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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Philis Wheatly

Phillis Wheatly (1753-1784)

Phillis Wheatly was a kidnapped African slave child who was sold from the South Market in Boston to a well to do Susanna Wheatly. In her childhood she experienced special, much indulged comfort and only token slavery. She quickly learned Latin, English and the Bible and began writing in 1764. Her poems were based on the themes of morality and piety, along with patriotic American pieces, an epithalamium, and a short racially self conscious poem, “Thoughts on being brought from Africa and America”.

Initially her poems were not published as the subscribers felt that it was part racially motivated. With the prestigious co-operation of Countess of Huntingdon and Susanna Wheatly, her book was published in London in 1773. This was the first volume known to have been published by a black American, man or woman. Her poems have elements of neoclassical poetic norms.

Her poems represent a deeply self conscious art. Her sense of herself as an African and an American makes her in some way a dual provincial in relationship to the eighteen century Anglo-Atlantic cosmopolitan centre. The language of poem is both American (refines English) and African (non refined and broken English) in nature.

Her poems included not only Christian elegies, but also highly original English translations from the Latin of Ovid, biblical paraphrases and poems about nature, imagination and memory. She was highly influenced by the Bible.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

In just eight lines, Wheatley describes her attitude towards her condition of enslavement -- both coming from Africa to America, and the culture that considers her color so negatively. Wheatley begins by crediting her slavery as a positive, because it has brought her to Christianity. She makes a clear distinction between God (frightening and fearful) and Saviour( hope). The word "benighted" means "overtaken by night or darkness" or "being in a state of moral or intellectual darkness." Thus, she makes her skin color and her original state of ignorance of Christian redemption parallel situations.

She credits "mercy" with her voyage -- but also with her education in Christianity. Both were actually at the hands of human beings. In turning both to God, she reminds her audience that there is a force more powerful than they are -- a force that has acted directly in her life. She cleverly distances her reader from those who "view our sable race with scornful eye" -- perhaps thus nudging the reader to a more critical view of slavery or at least a more positive view of those who are slaves. She directly talks about the Europeans treatment to the African community.

"Sable" , refers to a self-description of her color which is very valuable and desirable. This characterization contrasts sharply to the "diabolic die" of the next line, as it means poisonous evil color. In the second-to-last line, the word "Christian" is placed ambiguously. She may either be addressing her last sentence to Christians -- or she may be including Christians in those who "may be refined" and find salvation. She reminds her reader that Negroes may be saved. The implication of her last sentence is also this: the "angelic train" will include both white and black. She believes that everyone is entitled to redemption.

The poem is biblical in nature, and we can say that she criticizes Africa at some point and also she talks about African from an outsider point of view. She distances herself from her pagan land (Africa) as she is now civilized. Although we can say that Wheatly re-defines Christianity, she believes that Africans can be redeemed. There was notion of Africans being referred to ‘cians’, which believed that Africans can never be redeemed of their sins. Thus, at a certain level it can be said that it is ‘anti Christian’ in nature as it defies the norms of the Bible.

Phillis Wheatley takes on the role of one who has the right to command: a teacher, a preacher, even perhaps a master or mistress( saviour).In looking at Wheatley's attitude towards slavery in her poetry, it's also important to note that most of Phillis Wheatley's poems do not refer to her "condition of servitude".

On Imagination

Wheatly personifies Imagination as a woman, a queen. The thyme scheme of the poem is aabbccdd. This poem stands as an ode in praise of Imagination.

“Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand”. He praises beauty and glorifies the creation- creation of poetry. This poem is the form of invocation in order to justify the sacredness of Imagination. Wheatly draws a comparison between ‘Fancy’ and ‘Imagination’. She says that fancy is ordinary in nature which has the capacity to only capture one’s mind. Also ‘fancy’ can be tampered whith, while Imagination is very powerful, it has an element of ‘fascination’ about it. “Such is thy pow’r, nor are thine orders vain”. Also, fancy can’t be remembered while imagination lasts longer and at times is forever itched in our memory.

She raises the level of Imagination to the divine god himself and claims that Imagination has pinions, wings to soar high. “And leave the rolling universe behind”. There is a reference of Galileo’s theory which states that the world is round. “There in one view we grasp the mighty whole”, there is reference to view everything as a whole, there is a sense of holistic view about every minute detail. “Leader of mental train”, thoughts or mind have the ultimate power, the ultimate sovereign ruler about whom we have to bow.

Wheatly urges her soul to rise and contemplate the majesty of God through the vastness and orderliness of his creation. Though God himself is unseen, he is made manifest in the heavens and the earth through such powerful objects as the sun. Wheatley takes the grandeur of the cosmos as proof of God's sublime, divine imagination. The poem is shaped by the pattern of day's light being following by night's darkness and the return of daylight on the following morning. Humans and the vegetative world require the productive light of the day and the restorative darkness of night, so God is not only powerful but also merciful. The poem ends with Reason and Love, personified, asking what most shows forth almighty God. The poet's answer is that everywhere one looks one sees God's infinite love made visible; humans know him through their senses. Reason falters and fails in the face of the Eternal. All that is left is for humans to praise and worship.