The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

African-American poet Phillis Wheatley was influenced by another poet of the eighteenth century, and her own writing influences readers today. Wheatley read extensively from the work of Alexander Pope, who translated Homer and was a popular English poet. Imitating Pope’s style, Wheatley uses Greek and Roman mythology in many of her poems. The muse, or spirit which is supposed to guide the poet, appears often in her work. Wheatley’s poems are widely criticized for their failure to condemn slavery, but her writings are still influential. She is America’s first African-American and second female poet. Phillis Wheatley inspires both African-Americans and women today through her proven survival in a predominately white, male-dominated society.

Although she never condemns slavery, and is sometimes accused of advocating for it, Phillis Wheatley’s poems demonstrate her belief in her race’s potential. In “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she writes that her race “may be refined and join the angelic train.” By the word refined she means not only that slaves can enter heaven as whites can, but also that they have the capacity to learn. Slaves can only become educated with the help of God, and the theme of faith also appears in this poem. Wheatley’s devotion to God is evident. She became a Christian after coming to America and expresses her joy at finding God, “once I redemption neither saw nor knew.” She rejoices in discovering her faith, believing that God views her race as equal to whites.

Phillis Wheatley’s thankfulness at being brought to America is unusual for someone in slavery. Her tone, however, is triumphant, since she believes she will go to heaven once the troubles of life are over. America is the land that introduced her to this belief so she expresses gratitude. She writes, “T'was mercy brought me from my Pagan Land.” Although Wheatley is conveying the image of the contented slave, she does so not because she is happy to be considered inferior to whites, but because slavery brought her to God.

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