BOOK REVIEW: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and MoralPoems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

Many talented poets have caught flack, but few have managed to take it from as many directions as Phillis Wheatley. A slave from The Gambia, Wheatley was one of the most skilled poets of Colonial America. Obviously, she got bad-mouthed by racists. Some of them claimed she wasn’t the true author of her poems. Others said she wasn’t a good poet. Still others, quite nonsensically, made both claims simultaneously – i.e. that she plagiarized poems that weren’t any good.

If all she had to contend with was the criticism of racists, well that’s like Einstein being critiqued on General Relativity by the slack-jawed yokel working a Slurpee machine at the carnival. But when she (posthumously) became more well-known, she also started to get sass from blacks who considered her an Uncle Tom because her poetry featured the hallmarks of mainstream poetry of the era, as well as little of the visceral anger one would expect of a person who wasn’t recognized as a person. (Wheatley was eventually freed.)

It’s true that Wheatley’s poetry was – in form and content – quite in line with the poetry of her day. In terms of form, most of her poems are iambic pentameter with couplet rhyming, with a few sestinas and common meter quatrains thrown in the mix. In terms of content, Wheatley draws heavily upon Christianity, Western classics (e.g. Ovid,) and the elegy, discussing her African heritage almost in passing. When Wheatley is accused of not being good, the only sense in which that statement could be said to have a speck of truth is that her poems are quite reserved (certainly not unique to her.) But – to be fair – I think she fought enough of an uphill battle to be published and the fact that her poems are brilliant in language and cadence makes them well worth reading. I think Wheatley’s poetry must be considered in light of her time and stand on its excellent craftsmanship.

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