Literature

A Short Analysis of Phillis Wheatley’s ‘His Excellency General Washington’

‘His Excellency General Washington’ is a poem written by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84) about General George Washington, who would later serve as the first President of the United States. Wheatley was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties.

Wheatley is thought to have written ‘His Excellency General Washington’ in 1776, at the beginning of George Washington’s campaign against the British: the beginning of the American Revolution or War of Independence.

His Excellency General Washington

Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

Wheatley begins ‘His Excellency General Washington’ by invoking the Muses, that ‘celestial’ or heavenly choir who, in ancient times, were said to inspire poets. She announces that she is going to write about ‘Columbia’ – i.e., America – and the ‘toils’ and hardships faced by that land.

The word ‘refulgent’ means ‘shining brightly’: the image is of the sun glinting on metal armour.

The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds Her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

Columbia is figured as a ‘Goddess’ representing America, and thus imbuing it with divine protection and endorsement. ‘Olive’ represents peace: although Wheatley is aware that Washington is fighting against his English oppressors, bloodshed is an unfortunate necessity rather than the goal in itself. Meanwhile, ‘laurel’ is associated with victory: the victor (e.g., in war) was traditionally crowned with laurel leaves.

Muse! Bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or think as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.

As is common in neoclassical poetry of the eighteenth century, Phillis Wheatley invokes the help of the muse of poetry in describing the force and might of General Washington and his army, whose movement is likened to a strong wind or tempest (Eolus, or Aeolus, was the Greek god of the wind).

‘Refluent’, by the way, is another word for ‘ebbing’: it literally means ‘flowing back’, or receding, like a tide going out. It is as if nature itself is on Washington’s side in the fight for freedom, and the winds and oceans are assisting him in his struggle, because he is on the side of right.

In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

An ‘ensign’ is a flag (sometimes known as a ‘standard’), with the word ‘ensign’ often being used to describe a military or naval flag. This is normally for the purposes of indicating which nationality a particular ship or army belongs to. Of course, this carries a hint of irony in that George Washington is fighting to free the American colonies from British control, so that America can itself become its own nation.

The ‘tongue’ of every man in the American army – and many more besides – implore or beg the goddess Columbia to provide ‘guardian aid’ to Washington and his cause.

One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

American settlers had already fought French armies (‘Gallic powers’), rousing Americans to ‘fury’ and the desire to protect their homeland. Long before ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ celebrated America as ‘the land of the free’, Wheatley calls America the ‘land of freedom’ whose people are ‘heaven-defended’: they have divine protection. Of course, it’s common for people to believe their army is the one with God on its side, and Wheatley rousingly calls upon this tradition here.

Wheatley’s reference to Columbia is one of the first (perhaps the first) reference to the goddess as a mythical figure. The fate of the war against the British hangs literally in the balance, with Columbia in one scale and Britannia in the other; the war will determine which is the victor. The British hunger for imperial power (‘thy thirst of boundless power’) will be the cause of their undoing, for they have overreached themselves in America.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.

Wheatley concludes ‘His Excellency General Washington’ in the imperative mood, urging Washington to keep up the fight, and let the Goddess guide his every action. He will be victorious and be given a crown, mansion, and throne: the regalia worthy of a king.

‘His Excellency General Washington’: analysis

Wheatley was freed shortly after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, a volume which bore a preface signed by a number of influential American men, including John Hancock, famous signatory of the Declaration of Independence just three years later. Indeed, she even met George Washington in March 1776, and wrote him this poem the same year to express her support for his cause.

Wheatley’s poems, which bear the influence of eighteenth-century English verse – her preferred form was the heroic couplet used by Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and others – address a range of subjects. ‘His Excellency General Washington’ is written in heroic couplets to suit the grand and noble subject, which sees Wheatley encouraging Washington to continue fighting for American independence, arguing that ‘Columbia’ shall yet be free of ‘Britannia’ and her rule.

The heroic couplet is also appropriate because the form is associated with epic poetry, and although Wheatley’s poem to Washington is not an epic, it draws upon the epic tradition: for instance, when Wheatley invokes the Muses at the beginning of her poem (something Homer and Virgil had done in their classical epic poems) or when she describes the military might of Washington and his army.