Phillis Wheatley por Lucía Rodríguez. Desactivaré los comentarios el miércoles 13 de febrero a las 10 am.
Phillis Wheatley, similarly to Frederick Douglass, in “On Being Brought from Africa to America”, uses irony—if not sarcasm—in order to criticize British’s ill practices and notions of civilization, and to acknowledge the African American population as having the same or a higher intellectual level than the Europeans or New Englanders. As Lucía argues in her essay, this is mainly achieved by using the same “vocabulary that considered the African American population as the stigmatized brethren of Cain and incapable of learning and instruction […] to present quite the opposite” (12), and by textual marks; that is, the use of italics in order to highlight a change in tone.
For instance, as we can see in the first quatrain, the poetic voice highlights two facts: the first is that it affirms that it was mercy and not the figure of the European what brought its people enlightenment, faith or knowledge, and thus, it overturns the notion of the conqueror as the giver and possessor of truth knowledge—in other words, it minimizes the figure of the European and heightens its own—; the second is that by using the same discourse of the European that see the African American as being “black as Cain” or of a “diabolical die”, which is stressed by the use of italics and consequent change of tone, the African American, standing as the poetic voice, are enabled to point out the ignorance, lack of vision, and false prejudices of the British and New Englanders. Once again, ironically, this overturns the roles of the conquerors with the slaves’: “’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land; / Taught my benighted soul to understand / that there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too: / Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.”(1-4).
Phillis Wheatley was writing during a time when society strongly believed that black people were not able to learn Latin and even less to write poetry. After reading these poems, it is evident that her main aim was not to challenge the tradition that had been imposed to her, but rather to prove that she was absolutely capable of creating an equivalent piece of writing to that of the occidental tradition, and she is conscious of that: “soon the same beauties should my mind adorn” (“The Maecenas”, 25). The poetic voice is dressing itself, or rather, waiting to be dressed in tradition. Evidently, the poetic I plays a passive role in the sentence, it is not the subject of the action; in other words, she must wait to be accepted by the tradition.
This waiting is immediately frustrated in the following lines: “But here I sit, and mourn a grov’ling mind,/ That fain would mount, and ride upon the wind” (29-30). Here, the reader unavoidably remembers the condition of the poet as a slave. One must consider that even though Wheatley was the first Afro-American slave to make a public appearance as a poet, publishers still regulated her writing. In order to be published, she had to accept the standards of the white publishers. Still, the poet tried to give her and her people a place in a culture in which she was forced to live.
Religion also offered a way to be part of the white culture as an equal. For instance in the poem “On Being Brough from Africa to America”, the last verses state: “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain/ May be refine’d and join th’ angelic train.” (7-8). The poetic voice makes allusion to a transformation that will free the slaves from the prejudices of the time.
A brief commentary on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley regarding identity and subversion
The poetry of Phillis Wheatley shows her fascination on the tradition under whose rule she developed her sensitiveness. This fascination is expressed by means of both, content and form. By using elegiac and heroic couplets she renders tribute to classical Greek and Latin poetry, as well as to an English tradition which follows the aesthetics of classical literature by means of reference and stress. Even though there is an effort towards owning tradition, there is not an abandonment of a stand point as an African poet.
At first glance, in Phillis Wheatley’s poetry there is a double stand point regarding identity. Wheatley beholds her own existence through the gazing eye of her enslaver, who made her fit in his own cultural context; regarding this perspective, there is a sense of gratitude with the exposure to what she seems to hold a religious truth, which is the existence of a redemptor. There is also gratitude for Western Classical knowledge. In the following fragments I will quote, Wheatley speaks showing the previously mentioned gratitude and displaying a use of language full of precision and artistry, which turns her poems in the living proof of the capability of black people to show fully human features such as imagination, originality and vision. By means of her poetry, Wheatley fights prejudice by showing her mastery at canonical forms, which bestow her the authentication required to be taken seriously by white people of her time. Thus, her poetry, even when full of gratitude regarding western culture, becomes a weapon against the cultural system to which she was subjected.
As previously mentioned, there are two different stand points which at the end melt and fuse; besides what at first glance seems to be a stand point from which she looks at her own existence through eyes that do not belong to her, it is evident that there is a main stand point, which is the one belonging to an African writer who is clearly conscious of her role in context and who acknowledges the responsibility she has as a sociological symbol and as a slave who has held language as a sword. She scorns slavery and she scorns the means and reasons that provide a background to her arrival to America. When considering her poetry a means of fighting that which she is subjected to, the first mentioned stand point dissolves and it becomes natural to acknowledge there is no such thing as a double perspective regarding identity when it comes to Wheatley’s poetry; she is grateful for knowledge mainly because it is a means for achieving freedom.
I now allow myself to quote fragments that exemplify my saying:
On Being Brought from Africa to America:
“‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land (1)
May be refin’d and join the’angelic train.” (8)
On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield 1770:
“Take him, ye African, he longs for you, (34)
‘Impartial Saviour is his title due.” (35)
To The University of Cambridge in New-England:
“’Twas not long since I left my native shore (3)
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy ‘twas thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes” (6)
To The Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North America, Etc. :
“No more, America, in mournful strain (15)
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’enslave the land
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song, (20)
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat: (25)
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour, in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his baby belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray (30)
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
In “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” Adrienne Rich wrote “knowledge of the oppressor/ is the oppressor’s language,” and Phillis Wheatley very cunningly demonstrates it. As Lucía pointed out, as a poetic strategy, Wheatley managed to handle a certain poetic tradition, and then insert herself in it so as to subvert it. Wheatley did not only know the oppressor, but knew that in order for her strategy to work, she had to merge herself in the midst of the oppressor’s canon. By quoting once again Rich, “(the fracture of order/ the repair of speech/ to overcome this suffering)” we can see Wheatley’s breaking of the center that is of the canon. A “breaking” is the appropriate word to use in this case, because her moving from the periphery up to the very core of the system, evidently meant the displacement of old, and almost frozen paradigms. Some of these which were not able to stand it, were broken; whereas some others were infused with new movement and bloomed. Nonetheless, her movement did not mean a total wrecking of the oppressor’s system, of the oppressor’s language, for it did not turned mute, but only silent in certain aspects. There was only some “repairing” done to speech. By avoiding words, or by deliberately creating new ones to rename ideas, reveals the consciousness there exists behind every single word: it is true then, “a language is a maps of our failures.” Here, “our” not only understood as the oppressor’s language, as something foreign to us, for once we know it, we are also actively taking part in it. It makes no sense then to keep on distancing us from “that” language, as it is now “our” language, and “its” failures are ours now as well. Is suffering really erased once the speech has been repaired, as Rich’s quote suggests? Here I am trying to point at the relationship between language and “reality”, our shared reality. A relationship which most of the times appears to be pretty scarce: language is usually conceived from a different sphere from reality. This is why, often it seems that people seem not to be aware of their words. And in this particular case, all the paratextual devices which were needed from Wheatley to show that her work, was indeed hers, exemplifies how problematic to unite these spheres may be at times.
All in all,Wheatley’s subversion was as effective so as to inscribe her into the canon, she now belongs to that which once she tried to rebel. Due to her breaking, there came a “repairing” in speech and consequently, a “repairing” in the minds which share the same speech. A repairing which meant the emerge of a “new” literary tradition, but more than this, it meant the creation of a new frame of mind by which to see the world.
I find Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” a quite striking poem as well as revealing. As Lucía points out the same Biblical vocabulary that was wrongly used as a derogatory discourse “is used to present quite the opposite.” The irony of the first quatrain is achieved by the absurd equation of slavery with a merciful act and by the effective use of the adjectives Pagan and benighted.
Finally the association of Cain with black people is powerful and seems to me somehow threatening and ominous. Although “On Being Brought from Africa to America” has very few lines it constitutes a clever counter discourse.
I recently read how conquered societies translate the customs and beliefs of its aggressors in order to create a new identity. Instead of withering as a result of the clash they manage to expand thanks to these points of intersection. It is because of this that I found Lucia’s idea of Wheatley using literary tradition in order to transform the manner in which the African American people were conceived to be accurate and very interesting.
Lucía wrote: “Wheatley was a poet that manipulated mechanisms and discourses that were fashionable in her time not only as a way of securing the acceptance and reception of her creations by a particular poetic sensibility, but also as a reexamination of the paradigms and prejudices that those discourses display” The first big prejudices that Wheatley had to overcome was that African Americans were not considered to be people or at least they were thought to be vastly inferior. In Meacenas just by mentioning “Afric´s sable race” she links her culture with that one of the poem, thus saying that not only are they people but that they are a race that can be compared to that of the classical poets. Also, let us not forget that by translating the others traditions she was able to share her vision. She managed to create new literature by building on what was already there.
When I was reading the Narrative of Frederick Douglass I thought that he was condescending of the illiterate black people. He used the term beasts quite frequently and I found it odd. While I am not saying that he was ashamed of his race or in any way dislike it, still I thought that at times it conveyed the idea that the African American man was a work in progress. A concept that I think appears in Wheatley´s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” as can be seen in the next lines “Remember , Christian, Negros, black as Cais,/May be refin´d, and joined th angelic train.” The use of the word refined gives the idea that there is still need for improvement.
Phillis Wheatney, as Lucía points out, uses neoclassical conventions “to situate herself within a tradition of classical poets and to present herself as an individual with desires of freedom, both poetic and earthly.” In this manner, in “To Mæcenas” the poetic I as a way of establishing as an emergent poet makes several comparisons between itself and the classical poets. For instance, the poetic I with a humble voice claims to achieve the same lyrical virtues as Virgil’s. “O could I rival thine and Virgil’s page,/Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;/Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn,/And the same ardors in my soul should burn” (23-26). However, it is also important to notice the very first stanza of the poem because it is the only moment in the whole poem that the poetic I addresses the mæcenas asking about his condition. This is to say, the condition of the mæcenas is to support the creation of poets, however, the mæcenas whom the poetic I addresses to seems not to share completely the same creative qualities. Through the words “beneath” and “softer” there is the establishment of creative levels in which poets and shepherds are above the mæcenas. Although, later on through the words “equal” and “diviner” the poetic I compares poets, shepherds and mæcenas as coequals, through the questions “What felt those poets but you feel the same?/Does not your soul possess the sacred flame? (4-5)” the comparison is broken because the poetic I asks about the feelings and the own creative qualities of the mæcenas. This is important to notice because the poetic I emphasizes a sort of otherness that the speaker itself senses throughout the whole poem with the classical poets in order to achieve, as Lucía mentions, its own “poetical and earthly” freedom.