Most of the poems of Phillis Wheatley and Anne Bradstreet address the themes of religion, slavery, gender and race. In my work, I will pay close attention to the themes of gender and race. The theme of gender and race brings out the inequality and unfairness of the society. From the poems of both writers, men consider themselves superior beings and say that women must show respect and remain submissive always. The place of women in the society is undermined, and their roles not clearly defined. On issues of race, the white Englishmen claim to be the masters of the black people. They subject the blacks to slavery and even regard them as non-humans. Wheatley is kidnapped from Africa and taken to America, and her freedom is taken away after she becomes a slave. In the paper, I will critically analyze the poetry of Wheatley and Bradstreet to demonstrate the similarities and differences in the way they present their works. I will use various poems including, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," “To the University of Cambridge, in New England” “To My Dear and Loving Husband,” “The Prologue” amongst others.
There are no instances in the poetry of Phillis Wheatley where she mentions her gender. She decides to hide her identity but at the same time expresses her race. Mostly, she could have ignored to disclose her gender to deliver her message to a large audience. During her times, women experienced discrimination and men had a tendency to undermine their value in the society. Male chauvinism had dominated all over thus; Wheatley ensured that she never revealed her gender. Men had a perception that they are superior beings entitled to treat women as objects. If Wheatley has mentioned her gender in her works, people will reject what she wrote about, and the message would go unnoticed.
Despite the fact that Wheatley fails to disclose her identity, several instances in her poetry indicated that she was a woman. Her way of expressing ideas could be realized, and people would easily judge that it was a woman passing the information. She is tactical to decide never to mention her gender still touches on the unfair treatment of women by men. In the 18th century, her work faced a lot of resistance from the whites who considered that she was not a human being. In most of her poetry, Wheatley uses the word “mercy” to seek the reader’s attention. She has used the word to bring different meanings in line with the message she intends to share.
An aspect that indicates Wheatley was a woman can be observed in "To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth" where she says, “I, young in my life, by seeming cruel fate / Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat.” In this lines, "snatch'd" is used to bring out the essence of violence. She shows how the African woman is subjected to gender discrimination and her values undermined. She also writes a poem called "To the University of Cambridge, in New England” that addresses at the institution. In this work, Wheatley writes "Father of mercy, it was by your gracious hand, that got me in safety from those dark abodes." She uses “mercy” to indicate how she has been surviving in her tough journey. In the presence of “mercy,” the kidnapping would not have taken place, and it seems that the ruthless white men denied women of their rights.
In both poems, Wheatley comes out as a very daring woman who condemns the actions of the white men. She addresses them explaining that they caused a lifetime trauma in her life. She says the Whiteman was behind the suffering that she was going through. Her voice is full of incredible courage, and it shows how her powers as a slave in the18th century. Her context has evidence of racially and gendered instances that she used to pass through. In these poems, Wheatley essentially says, "You white men did this to me? You changed me from a free being to a slave." She goes ahead to express how the white men took her away from the family and friends. The poet is very bitter with emotions that articulate the way she was undergoing suffering. Wheatley ideas and perspectives are expressed in a gendered way. She shares the traumatic experience that affected her during the Middle Passage.
In my opinion, the poetry of Wheatley marked the African-American genre in literature. I think that most men would have failed to reach her standards in literature. It is a fact that Wheatley got kidnapped and enslaved, but it never took long before concealing her creativity in poetry. She accessed education by permission from her masters and took this chance to practice poetry. She used this opportunity to compile different works that shed light to freedom from slavery.
Wheatley associated herself with controversy, and this set a platform to market her poetry. She refuses to mention her identity, but it is obvious that most men could reveal their identity due to the superiority complex.
She used words that moved the abolitionists and the racist contemporaries. Most of the Christians accepted the message in her images on salvation and spiritual freedom. Many American scholars viewed her as a colonial mouthpiece, and one who supported the acts of slavery. As time passed by, scholars realized that her message was perceived in a negative way. Her poetry reclaimed the glory lost, and she emerges as an independent woman who stood by her decisions. She was not a sell-out of the white man, and her religion was superior to anything else.
A man called Thomas Jefferson questioned the concepts associated with Wheatley’s work. He went ahead to label her as a simple imitator of other peoples work. He believed that she supported the theories on inhumanity of slavery. He used the term "beneath contempt” to show a lack of satisfaction in her work. This is a good example that clearly indicates that a man could have problems in expressing the intention in her work in a simple, clear and controversial manner.
In her works, Phillis Wheatley applied the use of poetic artifices and convectional themes prevalent in Augustan English poetry. She touched on the theme of religion, slavery, Christianity and salvation. She is also very witty in using the periphrasis where she states views in an around about method, hidden but meaningful way. She also sets the notch higher by use of personification and the heroic couplet in her poems.
Phillis Wheatley as a female and a black poet faced terrific obstacles in literature, as the society did not accept her at first. Her voice seems perfect calm throughout her works. In the poem, On Being Brought from Africa to America, she writes, “negroes may be refined for them to join the angelic train.” The way she expresses herself is very distinctive because she opts to cover up her gender and hides the persona. She handles the art of poetry in a unique way, unlike Bradstreet. The poet does this to escape the society misconceptions and dismal towards race and gender.
When writing her “prologue” Anne Bradstreet believed that people would criticize her wrings. She writes, “a poet’s pen all scorn I should thus wrong/for such despite they cast on female wits” In this lines, she was mindful that the society would condemn what she presented in the writings. Despite the fact that she was aware on the women roles in the society, Bradstreet diversified her writings to cover different topics. On the other hand, Wheatley topics and themes were questionable during her times. Despite being a slave, she stood standstill to address the themes of slavery, freedom and religion. Wheatley knew it well that her topics were controversial and the risk she took while addressing them.
When reading Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, it turns out to be substantially difficult to differentiate the person “Phillis” from the persona. She perceptively and cleverly twists language and one might not realize whether she is the persona or not. She probably did this intentionally to illustrate how the then society perceived women and the dominant male chauvinism in the then American society (Hector, 01). However, when evaluating Bradstreet’s poetry, it is easy to distinguish the persona, “Anne,” from the character, “Mistress Bradstreet.” Unlike Phillis, Anne decides to expose the identity of the persona to the public.
During Wheatley’s time, it must have been challenging to be a woman and a black poet. It presented tremendous obstacles to Wheatley and her family. Therefore, this makes one suspect her too-perfect deference, civility, and tranquility. For instance, in the poem On Being Brought from Africa to America, she expresses the calmness that wins the audience sympathy and provokes their emotions. She says, Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land / Taught my benighted soul to understand / . May be refined, and join the angelic train” (Hector, 01). However, unlike Bradstreet, Wheatley displays her experience in using irony to deliver a message when she says mercy brought her to America while, in reality, it was slavery. Apparently, Wheatley uses some hidden form of persona to protect her work from the humanity’s trivializing judgment of her gender and race. Evidently, the mere realization that the work was written by a woman would have led to denunciation of the work and few people would have stomached it (Lasky, Kathryn & Paul, 183).
As evident in The Prologue, there is a persona split in Bradstreet’s poetry. There is a discrepancy in the way she devoted herself as a poet and a woman. Additionally, the way she talks about God reveals some differences and inconsistency (Bly, 35). She says, “Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House and To My Dear Children” (Hector, 01). She uses simple vocabulary in her poem very few classical allusions as compared to Wheatley. The use of such vocabulary implies that her poetry was subjective. Wheatley strives to eliminate any inconsistencies in her poems, and one can hardly find any of such differences in her poems. Apparently, Wheatley is particularly contented using an excess of biblical and classical allusions. A good example is line 27 of To S.M. Where she says, “There shall thy tongue in heavenly murmurs flow”.
Additionally, unlike Bradstreet, Wheatley seems steadily spiritual, referencing the Bible and God frequently and without any obvious sarcasm as evidenced in To the University of Cambridge (Hector, 01). She uses words such as “refined” and “purified” to express her basic Christian feelings. She has a positive view of herself despite the excruciating conditions that she had gone through (Lasky, Kathryn & Paul, 183). In her poems, there is not an iota of the self-depreciating language commonly found in Bradstreet’s poems.
Bradstreet talked about her husband and their intimate relationship, but the puritan beliefs considered it sinful. In her poem, To My Dear and Loving Husband, she writes, “I consider the price of love higher than the entire gold mines, or all the riches that the East hold. There are no waters that quench my fire of love.” (pg. 103)
Wheatley is more careful in her work than Bradstreet is. This is because she only picked topics that the society approved. She talked about God without any irony and very noble figures in the public, the likes of Whitefield and Washington. The poem, "On Being Brought from Africa to America", is very controversial. At the opening lines, Wheatley expresses her love for Christian religion, however, in the end, the reader identifies that was unhappy due to issues on race in America. "Some view our sable race with scornful eye, 'Their colour is a diabolic die '(pg. 403).
In her selection of poems, Wheatley does not mention her gender and name anywhere. Her failure to mention her gender and name made readers read her poems without any prejudice. Her gender was never brought to the attention of the audience. Additionally, she mentions her race regularly only to show how undervalued the blacks were and reminds Christians to remain faithful to God. She wanted people to fear God and follow his commandments. “Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refined” (Hector, 01). Taking a broader view at her works, Wheatley seems to see herself just as a poet. The main role of the poet is to inform, persuade and remind people about the evils going on in the society. Taking an anonymous position in terms of both race and gender would make it easy for many people to associate and relate with the work (Lasky, Kathryn & Paul, 183). Wheatley’s decision of taking a neutral gender was meant to enliven the audience and start thinking critically about the critical issues facing the then American society (Bly, 113). One of such issues is slavery. She sees herself as the society’s voice, and it was, therefore, her sole responsibility to condemn social felonies.
Wheatley appears to be an intelligent woman whose poems are written in the way most natural to her. On the other hand, Bradstreet’s persona regularly appears to be involuntary and burdensome. Wheatley’s poetic voice represents a person who is completely contented with the prevalent situation, and she writes her poems just the way any other poet would have written it. This is unlike the contradictions and discomfiture that regularly features in the works of Anne Bradstreet although she seems to be peace with her sex. She does not seem to buy into sexism or racism of those days (Hector, 01). She seems to be defying both of them. However, Bly Antonio argues that Wheatley acted that way to indicate that she accepted society-given gender and race. She devotes herself to undertake the roles bestowed to her by anticipative society (Bly, 97). Questionably, Wheatley seems to be embracing her sex while at the same time defying the racism.
Wheatley seems to be entirely against slavery. Even in the works that she did not seem to denounce it, there is an undertone of criticism of captivity (Hector, 01). Though she seems to be praising the education and training that the blacks received when they were slaves, she does not wholeheartedly approves the slavery. However, most works of Bradstreet do not have any anti-slavery agenda. Her language, as well as tone, shows no resentment towards her condition. She seems so oblivious of the pain inflicted by the whites on innocent Africans. Unlike Wheatley, Bradstreet was having less of the American’s interests at heart.
As elucidated above, Wheatley is a very intelligent woman who remains natural to herself, expresses her ideas unbiased, and without any favors. She never exposes her persona to fight the negativity in the society. Contrary, Bradstreet appeared forced and burdensome. She reveals her persona in a very bitter voice and seems that she never celebrated life and blamed the ruthless women who treated women as objects. Wheatley is relaxed and writes poetry feeling at home. She has nothing to regret about her slavery and learns to appreciate life the way it presents itself. The distinctive style of hiding the persona leaves us with many unanswered questions. Is it that Wheatley ignores her race and gender as writing was against it? Alternatively, will there comes a day where she will accept the roles given to her by the society and gender? She leaves the audience in a dilemma waiting for her to construct a persona that will meet the expectations of the society.
In my opinion, I will argue that Wheatley poems talks about the different forms of treatment between the whites and blacks despite that they believed in the same God. At last, she concludes that religion would save her irrespective of the race. Bradstreet and Wheatley were in a position to overcome all the hurdles that presented on their way, and in the end, they complied great poetry.
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