The Genius of Wheatley’s Manipulation
In “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America,” Phillis Wheatley, through her convincing use of pathos and masterful manipulation of poetic elements, implores Earl William Legge to sympathize with her efforts to further the reaches of freedom and human civility in colonial America, while also attempting to dispel and discourage future instances of tyranny. While admittedly difficult to implore favor so kindly from a race that took away almost all notions of Wheatley’s culture and heritage, regardless she sacrifices her pride in an attempt to rescue future generations of African Americans.
Few events in the history of the United States can even begin to compare to the horrific and unforgiving nature of slavery, and Wheatley takes full advantage of this undeniable fact when relating the harrowing details of her removal from Africa. By saying, “I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/ Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancied happy seat:/ What pangs excruciating must molest,/ What sorrows labor in my parent’s breast?” (Norton 404, Ln. 24-27), Wheatley expertly utilizes pathos in an effort to sway Earl William’s support in favor of her anti-slavery initiative. By emphasizing the cruelty of her predicament and the effects it had on her parents, Wheatley appeals to the Earl’s emotion, a tactic often effective in an attempt to convince an audience of one’s cause. Hoping to instill a sense of regret and sympathy in the Earl, Wheatley uses her own emotions as tools for the construction of a monument to the tragic plight of Africans such as her self. This great range of raw emotion expressed by Wheatley is also quite surprising, considering the fact that the conventions of writing at the time were often quite reserved and formal, with neoclassical works such as this being especially restrictive in terms of emotional expression.
Wheatley also cleverly uses poetic elements, namely rhythm, rhyme scheme, and meter, in order to both concisely and subliminally further her anti-slavery agenda. Throughout the majority of the piece, Wheatley utilizes a steady, regular AABB rhyme scheme in conjunction with the calm, invariable meter of iambic pentameter, mirroring the beatific nature of flattery she uses in her attempt to win over Earl William’s valuable favor. However, in the poem’s third stanza, the typically steadfast rhyme scheme of the poem is derailed, replaced by a AAABB pattern. When Wheatley declares, “No more, America, in mournful strain/ Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,/ No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,/ Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand/ Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land,” (Norton 404, Ln. 15-19), her powerful yet subtle change in rhyme scheme signifies a transition in poetic subject matter, as she goes on in the fourth stanza to describe the dreadful and emotional events of her removal from Africa. By utilizing this dynamic change in rhyme scheme, Wheatley relates that alarming incident, subliminally highlighting it in the mind of the Earl so that it may impact him more deeply and perhaps stir in him some empathy for those that have suffered.
Furthermore, the reversion to a deceptively simple AABB rhyme scheme when Wheatley tells her story of injustice serves as an grand understatement to the magnitude of her predicament. By relating such a horrific event with such basic delivery, Wheatley is in actuality once again highlighting its injustice by revealing that the act of removing Africans from their homeland has become so commonplace. Furthermore, the incongruous combination of a normal delivery and a horrific represents the removed, callous disposition of those that orchestrated the horror’s of Wheatley and her people’s past. By utilizing these three poetic devices in conjunction, while also shifting the rhyme scheme in a key point within the poem, Wheatley constructs a powerful and effective argument in favor of freedom and against tyranny.
Wheatley’s argument as proposed to Earl William of Dartmouth in this poem is one rooted in deep desperation, as shown by the uncharacteristic overflow of emotion she conveys when describing the fate she is trying to save so many other Africans from. In a heroic beseeching of Earl William, Wheatley sacrifices her pride in order to save the potential of these future African Americans. Through her convincing use of pathos and masterful manipulation of poetic elements, Wheately is able to effectively construct a powerful and dynamic position that aims to further the reaches of freedom and human civility in colonial America, while also attempting to dispel and discourage future instances of tyranny.
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In “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America,” Phillis Wheatley, through her convincing use of pathos and masterful manipulation of […]