Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

On the Poetry of Phillis Wheatley: With the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), Phillis Wheatley became one of the first published African Americans. Prominent political figures like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were even aware of her poetry in the succeeding decades. But what made Wheatley's poetry particularly intriguing was the passion she exhibited for memorializing the dead. Perhaps this passion grew from her conversion to Christianity as a young slave learning to read from the Bible. In effect, Wheatley's "sincere" Protestant beliefs helped legitimize her poetry in the eyes of a potentially skeptical white audience. One example of Wheatley's passion for memorializing the dead included the poem On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770. Since Whitefield was one of the primary preachers in the First Great Awakening, a time of heightened religious fervor during the 1730s and 1740s, Wheatley praised him as a "prophet." Whitefield's central message encouraged a self-driven religious experience, without regard one's position in society, and Wheatley embraced it as such. She ultimately understood his sermons to be theologically liberating (even though Whitefield advocated slavery), which helped assuage the spiritual needs of Christianized African-American slaves (like herself).

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