“Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat . . . .
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?”
-To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth
By Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley, an eighteenth century poet born in West Africa, arrived on American soil in 1761 around the age of eight. Captured for slavery, the young girl served John and Susanna Wheatley in Boston, Massachusetts until legally granted freedom in 1773. The Wheatleys supplied her with an unprecedented private classical education in which she learned how to read, write, and study works from Homer, Horace, and Virgil, among other notable writers. Classical literature, Christianity, and the issue of slavery influenced the poetry and letters she wrote throughout her early teens and adulthood. An overwhelming majority of her works included references to classical Greek and Latin poetry. Her intellectual curiosity inspired both her love for writing and poetry, as seen in her publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773.1
Scholars of literature have examined the works of Phillis Wheatley in significant detail and placed them in the context of the Revolutionary era.2 My paper analyzes Wheatley’s works to unveil the manner in which she questioned white authority over Africans both within and outside American borders. This study creates an opportunity to devote attention to a remarkable young African woman who fought to overcome racial oppression through her application of classical education to her poetry. Although she did not live to see the end of slavery, her works serve as evidence of the actions she took to counteract the effects of slavery. This paper will analyze Phillis Wheatley’s motives for writing poetry and letters which were rooted in her classical education, as well as the extent to which her allusions to Greek and Roman literary form and content referenced the topic of slavery in Revolutionary America.
During the mid-twentieth and early twenty-first century, historians began to pay more attention to the literary works of Phillis Wheatley in articles and books. Previously published articles examine her works and how she despised slavery. My paper goes further in that I will examine the literary roots of her poetry in the classics, and show the relationship between those roots questioning of slavery. Throughout my research I will analyze the literary and mythical elements found within Wheatley’s “To Maecenas,” “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age,” “His Excellency George Washington,” and “Liberty and Peace.” I will further evaluate one of several letters between her and Reverend Samson Occom, as well as show how her allusions to Greek and Roman formatting display the way in which her knowledge of the classics is seen in the content of her work.
Much of the scholarship on Phillis Wheatley has focused on synthesizing articles previously written about her, in order to highlight her historical importance in the early phase of American literature. Author John Shields, for example, has contributed numerous books and articles that analyze Wheatley’s life and poetry. He wrote an examination of the classical influences on Wheatley’s writing in her book Poems on Religious Subjects, Religious and Moral and an edited anthology that includes a compilation of analyses of Wheatley’s poetry from different authors.3 Similarly, scholarship by William Henry Robinson, who edited organized selected essays on Wheatley’s work, uncovers common misconceptions that have been printed in the past.4 In each of these, Robinson claimed that the mistakes most likely occurred due to her low place in society, her race, and her gender. Comparably, Henry Louis Gates Jr. in The Trials of Phillis Wheatley looks into struggles Wheatley endured during her time as a poet in the late eighteenth century.5 Authors including Vincent Caretta, William Robinson, and John Shields have also compiled a number of biographies on Wheatley.6
In addition to monographs, historians have written numerous articles that approach more specific topics, such as political viewpoints in colonial Boston and the classical myths to which Wheatley alludes. Charles Akers’ article “Our Modern Egyptians: Phillis Wheatley and the WhigCampaign Against Slavery in Revolutionary Boston,” relates Wheatley’s struggles as a female slave in Boston to ancient times.7 Furthermore, a book review by Betine van Zyl on Gregory Staley’s American Women and Classical Myths touches on several myths that Wheatley referred to in her poems.8 The biographies, articles, and published books on Phillis Wheatley create a substantial field of literary analysis. My argument will complement the works already written on classical allusions, but will add a new component to demonstrate the manner in which her education in the classics enabled her to question the institution of slavery on the same educational level as her counterparts.
At about eight years of age, the young African girl had been carried away from her homeland in West Africa and brought to her new home in Boston, Massachusetts, after having been captured for slavery in 1761. John Wheatley, a prominent Boston merchant, named the girl Phillis, after the ship that carried her across the Atlantic, and gave her as a gift to his wife Susanna.9 The Wheatley family impressed onto Phillis their deep roots in Christianity; Phillis, according to them, had lived in darkness in the pagan land of Africa. As Susanna’s dying wish, John manumitted Phillis on October 18, 1773. However, she continued to live with the Wheatley family until she married a free African American man from Boston named John Peters in 1778.10
Phillis Wheatley received what for a slave girl was an unprecedented classical education from Mary Wheatley, John Wheatley’s daughter (and one of twin children).11 Because many slaveholders did not have the opportunity to obtain the sort of education Wheatley had, it is likely they felt threatened by her knowledge of classical literature. Thomas Jefferson, although well versed in the classics, did not agree that the ownership of an educated slave was a good idea—such education threatened the way he chose to view society.12 Women during the revolutionary period did not have the privilege of attending Latin grammar school. Therefore, Mary most likely did not have the ability to teach Phillis Latin. Through his research, John Shields concluded it was more plausible to believe that Mather Byles, a nephew of a Harvard College graduate who lived near the Wheatley family, took an interest in her talent and provided her with an education in the Latin language.13 Both Mary and Mather supplied Wheatley with a strong classical education that allowed her to understand and use Greek and Roman form and content in her poetry.14
Phillis Wheatley had her work published in several sources. The 1767 publication of “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” in Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury newspaper demonstrated to the public her success in learning the English language and writing sophisticated poetry.15 The publication in the Mercury when she was just fourteen years old marked the beginning of the publication of her work. In 1771, Wheatley began to search for a patron to publish thirty-nine of her original poems. Her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral fused Christian components with classical allusions and included references to the practice of slavery and her desire for equal freedoms. As an African slave girl, Wheatley had trouble finding someone who both supported and approved her work. In 1771 John Wheatley sent Phillis and his son, Nathaniel, over the Atlantic Ocean to England to meet with Selina Hastings Countess of Huntingdon, who later published Poems in 1773.16
During the revolutionary period, white individuals did not commonly believe that blacks could have virtue and intelligence. For this reason, the introduction of Poems features a letter from John Wheatley with the signatures of men such as Governor Thomas Hutchinson, John Hancock, Reverend Charles Chauncy, John Wheatley himself, and fourteen other individuals, to verify the legitimacy of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry.
As mentioned earlier, Phillis Wheatley’s poetry addressed the issue of slavery in her writing. “To Maecenas,” written in 1773, is the first poem in Poems and demonstrates the concept of Horatian ode and Virgil’s subversive pastoral technique. Her praise for Maecenas mirrors that of Horace in his Odes, and the inclusion of the Roman slave Terence creates a link over time between two enslaved poets. Another work included in Poems titled “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age,” displays a consistent use of heroic couplets in describing the tragedy of a five-year-old slave’s death. The reader experiences a dose of the emotional strains brought upon enslaved African families and how death served as a freedom from slavery. Lastly, in the letter to Reverend Samson Occom, Wheatley alludes to Aristotle’s theory of civic virtue, according to which each individual has the same intrinsic value, and from which follows the idea that the enslavement of humans should not exist. My analysis of “To Maecenas,” “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age,” and the letters to Reverend Samson Occom demonstrate that Phillis Wheatley expressed her distaste of slavery through her poetry by using classical references.
“MAECENAS, 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! circumfus’d in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;
Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heav’n 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 heav’nly plains,
A deep felt horror thrills through all my veins.” (Wheatley)17
The first poem in Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, titled “To Maecenas,” displayed her knowledge of the classics by her use of Horatian ode pattern and the tactic of subversive pastoral similar to Virgil’s Ecologues.18 The Horatian ode addresses a personal subject in the form of praise for an acquaintance or notable figure. The ode uses pentameter that may read similarly to ABABC DECDE or ABABB ABABB, with each letter having a set number of syllables and a rhyming scheme. Consistently using such a scheme gives the poem shape and movement.
“Maecenas, you, descended from many kings,
O you who are my stay and my delight,
There is the man whose glory it is to be
So famous even the gods have heard the story
… What links me to the gods is that I study
To wear the ivy wreath that poets wear.” (Horace)19
Several examples in the poem point to the conclusion that Wheatley had a strong understanding of the classics. The title itself indicates that Phillis Wheatley was versed in Horace’s Odes and his poetic conversations with Maecenas, his patron.20 Both Horace and Wheatley praise Maecenas—Horace to his patron, and Wheatley in pure admiration. In the first four lines of “To Maecenas,” Wheatley places Maecenas in a heavenly realm reading the works of the most accomplished poets when she interrupts him. This imagery informs the reader of Maecenas’ respected opinion in the literary world. Horace described Maecenas as a “descendant from many kings” who should receive all praise.
“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.”21 (Wheatley)
The reference to the laurel in Wheatley’s poem reflects Horace’s mentioning of the ivy wreath in his Odes. In this section of “To Maecenas,” Wheatley asserted that her poetic voice would gain power and recognition. Her selection of the term “snatch” seems particularly important in relation to Wheatley’s place in colonial society as an African slave. Recognition of her work would not simply be handed to her; rather she would have to work hard and confidently take the laurel crown that poets wore and place it upon her own head.22 Maecenas’ smile implies that he is welcoming her into the realm of literary prominence. Phillis Wheatley drew from both the content and form of Horace’s Odes in “To Maecenas,” while adding a pastoral aspect as Virgil did in Ecologues and as discussed later.
Phillis Wheatley’s place in society was comparable to that of Terence, an African-born Roman playwright in the first century. She names him in line thirty-seven:
“The happier Terence all the choir inspir’d
His soul replenish’d , and his bosom fir’d;
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 first glory in the rolls of fame?”23
“Sable” marks Africa as the mourning race, an evident theme throughout Poems. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson argued African slaves in Rome had the capacity to learn, while colonial African slaves had no hope for intelligence.24 John Adams urged others to read Terence “because Terence [was] remarkable, for good morals, good Taste, and good Latin.”25 For this reason, Wheatley felt pressure to distinguish herself as a talented poet. Terence linked her to the ancient world through African identity and through their similarities in using the stroke of a pen to push the boundaries in gaining freedom. “To Maecenas” served as an assertion that she, like Terence, would become a well-known poet and others would praise her work.26
In addition to the Horatian ode and reference to Terence, Wheatley incorporated into “To Maecenas” a subversive pastoral technique similar to that used in Virgil’s Ecologues. A pastoral technique refers to pastoralism, associated with a shepherd’s life, in the description of physical surroundings. With short descriptions of natural phenomena, the technique adds artificial simplicity to the setting of the poem. The first stanza of “To Maecenas” printed above uses words such as shade, sacred flame, air, and heaven in the plains and skies. Virgil collected ten poems into The Ecologues that dealt with the typical life on a farm. Wheatley did not use pastoral exactly as did Virgil, but the way in which she depicted the setting reflects her knowledge of his use in The Ecologues.
Because of her status as an African slave, Wheatley could not directly criticize white authorities or even slavery. For example, she frequently wrote about freedom and Christian ideals rather than directly addressing slavery as an issue. Looking deeper into “To Maecenas” reveals how she understood the difference between her social standing and that of Terence, despite both having been born in Africa. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams regarded Terence as particularly intelligent and capable of writing even given his status as a Roman slave.27 As a colonial slave, Wheatley did not receive the same praise. She cried out to the Muses in line thirty-nine, questioning the reason for partial grace to “one alone of Afric’s sable race.” Terence was one of the most read classical writers of his time, and she could not achieve the same reputation that he achieved. She chose to note his birth in Africa after line thirty-seven to stress that the two poets came from the same birthplace. Perhaps a bit of jealousy arose in Wheatley in the lines concerning Terence; his writing brought him social freedom, and hers had yet to do so.
The poem “To Maecenas” makes evident that Phillis Wheatley faced several challenges due to her race and gender. During the eighteenth century, much of the population did not see Africans as equal to the white population. “To Maecenas” incorporates classical form and content from Horace’s Odes and the subversive pastoral technique to address the limitations Phillis suffered in society and in the appreciation of her work due to her status as a slave. Although she received a classical education, many Bostonians failed to recognize her capability as an educated poet, which explains the inclusion of a letter of authenticity from her owner, John Wheatley, in Poems.
Constant discrimination based upon her race makes its way into not only “To Maecenas,” but also in “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age”.
“This known, ye parents, nor her loss deplore,
She feels the iron hand of pain no more;
The dispensations of unerring grace,
Should turn your sorrows into grateful praise;
Let then no tears for her henceforward flow,
No more distress’d in our dark vale below,
Her morning sun, which rose divinely bright,
Was quickly mantled with the gloom of night.”28
Also written in 1773, “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age” uses the form of the Horatian ode and portrays the hardships undergone by the typical slave family. In the case of this young lady’s family, Wheatley instructs the parents to “turn sorrows into grateful praise,” for their daughter no longer had to endure the social chains of slavery.29 The life of an enslaved African had little freedom, but rather was filled with servitude and racial oppression. Historians have questioned inspiration for writing this piece—was she trying to comfort the parents whom she left behind? Did she want to justify her new place in the American world defined by education and religion? Were her intentions in writing more religiously or politically motivated? Perhaps she was comparing the death of this young girl to her experience in coming to America.30 Despite the life-changing event of being forced into slavery, she did receive instruction in the Christian faith and priceless education that had brought her many life altering opportunities.
Phillis Wheatley’s theme of racial oppression continues in her letter to Reverend Samson Occom in year 1774 as seen below:
“I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied
with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what
you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot
be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which
broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reigned so long,
is converting into beautiful Order, and reveals more and more clearly, the glorious
Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably united, that there is
little or no Enjoyment of one without the other: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been
less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian Slavery; I do not say they would have
been contented without it, by no Means, for in every human Breast,
God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression,
and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our Modem Egyptians
I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own way and Time, and get him honor upon
all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward the Calamities
of their Fellow Creatures.”31
Wheatley’s letter to Occom, an Indian and Presbyterian minister, was written in response to Occom’s indictment of Christian ministers who owned slaves during the upheaval of the American Revolution. The significance of Wheatley stating, “for in every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom,” relates to the classical tradition of civic virtue, a philosophical concept in which Aristotle particularly believed. Wheatley praised Occom for his vindication of the natural rights she similarly believed Africans should have.
The passage in her letter to Occom suggests that Wheatley internalized virtue more intimately as a part of one’s spiritual being. She claimed that God created virtue, and therefore each individual inherently has virtue, despite his or her outward appearance. She drew from Aristotle’s belief but intertwined with it her Christian faith to question further the validity of the institution of slavery. This finding complicated my research. At first, I believed she directly referenced Aristotle, but, as my research reveals, she merely drew upon the basic idea of civic virtue. Civic virtue to Aristotle included actively governing or being governed, where as Wheatley Christianizes and internalizes inherent virtue in her letter to Occom.
To continue the theme of freedom and virtue seen in her letter to Occom, I chose to draw from Otis’ The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, printed in 1764, ten years before Wheatley wrote the letter to Occom. By 1764, the American colonies felt cheated by the taxes levied upon them by Britain. Parliament had issued the Sugar Act in 1764 and the Stamp Act in 1765 without providing direct representation of the colonies in Parliament. Politicians such as James Otis and Daniel Dulany began to express their discontent in order to seek change in all aspects of society. In Otis’ The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved printed in 1764, Otis stated:
“The colonists, black and white, born here, are free born British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such, is a truth not only manifest from the provincial charters, from the principles of the common law, and acts of parliament; but from the British constitution which was re-established at the revolution, with a professed design to secure the liberties of all the subjects to all generations.32
Otis wrote about how each colonist, black or white, should legally receive essential civil rights. Ironically, at the time, colonists had asserted these rights to equality in Parliament while simultaneously supporting the slave trade, forced labor, and stealing another human being’s inherent rights. Wheatley’s reference to political liberty parallels civil liberty and the equal inherent virtue that she alluded to in her letter to Occom. Her knowledge of Aristotle’s political theory of civic virtue allowed her to make the connection between present and past occurrences. Although Wheatley did not live as a typical slave, e.g., receiving an education, writing to public figures, and sleeping in a bed, she still endured its institutional bondage.33
The literary analysis of “To Maecenas,” “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age,” and letter to Reverend Samson Occom, depict how Phillis Wheatley examined the issue of racial oppression in Revolutionary America through her written works. Her use of Horatian ode and subversive pastoral in “To Maecenas” displayed her knowledge of classical literary composition. She also referenced Latin playwright and former slave Terence, with whom she shared common oppressive challenges. Her use of the subversive pastoral technique allowed her to quietly supply an argument against the status quo without drawing further attention to herself. She learned this tactic from studying Virgil’s Ecologues. “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age” places emphasis on death as an escape from the hell on Earth that is slavery. Lastly, her letter to Reverend Occom reveals her understanding of Greek political theory and Aristotle’s basic thinking about civic virtue. She claimed that God created both humans and virtue; therefore all individuals are inherently equal. Wheatley intertwined Christian concepts with political theory, which allowed her to effectively add depth to her argument posed against the institution that stole the early part of her life. Although Wheatley died as a free woman in 1784, she remained enslaved to racial oppression.
EVALUATION OF MYTHICAL ALLUSIONS
The literary analysis on “To Maecenas,” “On the Death of a Young Girl Five Years of Age,” and letters to Occom, reveal Phillis Wheatley’s knowledge of how to compose her works in imitation of classical writers such as Horace, Virgil, and Aristotle. She also included many mythical allusions throughout her works. With her knowledge of the Latin language, she alluded to mythology in twenty-six out of thirty-nine of her works in Poems. Several of these poems include “To Maecenas,” “Ode to Neptune,” “An Hymn to Morning,” “On Recollection,” “Niobe in Distress,” “Chloe to Calliope,” and “An Answer to Rebus,” where Wheatley references either mythological figures or their stories themselves.34 This section will compare the mythical allusions Wheatley made in “His Excellency George Washington” and “Liberty with Peace.”
Published in October 1775, “His Excellency George Washington,” included the personification of America in the form of Columbia, the goddess of freedom, a name first used in this way in 1761.35 The poem included the personification of America to create a separation from the British Empire. The Columbia Wheatley depicted in “His Excellency” merged two Christianized classical mythological figures, namely Phoebus Apollo and Pallas Athene.36 Wheatley commonly included Christian characteristics in her poetry, so the Christianization of Columbia comes as no surprise:
“See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.”37
Columbia wore a crown constructed from olive and laurel, which further expands on the common theme of freedom throughout Wheatley’s poetry. It is significant that Colombia wears this crown because the combination of laurel and olive denotes freedom as a result of victory. Columbia’s “golden hair” bound by the olive and laurel alludes to Apollo, as do many references to gold in classical mythology.38 Columbia’s femininity in “His Excellency” therefore came from Athena, the goddess associated with wisdom and war. The inclusion of olive and laurel gains greater significance in the discussion of Athena in that olives symbolize peace. Athena as the goddess of war would reach peace through military prowess.39 Similarly, winners in battles during Roman times would receive this crown as a triumphal trophy, as did victors in Olympic competitions. Given its context, the olive and laurel wrapped around the goddess of freedom’s golden hair would ensure a victory for America in their battle against Britain and give a sense of historical resonance and importance to the American Revolution.
Wheatley’s poem “His Excellency George Washington” incorporates another reference to classical mythology into her political poetry of the Revolutionary era:
“Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;”40
Wheatley used Aeolus, god of wind, as a personification of the rough waters between Britain and America. The storms of Aeolus refer to the recurring hardships between America and Britain in the dispute over representation and independence and the ocean separating them that caused so much separation. Her poem not only alluded to the freedom America was fighting for from Britain, but also to the consciousness of those in bondage to their inherent freedoms as humans.
In a later reference to “His Excellency George Washington,” Phillis Wheatley wrote “Peace and Liberty” in 1784, one year after the end of the Revolutionary War:
“For Galia’s Power espous’d Columbia’s Cause,
And new-born Rome shall give Britannia Law,
Nor unremember’d in the grateful Strain,
Shall princely Louis’ friendly Deeds remain;
The generous Prince th’ impending Vengeance eye’s,
Sees the fierce Wrong, and to the rescue flies.
Perish that Thirst of boundless Power,
that drew On Albion’s Head the Curse to Tyrants due.
But thou appeas’d submit to Heaven’s decree,
That bids this Realm of Freedom rival thee!”41
This poem classified America as the “new-born Rome,” and shares political and mythical similarities with her 1775 “His Excellency George Washington” in terms of Britain’s ‘thirst of boundless power’ and the wearing of a laurel and olive crown. In Virgil’s Georgics, the text Wheatley referenced in both poems, Augustus is praised for essentially rebuilding the city of Rome after the conclusion of civil war and bringing his people out of the dust and into a new era.42 Likewise, Washington would lead America through the process of gaining independence from Britain.
Phillis Wheatley wrote both “His Excellency George Washington” and “Liberty and Peace,” on the process of gaining independence from Britain with the personification of Columbia, the American goddess of freedom, who wore a crown of olive and laurel. The combination in Columbia’s character of elements of Apollo and Athena symbolizes the strength of America and its general who led America in the revolution against Britain. Freedom endures as a common theme in both poems, which also draw from mythical figures and allude to classical symbols such as the olive and laurel crown.
Living in revolutionary America as an African poet, Phillis Wheatley faced a multitude of challenges. The world, it may have seemed, stood against her. However, she received a classical education from her master’s daughter, Mary Wheatley. Through her education she learned classical form and content from Horace and Virgil, and became well versed in Greek and Roman mythology. Thomas Jefferson notably denied the authenticity of her work out of fear of her knowledge about subjects much of society had not had the opportunity to learn. Given this challenge, John Wheatley encouraged Phillis to travel to London for publication of her work Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Granted manumission in October 1773 as Susanna’s death wish, Wheatley continued her writing and remained as a guest in the Wheatley home.
The content and form of her literary works may be contributed to her education in the classics. In analyzing her literature, I argued that “To Maecenas,” “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age,” and letter to Occom illustrate that Wheatley examined the issue of racial oppression in Revolutionary America. Wheatley referenced Horace’s Odes in multiple ways in “To Maecenas” in order to assert her poetic voice in the literary world and to receive power and recognition as a poet. “On the Death of a Young Lady Five Years of Age” gave the reader a sense of the emotional tolls of slavery, and how death served as a release from hell on Earth. Aristotle’s theory of civic virtue came into play in her letter to Reverend Samson Occom where she claimed all individuals are inherently equal since God created each and every human. Although she Christianized the theory of civic virtue, she drew first from Aristotle’s basic philosophical points.
Phillis Wheatley also used mythical allusions in “His Excellency George Washington” and “Liberty with Peace” in the depiction of Columbia as the American godd-ess of freedom. Given the combination of Apollo and Athena’s characteristics, Wheatley effectively portrayed Columbia as a powerful leader with mythical elements. The symbol of laurel and olive in her freedom crown denotes freedom as a result from victory, ensuring a victory for America in the battle against Britain. Her poem “Liberty with Peace” also alluded to Columbia as the valiant personified American goddess as seen in “His Excellency” written nine years earlier.
Phillis Wheatley effectively voiced her thoughts on the institution of slavery through her poetry. Despite the obstacles that lay in her path, she eventually received proper recognition of her works. Wheatley’s education in the classics shaped the form of her writing and contributed to the content of her work. Allusions to classical Greek and Roman literature saturated her poetry throughout her career, which ended when she died in 1784. Her enslavement fueled her passion for freedom. Phillis Wheatley incorporated classical form and content to express her opinion on freedom to effectively speak out on slavery not with her voice, but with her pen.
1Phillis Wheatley became the first published African American, and upon its printing, sixteen notable men in Boston signed a letter to ensure that Phillis Wheatley did in fact produce the poetry included in Poems. Several of these names include that of Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Hon. James Pitts, John Hancock, Reverend Charles Chauncy, and Mr. John Wheatley. [Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Philadelphia: AMS Press Inc.: re-printed from the 1786 edition.]
2Several scholars’ works that I examined throughout the process of this paper include John C. Shields, Kenneth Silverman, Cynthia Smith, and William Henry Robinson. John Shields has contributed numerous books and journal articles analyzing her poetry, as well as synthesis of other historians’ writings on Wheatley.
3cf. John Shields, Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Context (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press: 2008), and John Shields, New Essays on Phillis Wheatley (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press: 2011).
4William Robinson, Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley (Boston: GK Hall & Co., 1982).
William Robinson, Phillis Wheatley and her Writings (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984.
5Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s First Black Poet and her Encounters with the Founding Fathers (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003).
6Vincent Caretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011).
7Charles W. Akers, “Our Modern Egyptians: Phillis Wheatley and the Whig Campaign Against Slavery in Revolutionary Boston,” The Journal of Negro History 60, No. 3 (July 1975): 397-410.
8Betine van Zyl Smit, “American Women and Classical Myths by Gregory A. Staley,” International Journals of the Classical Tradition 17, No. 1 (March 2010): 146-149. Gregory A Staley, American Women and Classical Myths (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009).
9Caroline Winterer, The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900 (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2007), 31.
10Shields, Liberation, 58 and 77.
12Shields, Liberation, 94.
13Shields, Liberation, 82.
14Eric Hairston, “The Trojan Horse” in New Essays on Phillis Wheatley edited by John Shields and Eric Lamore (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011), 65.
16In October 1772, Phillis Wheatley wrote a poem for William Legge titled “To the Right Honourable Earl of Dartmouth,” who served as the Secretary of State for the American colonies from 1772 to 1775 and shared a friendship with Selina Countess of Huntingdon. Wheatley wrote on how the roots of her love for freedom sprung from her enslavement as seen in the first two lines, “Should you my lord, while you peruse my son, wonder whence my love for Freedom sprung.” She hoped Legge would share the same ideals as the Countess of Huntingdon (“Phillis Wheatley’s Poem on Tyranny and Slavery 1772,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/road-revolution/resources/phillis-wheatley%E2%80%99s-poem-tyranny-and-slavery-1772 (Accessed April 24, 2014).
The Countess of Huntingdon also shared a friendship with merchant and philanthropist John Thornton who invested his life into mission work. Thornton worked closely with the Countess in the support of Elezer Wheelock’s Indian Charity School located in New Hampshire. John and Susanna Wheatley disbursed the funds given by the Countess and Thornton, which is how the link between London and Boston originated for the Wheatley family. Samson Occom, a figure discussed under the Literary Analysis section, raised funds for the Indian school and studied as a pupil for Wheelock, which created yet another political friendship of Phillis, Thornton, and the Countess. Given the positive relationship and similar ideals, John Wheatley encouraged Phillis and Nathaniel to travel to London and meet with the Countess to inquire support as a patroness. (Kenneth Silverman, “Four New Letters by Phillis Wheatley,” Early American Literature 8, No. 3 (Winter, 1974): 257-271.)
17Phillis Wheatley, “To Maecenas” in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (Philadelphia: AMS Press Inc.: re-printed from the 1786 edition), 9-11.
18John Shields, Liberation,150.
19Shields, New Essays, 68.
20Shields, New Essays, 66.
21Wheatley, Poems, 9.
22Shields, New Essays, 69.
23Wheatley, Poems, 10.
24Shields, New Essays, 72.
26Other poems written by Phillis Wheatley that present Horatian ode include “On Recollection,” “On Imagination,” and “Thoughts on Works of Providence.” (Shields, Liberation, 150.)
27A statement by Thomas Jefferson himself demonstrates his opinion on Wheatley: “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but not poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet.” (Gates, 44.)
28Wheatley, Poems, 17.
30Paula Bennett, “Phillis Wheatley’s Vocation and the Paradox of the Afric Muse” PMLA 113, no.1 (Jan. 1998), 70.
31Phillis Wheatley, “Letter to Reverend Samson Occom,” The Connecticut Gazette, March 11, 1774.
32James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1763.
33Delindus R. Brown and Wanda Anderson, “A Survey of the Black Woman and the Persuasion Process: The Study of Strategies of Identification and Resistance,” Journal of Black Studies 9, no.2 (Dec. 1978), 237.
35Thomas J. Steele, “The Figure of Columbia: Phillis Wheatley plus George Washington,” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 2 (June 1981), 264.
37Phillis Wheatley, “To His Excellency George Washington,” (1775): lines 7-12.
41Phillis Wheatley, “Peace and Liberty,” 1784.
Otis, James. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1763.
Wheatley, Phillis. “His Excellency George Washington,” 1775.
----, Phillis. “Letter to Reverend Samson Occom.” The Connecticut Gazette. March 11, 1774.
----, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Philadelphia: AMS Press Inc.: re-printed from the 1786 edition.
Bennett, Paula. “Phillis Wheatley’s Vocation and the Paradox of the Afric Muse.” PMLA 113, no.1 (Jan.1998): 64-76.
Brown, Delindus and Wanda Anderson. “A Survey of the Black Woman and the Persuasion Process: The Study of Strategies of Identification and Resistance.” Journal of Black Studies 9, no.2 (Dec.1978): 233-238.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Basic Civitas Group, 2003.
Mason, Julia. “Examples of Classical Myth in the Poems of Phillis Wheatley,” in American Women and the Classics edited by Gregory Staley. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009.
Shields, John. Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2008.
----, John. New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.
----, John. “Phillis Wheatley’s Subversive Pastoral.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 27, no.4 (Summer 1994): 631-647.
Silverman, Kenneth. “Four New Letters by Phillis Wheatley.” Early American Literature 8, no. 3 (1974): 257-271.
Smith, Cynthia. “To Maecenas: Phillis Wheatley’s Invo- cation of an Idealized Reader.” Black American Literature Forum 23, no. 3 (Autumn 1989): 579- 592.
Steele, Thomas J. “The Figure of Columbia: Phillis Wheatley plus George Washington.” The New England Quarterly 54, no. 2 (June 1981): 264- 266.
Winterer, Caroline. The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750-1900. Ithaca: Cornell University, 2007.
Sydney Jeanne Vaile is a senior at Virginia Tech studying History and Political Science. Her passion for history took off her junior year of high school, and has since grown. In the summer of 2014, she interned with the National Archives Boeing Learning Center in Washington, D.C., where she saw the many different approaches she could take in the field of education. As an undergraduate, she assisted the research of Dr. Hidalgo in Encyclopedia of the Caribbean, and Dr. Wallenstein in his second edition of Cradle of America: Four Centuries of Virginia History. Sydney also served as a research assistant to Dr. Winling and his study of African Americans in Blacksburg, Virginia between 1900 and 1940. She has presented research at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Conference, served as officer for Phi Alpha Theta National Honors Society, and worked in Newman Library’s Special Collections. Her dream is to attend University of Maryland to earn a dual Masters of Arts in Library Science and History, and work in the field of education to inspire students in each of their endeavors.