"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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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