Wheatley's Poetic Voice--Its Public Nature, Subaltern Position, and Authenticity

"O that I could meditate continually on this work of wonder in Deity itself. This, which Kings & Prophets have desir'd to see, & have not seen [.] This, which Angels are continually exploring, yet are not equal to the search.--Millions of Ages shall roll away, and they may try in vain to find out to perfection, the sublime mysteries of Christ's Incarnation [. . .] O pray that I may be one also, who shall join with you in songs of praise at the Throne of him, who is no respecter of Persons, being equally the great Maker of all:--Therefor disdain not to be called the Father of Humble Africans and Indians; though despised on earth on account of our colour, we have this Consolation, if he enables us to deserve it . 'That God dwells in the humble & contrite heart.' --Dec 1, 1773, Letter to John Thornton

Her Voice

Wheatley's work is that of a public poetry written for much of her short career from an essentially subaltern position. The genres she undertakes show this public voice--elegies, commendations, addresses to generals and reverends. Such a public voice can only occasionally allow itself a private perspective. She presents herself as a teacher, but much more often as a conduit of messages. As such, one can see her verse as serving a  civic function, one that immortalizes small and great. However, one also has to ask under what conditions her poetry represents an authentic African and African-American voice.

  • How would you characterize the voice of the poet in "To the University of Cambridge in New England"?  How much is a public stance? How much is a private plea?

Key Themes & Questions

The role of her elegies:  These clearly represent over half of her extant poems. They tend to follow a typical pattern (with some variation): 1) a focus on the power of death and evil; 2) which is conquered by the bliss or beauty of heaven, and 3) a commendation/injunction to the mourner to look to heaven and the final state of things for truth and comfort. The poem, "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield. 1770." is an exception to this pattern, for she praises Whitefield more as a kind of ideal rhetor-poet.

  • What particular qualities does Wheatley assign to Whitefield? Why are they important?
  • Why is he a gift to the Americans?
  • What is his final destiny and hope?

Her political poems move from a Loyalist position to a naive Revolutionary one to a full Revolutionary position.  The poem "To His Excellency General Washington" represents this kind of civic poem.

  • How does she picture freedom in this poem?
  • How does she present Washington himself?
  • Are her portraits of the two consistent? Why or why not?
  • What is the poem's political position?

Her African background and position come out in several poems, including "To Maecens," "On Being Brought from Africa," and "To S. M., a Young African Painter."

  • What does the later poem reveal about her view of art and music and poetry?
  • How much of the poem is European in its themes, language, and spirit? Does that matter?

Her Christian faith, along with the above, is fairly evangelical. She stresses God's providence, his power, wisdom, and goodness. In her poetic setting of Isaiah 53, Christ is an epic hero. Her letters reveals someone who is grateful for the knowledge of Christian salvation; she praises Sewell and Whitefield for their work for the faith, and she even considered becoming a missionary back to Africa.  She addressed the question of the Christian faith and ethnicity with Samuel Occom, a Native American preacher (see below).

  • What is the substance of her objections in poems such as "Atheism" and "An Address to the Deist"?
  • How would you characterize her voice in these poems? How would you describe the tone?

"[I] 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 Liberity, 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 Modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own way and Time [. . .]"
--Feb. 11, 1774, Letter to Rev. Samuel Occom