Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

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Phillis Wheatley (1753—1784) poet


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The first book published by an African American on the North American continent, first appeared early in September of 1773. Printed in London and backed by the British philanthropist Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, an earlier version of this book, which was to have been printed in Boston, was rejected for racist reasons. This projected volume of 1772 would have been quite different from that which actually did come out in September of the next year. Of the twenty-eight poems slated to appear in the planned 1772 volume, six are decidedly political and patriotic in subject, while only two poems of the 1773 volume's thirtyeight pieces by Phillis Wheatley (the thirty-eighth poem, by James Bowdoin, is a riddle that Wheatley “solves” in the thirty-ninth and final poem of the volume) specifically deal with patriotic topics.

While the 1772 proposals promise a volume that would probably have propelled Wheatley into the limelight as first poet for American Independence, eclipsing Philip Freneau's later claim to this distinction, the 1773 Poems is much less obviously political in nature. “To the King's Most Excellent Majesty. 1768” and “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth” both state Wheatley's preoccupation with freedom, the central subject of her oeuvre. The former poem celebrates George III's repeal of the Stamp Act and concludes with the arresting line, “A monarch's smile can set his subjects free!” “To… the Earl of Dartmouth” opens with the enthusiastic couplet, “Hail, happy day, when smiling like the morn, / Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn,” but contains the affecting story of Wheatley's seizure by slavers from her father's embrace.

Such poems as “To Maecenas,” “On Recollection,” and “On Imagination” appear to take up aesthetic concerns. “To Maecenas,” for example, ostensibly addresses the issue of literary patronage, paralleling Horace's dedication of his first Book of Odes to Maecenas. Yet Wheatley's structure is much more complex than that of her Latin predecessor. Expanding her poem from Horace's thirty-six lines of Latin to fifty-five of neoclassical American colonial verse, Wheatley introduces the classical pastoral mode (“myrtle shade” and shepherds piping in sunny meadows), which she exploits as a major part of her subversive style; declares she longs to emulate Homer and Virgil, which she later attempts in her two epyllia (short epics), “Goliath of Gath” and “Niobe in Distress”; specifies her personal struggle for freedom by calling Terence, the Latin comedic dramatist and former slave from North Africa, “happier” than she because his pen has effectually freed him; and states that she will sing the virtues of Maecenas and at the same time praise “him [God] from whom those virtues sprung,” hence signaling the religious and moral subjects of her volume's title that she will explicate in her frequent use of myth and symbol adapted from the King James Bible.

Wheatley also asserts her own poetic maturity, manifested by attainment of the poet's laurel (as does Horace, yet whereas what the Latin poet affirms comes to him by acknowledged right, the black woman poet must “snatch … While [others] indulgent smile upon the deed”).


Subjects: Literature.

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