Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
Contributing Editor: William H. Robinson
Classroom Issues and Strategies
One of the difficulties in teaching Wheatley comes in trying to illustrate that she certainly was much more racially aware, and antislavery, in her letters (which were intended to be private) than in her more widely known verses (written for a general white public).
I show how, in spite of her fame and the special indulgence of the Wheatley family who owned her, Phillis was necessarily aware of her blackness; for example, in racially segregated church pews, in the widespread menial work (street sweeping and the like) that blacks were forced to do, and in the general lack of educational facilities for Boston blacks.
Students (and even scholars) are sometimes wary of the authenticity of Phillis Wheatley's poetic abilities and, accordingly, ask germane questions. Such students and scholars are disabused of their doubts when confronted with copies of extant manuscripts of verses and letters written when Phillis was known to have not been in the company of whites.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
It is important to note that Phillis was very much aware of herself as a rara avis, who worked hard to show that, given the training and opportunity, blacks could write verse as well as any comparably educated and advantaged Bostonian.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Familiar with rhetorical devices of classical prosody (especially as practiced by English masters, Pope, Milton, and so on), Phillis preferred a predominant usage of the Neoclassical couplet, which, on occasion, constrained her seemingly natural tendencies towards Romanticism.
Most of her verse was written for prominent white figures of her day--e.g., General Washington, several prominent Boston divines--but in several of her elegies and her "Nature pieces" she wrote some lines that have continuing value to audiences of today. Her work was published largely at the behest of the whites for whom she wrote.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
No other colonial black versifier wrote with Phillis's obviously superior sophistication, and comparison of her work with that of black contemporaries is usually done at the expense of the other writers.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
I have asked students to examine Phillis's verse and letters for instances of her acquired Boston gentility and of her racial awareness and of herself as "the Colonial Boston poet laureate."
Mason, Julian. Poems of Phillis Wheatley, Revised and Enlarged. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, 1989, 1-39.
Robinson, William H. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982, passim.
--. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. New York and London: Garland, 1984, 3-69, 87-126.