Despite the incredible highs and lows that Phillis Wheatley experienced throughout her life, from being kidnapped and brought to America, to traveling to England to become a popular and published writer; to coming home and experiencing some success back in the colonies and being a part of a family; to being emancipated but experiencing both of her beloved owners die relatively close to each other; to getting married but not being able to produce any children and then die in poverty, Phillis took each high and low with extreme dignity and wisdom. She wrote about things she had learned and chose to take the high road on everything she faced. She set the example for beautiful, reflective poetry, and mixed her Christianity and important facets of her life and education into her writing. She now has countless libraries and memorial commemorated to her. She perfectly exemplifies the dignity and grace of turning a not-so-great life into something she learned from and appreciated no matter what. Phillis Wheatley’s life and writings effect people today and have had an impact in the understanding of that period of which she lived. She brought to life what she wrote about and has had a lasting impact on the lives of people today through her writings.
Phillis Wheatley died in 1784 on December fifth. This was after some struggles in the later years of her life. Even though she has already been freed from slavery, her battles weren’t over. She was emancipated when John Wheatley died, however, Susanna and John died within four years of each other, which caused Phyllis’ life to change drastically. After their deaths, she married a free man from Boston in 1778. Despite being happy together, they had a rough life as he was put into debtors prison and she was left on her own. Their marriage was not successful in producing children. She got pregnant 3 times, but each time, the child died in infancy. This marriage was a struggle. Phyllis and her husband lived in poverty the entirety of their marriage. Phyllis was forced to return to work as a maid for a woman where the working conditions were horrible, probably adding to plaguing ill health. Even as she worked, she continued to write, but the enthusiasm that she had for writing was diminished. Because the Revolutionary War was at its height at this point, her writings had no way of gaining success or publication as there was simply no extra energy in the nation for them. Despite success and a seemingly brighter future after she returned from England as a bright 20-year old, the rest of her life was incredibly difficult and hard to sustain and so therefore it ended it on a rough note.
As aforementioned, Phillis Wheatley used three main themes when writing. Her first theme, her faith in God and her Christianity, which I wrote about in the post prior to this one, was arguably the theme most important to her. The other two major themes that she included in her works were Classicism and Hierophantic sun worship. Most of her poems included references, allusions, or outright dedications to famous figures, classic writers or leaders or world-changers that she found musings in, or in classic works or ideals that she found interesting or connection to. She wrote many poems that were essentially letters directly pertaining to the Revolutionary War that were to high authority figures concerning the event, such as General Washington and even King George of England himself. She also would work off of Greek classics and put her own spin and beautiful wording on them, thus creating an even broader and impressively descriptive, yet reflective, picture of what the work was initially covering.
In terms of Hierophantic sun worship, her parents back in Africa were avid Sun worshipers. The culture of her home country was predominantly Hierophantic religions. Because her home in Africa was such a major player in her life, her inclusion of their religion was absolutely understandable. Phillis used frequent allusions to light and to the sun in her writings. Oftentimes, the double meaning between ‘sun’ and ‘Son’ was used to distinguish the connection she made between the two religions.
Slavery was an interesting topic to Phillis Wheatley. She wrote about it a lot, especially concerning how literarily involved she was concerning the Civil War. She never took a publicly clear stance on slavery, saying that she while she was obviously not an advocate for slavery, there were things in her life that had occurred only because of her life in slavery for which she was thankful. She appreciated and understood that without her life in slavery, she wouldn’t have been given those opportunities or experiences that essentially shaped who she became as a person. She attributed her faith in God and her Christianity to being enslaved. She said that when she left her pagan country, she was brought to America without a clear belief in anything, and if it hadn’t been for her exposure to the Protestant lifestyles of the colonists she now found a home with, she wouldn’t have found a life with Christ. That life in Christianity is what she considered to be her most about thing about herself and so therefore she was thankful for her journey to America and her experiences as a slave to bring her to her faith. She was also grateful to have received her education in America despite being a slave. She knew that if she had been in Africa, she would not have had the opportunity to receive the education and personal growth that came from her new life in the colonies. While never condoning it and knowing that as an institution, slavery is inherently bad, she could appreciate the opportunities it had brought to her.
Phillis wrote about three specific themes. The one she most prominently used was that of her belief in God and her Christianity. When she was brought to the States on the slave ship and taken to Boston, she considered herself a pagan and didn’t believe in God. Her time with the Wheatley’s and her education helped her forge a relationship with Christ and it became a prominent topic and theme for her in her writings. She included mentions of it in most of her poems, and if she didn’t use direct references to her Christianity or God in general, then she used clever allusions and metaphors to paint the picture of what she wanted to portray. She considered her Christianity to be one of her most important attributes, and chalked up everything in her life to something pertaining to her faith, whether it was good or bad. Her conviction to stay true to her faith is most admirable, as it inspired a lot of her writing and her choices concerning the Revolutionary War.
Phillis commonly wrote in iambic tetrameter in her poems. Should you use to take it so far, one could even make the assumption or connect the dots in that her choice to do that even represented the Holy Trinity in her life. Her inclusion of symbols and allusions that go far beyond what you can even grasp at the surface are some of the things that helped to make her writing so spectacular.
While in London, Phillis was able to meet with, and make connections with quite a few powerful people. Despite not being able to get published in Boston initially, her ability to make people fall in love with her and her work brought her great success overseas. When she came back to the states with Nathaniel, her work had spread slightly more than it previously had, due to English publishers putting her writings into the world. Upon arrival, she began writing more and more, and her popularity continued to grow. She wrote two poems, the first titled “To His Majesty the King” which made it’s way to King George as a thankful response to repealing the Stamp Act. The second was titled, “His Excellency, General Washington” which concerned, you guessed it, General George Washington, praising him for his abilities and thanking him for his work that he had done thus far. When General Washington got his hands on the poem that Phillis had done for him, he was thoroughly impressed and invited her to his home and headquarters in Virginia. Despite getting off to a difficult start in terms of success, slowly but surely Phillis was able to get the ball rolling and find people who supported her and helped her make her way into higher levels of recognition.
This week will also focus on more historical context surrounding Phillis and her poetry. Because of the previously mentioned academic experiences that Phillis went through, she was able to develop a specific talent in the field of writing and even more specifically, poetry. By the age of eighteen, she had a full collection of twenty-eight poems. She was so popular among the locals, that Mrs. Wheatley ran advertisements in newspapers around Boston. Unfortunately, the people of Boston were unwilling to support literature, or really anything, proposed by an African. In frustration, the Wheatley’s turned to a publisher from London to help Phillis. In mid-1771, Phillis, accompanied by Nathaniel, began their trip to London. Due to her success overseas, she was brightly and warmly welcomed by many dignitaries, such as abolitionists’ patron the Earl of Dartmouth, poet and activist Baron George Lyttleton, Sir Brook Watson, philanthropist John Thornton, Benjamin Franklin. While in London, she gained most of her fame. Her poems and writings were being widely circulated and people were catching on to her talent. Next week will begin to focus on her forms of poetry as well as her influences. Until next time…