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Guest Blog: Writing Against Captivity: Phillis Wheatley’s Illimitable Imagination

By Laura Linker

Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), an eighteenth-century black slave taught to read by her owners, composed over 100 poems in her lifetime, many of them drawing on the Bible as a source of infallible authority. The first slave to publish a book, Wheatley often urges America to repent of its participation in the slave trade. (She was also the originator of ‘Columbia’ as a term for America, which she invented in her 1776 poem ‘To His Excellency George Washington’.) Steeped in western canonical authors, including Ovid, Virgil, Shakespeare, and Milton, she draws on classical and religious allusions to challenge legal and social limitations that denigrate slaves, adopting established poetical forms only to use them as sites of resistance. Her poetry demonstrates remarkable technique and learning.

Wheatley

One of her most interesting poems, ‘On Imagination’, employs art as a means of freeing the mind and the muse, conceptualized as a figure she calls Fancy. Her poem proposes an alternative hierarchy where Fancy acts a deity that enjoys unfettered freedom, despite the tight poetical structure of the heroic couplet form, likely read in the works of the near-contemporary and widely read British poet, Alexander Pope. In ‘On Imagination’, Wheatley constructs a liberated world outside of slavery, flying on the wings of Fancy, another word for the imagination, to free herself from the bonds imposed by Winter, an allegorical figure representing slavery. I will reprint the poem below:

THY various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! How deck’d in pomp by thee!
Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.
From Helicon’s refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.
Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov’d object strikes her wand’ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.
Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
Though Winter frowns to Fancy’s raptur’d eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o’er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow’ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown’d,
Show’rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose,
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.
Such is thy pow’r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:
In full perfection all thy works are wrought,
And thine the sceptre o’er the realms of thought.
Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,
Of subject-passions sov’reign ruler thou;
At thy command joy rushes on the heart,
And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.
Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th’ expanse on high:
From Tithon’s bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o’erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

The poem recalls the poet to an unequal world of bondage that ultimately overcomes the muse figure. Even as Wheatley struggles against slavery, she cannot forget the bonds that keep her captive. Wheatley nevertheless rebels against slavery through poetic form, demonstrating mastery of a difficult structure popular in the period, even as she works against its prevailing meter. The heroic couplet becomes thematically significant. One of the strictest forms, it features two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter that force the poet to conform to rigid poetic rules. Wheatley employs these rules to overturn the regular structure in her poetic substitutions and imagery. She breaks the regular iambic pentameter with punctuated spondaic substitutions, working against the couplet’s constraints. The poem lacks the ‘sound’ of traditional heroic couplets, and when read aloud, as poetry often was in the eighteenth century, the couplet structure seems to dissolve, as though the bonds holding the poet captive dissipate. For Wheatley, emancipation existed only through the poetic faculties of the imagination; her race and gender precluded social or political freedom. Wheatley nevertheless challenges her captivity, voicing her protest against social inequality and slavery as a binding institution that could confine the body, but, as she proves in ‘On Imagination’, could not fetter the mind.

Laura Linker is Assistant Professor of English at High Point University. Her book, Dangerous Women, Libertine Epicures, and the Rise of Sensibility1670-1730, was published by Ashgate in 2011. Laura also runs a blog, http://lauraleighlinker.wordpress.com/.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on June 24, 2013, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on lauraleighlinker and commented:
    A post I wrote on the blog Interesting Literature on a remarkable woman writer, Phillis Wheatley.

  2. Thank you for such a very interesting post! It gave me much pause for thought re ‘Fancy’ Imagination/Art as a medum for enlightenment, a stand against slavery. This rather hit home – the act of imagination it seems to me, in literary terms, MUST (if properly done) be an empathetic act, as it is an act which enters deeply into ‘what if I were to be other’ To attempt to inhabit and understand and imagine, or ‘fancy’ another’s suffering (as in slavery) is an act of empathy.

    • That’s very true! Wheatley wrote during a period called the “Cult of Sensibility” that was especially important to anti-slavery movements in England and America in the late eighteenth century. The idea behind sensibility was to create empathy for the sufferer through vicarious, or shared feeling. In literary texts, this was achieved through the power of the imagination. Wheatley is one of the most interesting writers in this tradition shaping an intellectual tradition of what “sensible” means in terms of affect and ethics.

  3. Thank you for bringing such graceful attention to this very gifted and important figure in literary history.

  4. This had to be shared! Posted with link on my FB page LiteratureVsLaundry.com

  5. Just began reading about the period of American decorative arts where Fancy became a marked style trend. “American Fancy: Exuberance in the Arts 1790-1840” is the name of the book and the exhibit that was at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2004.

  6. Yet more evidence that notions of race were not as fixed as some think back then. It was more about class/behaviour. Great post, very surprising stuff.

  7. Reblogged this on texthistory and commented:
    a highy litereate slave in North America. Fascinating…

  8. Fascinating stuff. And yes- she does read like `Pope or Milton.

  9. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    A timely post to the blog Interesting Literature. In the Comments section, Linker adds this insight: “Wheatley wrote during a period called the “Cult of Sensibility” that was especially important to anti-slavery movements in England and America in the late eighteenth century. The idea behind sensibility was to create empathy for the sufferer through vicarious, or shared feeling. In literary texts, this was achieved through the power of the imagination.” This is a good quote to have at the ready when someone asks what is the purpose of fiction.

  10. Writers love Wheatley– and rightfully so. Thanks for including this trailblazing writer for both women and blacks!

  11. Reblogged this on Rosemarie Cawkwell.

  12. Reblogged this on Outside of a Cat and commented:
    This piece is more than interesting, so I’m adding it here. Hope you enjoy!

  13. Reblogged this on Ars, Arte et Labore and commented:
    Phillis Wheatley (1753-84)
    “One of her most interesting poems, ‘On Imagination’, employs art as a means of freeing the mind and the muse, conceptualized as a figure she calls Fancy. Her poem proposes an alternative hierarchy where Fancy acts a deity that enjoys unfettered freedom, despite the tight poetical structure of the heroic couplet form, likely read in the works of the near-contemporary and widely read British poet, Alexander Pope. In ‘On Imagination’, Wheatley constructs a liberated world outside of slavery, flying on the wings of Fancy, another word for the imagination, to free herself from the bonds imposed by Winter, an allegorical figure representing slavery.”
    Follow the link for full article – Jaq

  1. Pingback: Guest Blog: Writing Against Captivity: Phillis Wheatley’s Illimitable Imagination | OceanKin

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