave her the opportunities that she was allotted while still pinpointing the ways in which society would need to have changed.
Citations: Yeats, William Butler. Ideas of Good and Evil. London; A.H. Bullen, 1903.
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Phillis Wheatley as a Writer of the People In a time where African American, as well as female, writers would have been greatly oppressed, Phillis Wheatley stood out as an […]