In my response paper I would like to discuss the four poems written by Phillis Wheatley. Although she was brought to America as a slave she got well educated by her owner and so was able to read passages from the bible after a short time. This contact to Christianity is visible in every piece of writing she did. Wheatley wanted to praise different things and talk about her ideas. I think because she was a slave writing was the only opportunity to discuss her thoughts about Christianity, salvation or history.
Her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (1773) Wheatley describes her own history. The speaker was brought from the “pagan land” (line 1) to America by mercy and because of this mercy the speaker was able to convert to Christianity. Before he came to America he knew nothing about a God or even Saviour and was also not searching for redemption. In his home country the speaker was “benighted” (line 2) so to him his soul was morally in the dark. He changed from darkness to light because of mercy that told him that God exists and saves. In her poem Wheatley addresses other African slaves and maybe tries to convince them to become Christians. She didn’t push them towards her believes but told them her own story and how she experienced the changing. But she didn’t only speak to slaves she also addresses the American by showing how they treat or think about the slaves they own. They saw slaves as less than human because of their skin colour.
Wheatley believed that Negroes are equal to Christians in God’s eyes if they believe in him. “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. Georg Whitefield” (1770) is about the life of a God’s servant. Me strike the fact that the subject of the poem, Whitefield, was known for advocacy slavery and was himself a slave owner. So why did Wheatley as a slave write about him? She showed him climbing the skies where he is received by the “worlds unknown” (line 13) and also compared the reverend to mystical experiences from the Bible (line 19). In the last stanza she mentioned the Countess of Huntingdon, her patron. In “To S. M., A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works” (1773) she encouraged another slave to believe in his possibilities and skills. His work gave her such pleasure and she expressed in her poem how inspired she was to see his art.
Wheatley praised the power of imagination the painter is able to create with his work. “To His Excellency General Washington” (1776) was written during the civil war. Central theme in this poem is the “freedom’s cause” and she described and justified the struggle of the colonists to be free from England, even if it meant to go to war. In line nine to twelve she provided a description of the “goddess of Freedom” who came down from heaven for the purpose of involving herself in civil war. By comparing the battle forces of America to the Greek ones of Eolus (god of the winds) she showed how well educated she was. In the end she urged Washington as the one of pursuing freedom for the colonists. She also suggested that Washington would win and become head of state if he took the “goddess of freedom” as his guide.
Although all poems seem to have different topics their structure is always the same. Wheatley writes in heroic couplets, which was typical for that time. Using the neoclassical poems like in Greek or Roman literature she shows her education.
With her writing Wheatley makes clear what she believes that Negroes are also people and should be treated equal to Americans. In front of God every person comes from the same race.