Friday, November 6, 2009

The Poet Laureate of African Americans

Michael Fong
Journal #14 Phillis Wheatley
November 5, 2009

"Great Maro's strain in heav'nly numbers flows, / The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows. / O could I rival thine and Virgil's page, / Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage; / Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn, / And the same ardors in my soul should burn: / Then should my song in bolder notes arise, / And all my numbers pleasingly surprize; / But here I sit, and mourn a grov'ling mind, / That fain would mount, and ride upon the wind." (Wheatley 754)

"The poems written by this young negro [Phillis Wheatley in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral] bear no endemial marks of solar fire or spirit. They are merely imitative; and, indeed, most of those people have a turn for imitation, though they have little or none for invention...She has written many good lines, and now and then one of superior character has dropped from her pen; as in the Epistle to [Maecenus]" (The Monthly Review 49 [Dec. 1773] - Taken from Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800)

The above quote is taken from Wheatley's poem "To Maecenas". Wheatley muses about the Greek classics, and imagines herself as a poet with skill comparable to the great Virgil. She acknowledges, however, that this is only wishful thinking, and that she would, instead, "ride upon the wind".

The reviews upon this particular poem, as could be seen above in the second quote, were largely negative at that time. People accused Wheatley of imitation and mere copying, and at the same time ironically though, they grudgingly admit, like the quote above, that Wheatley did write good lines "from time to time". They fail to mention, for instance, that Wheatley's knowledge of the classics was far superior than the average white individual. They also conveniently overlook the fact that Wheatley was writing in the high style of poetry by adhering to British traditions. Was it not Aristotle who elaborated on the theory of mimesis in Poetics that it is within human nature to align and respond to literature in a subconscious mimetic way? Wheatley's infusion of the classics with her own thematic messages in her poetry could not be doubted, in any way, as being insignificant and mere imitation of older texts. If Wheatley was born a white man she would have been hailed as one of the greatest poet of her time. Not only did slavery tighten its cold-hard steel chains upon the throats of the negroes, but it also inhibits prodigies such as Wheatley in being recognized.


  1. 20 points. "If Wheatley was born a white man she would have been hailed as one of the greatest poet of her time." Precisely. Indeed you should read some of the white poets of her time, such as Frenau...half the poet Wheatley was.

  2. Oops mon dieu merde sacre bleu I spelled "Freneau" wrong (fixed it for you here just in case you want to google him :)

  3. I do agree...nowhere near the poet that Wheatley was.