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.
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:
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 Sensibility, 1670-1730, was published by Ashgate in 2011. Laura also runs a blog, http://lauraleighlinker.wordpress.com/.