In Wheatley's verse there is, indeed, a harmony between the symmetrical pattern and the apprehension of a well-ordered universe. There is a third part in this harmony: the human condition. In her view, despite the oh-so-slight reproach in the final lines cited above, there is no serious discord between man and the divinely enacted laws of nature. Nor is there much concern with the contradictions in man. She definitely does not imitate Pope's notorious flights into misogyny, and for her man was not, as he was for Pope, "The glory, jest, and riddle of the world … Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err … Created half to rise, and half to fall.
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Even in her rare venture into polemic, the adolescent "Address to the Atheist," sin and its wages are couched in the gentlest terms:. There are scattered references in her work to divine wrath, and in her rendition of verses from Isaiah these lines appear:. But those are rare exceptions. She heralded God's wisdom and benevolence, not his vengeance. She was more prone to commend the human capacity for virtue than to scorn human susceptibility to vice. In this striking illustration of the suffusive religiosity in her work, slavery is incidental to salvation, and there is only the mild admonition to Christians that blackness is no bar to the angelic train.
In a sense, this is her own adaptation of Pope's ultimate truth: "Whatever is, is right. Nor is there much point in belaboring the contradiction between the depiction of a well-ordered universe in well-ordered verse and the overturn of the established order by revolutionary upheaval. True, the American Revolution was much less convulsive than the French one that followed, but even for the American an approximation of the carmagnole would have been more appropriate than the minuet.
That the cadence of her verse more closely resembled the latter, even when she attempted to respond to the times, as in the ode to Washington, is also an explicable fault. Art, and most especially the forms in which it is rendered, often lags behind history, and there is no reason why Wheatley should have been less laggard than others. So her poetry did not rise to the greatness that truly expresses the spirit of an age, but such poetry is rare, and there was none of it in Colonial times. Summarizing the initial debate about her more than a century later , Arthur Schomburg, who was devoted to the appreciation and preservation of black culture, offered his own judgment.
There is a depressing element in the literary argument to the degree that it hinges on whether she was a nonpoet or a mediocre one. To be sure, it is relevant to determine what was par for the course in a given time and place, but if this establishes her as the peer of her contemporaries, it also defines a less flattering place in the longer span of literary history. In purely literary terms, viewing her as a poet in the abstract, criticism cannot break out of such narrow confines.
But she was a black poet, and it is not enough to say that the quality of her verse was as good as that of her best white contemporaries. She also has to be assessed in terms of her own identity. Not until recently has black scholarship attempted to assess her in explicitly black terms. The more traditional view among black scholars was presented by James Weldon Johnson , who wrote:.
Phillis Wheatley has never been given her rightful place in American literature.
Phillis Wheatley | National Women's History Museum
By some sort of conspiracy she is kept out of most of the books, especially the text-books on literature used in schools. Of course, she is not a great American poet—and in her day there were no great American poets—but she is an important American poet. Her importance, if for no other reason, rests on the fact that, save one, she is the first in order of time of all the women poets of America.
And she is among the first of all American poets to issue a volume. By this method of criticism she stands out as one of the important characters in the making of American literature , without any allowances for her sex or her antecedents. This does not differ in substance from what has been said in sympathetic white criticism. It is not a matter of making allowances for her antecedents that is, for her blackness and her slavery , but of taking them properly into account.
This is attempted explicitly by the black critic J. Saunders Redding and in a curiously inverse way by the black novelist Richard Wright. In his lecture on "The Literature of the Negro in the United States ," Wright read passages from the works of Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas and made the obvious point that nothing in those passages suggested they were written by Negroes. One was a Russian, the other a Frenchman.
Then he posed the question: has any American Negro ever written like the Russian poet and the French novelist? And he replied that one, only one, had done so—Phillis Wheatley. Wright sketched an idyllic picture of her condition—she "was accepted into the Wheatley home as one of the family, enjoying all the rights of the other Wheatley children. Only later on, he said, did a distinct "Negro literature" take form as "a reservoir of bitterness and despair and infrequent hope … a welter of crude patterns of surging hate and rebellion.
But was she? Is the comparison with Pushkin and Dumas valid?
Phillis wheatley essay
She was born an African; the two men were born Russian and French. She entered her incarnation as Phillis Wheatley a naked child, a slave, forcibly abducted and cruelly transported. They were born into social status and moderate means. Pushkin, the son of landed gentry and a reluctant attendant at the czar's court, was three generations removed from the black slave who was his maternal grandfather.
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Dumas, the son of a French general, traced his lineage to a black grandmother and a wealthy French colonist in Haiti. Such genealogical traces of blackness in the Russian and the Frenchman had no real bearing on their lives or social status, although Pushkin expressed his awareness of it with a narrative about his great-grandfather. For Wheatley blackness was an ever-present reality that made its heavy imprint on her life. Wright could say about Pushkin that "he went to the schools of his choice; he served in an army that was not Jim Crow; he worked where he wanted to; he lived where he wanted to.
For that matter, Pushkin was punished, not for his great-grandfather's blackness, but for political and literary unorthodoxies that, in a sense, reinforced his oneness with the emergent Russian literature of the early nineteenth century. Wheatley did not serve in any army, but she did serve a church where she was consigned, according to all the circumstantial evidence, to a "Nigger Pew" or "Nigger Heaven.
The black lodging house was not her choice, and its designation as black indicates it was not simply a matter of means. Black ghettoes—situated near the docks or riverfronts or in alleys—had already sprouted in the New England of Wheatley's time. A distinction may be drawn between Wright's general thesis and its specific application to Wheatley. The works of Dumas and Pushkin are impressive evidence to support his general argument that Negro literature is not rooted in some anthropological or biological mystique but is a socially and historically conditioned response to slavery and its legacies.
This thesis is stated succinctly in a reference to George Moses Horton's poetry: it "does not stem from racial feeling, but from a social situation. Wright's sketch of Wheatley's condition is much too idyllic, and in spots careless. For example, referring to her trip to England, he adds, "This was, of course, after the Revolutionary War.
It isn't, and the distinction makes dubious the identity that Wright discerned. It may be said that in Pushkin and Dumas, the oneness with the respective national culture was a natural extension of their social being. They wrote as a Russian or a Frenchman because this is, in fact, what they were. With respect to Wheatley, there is a nagging sense of contradiction between her cultural assimilation and her social situation, which was, despite its unique, individual features, also related to the general black condition.
It is to this contradiction that critic Redding addresses himself, arriving at a judgment that is the opposite of Wright's. What Wright hails as Wheatley's triumph, Redding deplores as her failure. She stands far outside the institution that was responsible for her.
Phyllis wheatley and thesis
How different the spirit of her work, and how unracial not to say unnatural are the stimuli that release her wan creative energies. How different are these from the work of George Horton who twenty-five years [ sic ] later could cry out with bitterness, without cavil or fear:. It is this negative, bloodless, unracial quality in Phillis Wheatley that makes her seem superficial, especially to members of her own race. Her work lacks spontaneity because of the first, enthusiasm because of the second, and because of the third it lacks an unselfish purpose that drives to some ultimate goal of expression.
Harsh as it is, Redding's judgment points to obvious truths, which are insufficient for their very obviousness.
rectmburorgepur.ml It is easy enough to characterize the quality of personality mirrored in the poetry—negative, bloodless, unracial, chilly. The difficult question is what made her so. Redding replies that "she was the fragile product of … the age, the Wheatley household, and New England America.
Phillis Wheatley Essay
But Phillis Wheatley was black and this is the difference and also the contradiction: the contradiction between her blackness, which she recognized and never was permitted to forget by a thousand humiliations, and white, mercantile New England, whose world was never truly hers but whose values she seemed to accept. The same contradiction is suggested in Redding's remark that "she stands far outside the institution [of slavery] that was responsible for her.
This is the contradictory reality that shaped the subjective raw material which was processed by the three forces Redding lists—the age, the Wheatley household, New England America.
The vital element missing from his critical assessment is just what was fed into the triple-gear machine he specifies. For this we must revert once more to the frail, near-naked girl of seven displayed for sale on a Boston dock. At that age the native African culture and values are not firmly imbedded, certainly not with the depth and strength needed to withstand the powerful assimilative impact of the new culture into which she is thrust.