A Summary and Analysis of Phillis Wheatley’s ‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’

‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’ is a poem written by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84) and sees her addressing the students of Harvard University, cautioning them against being sinful.

The poem was probably written in 1767 and published in 1773. 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.

Let’s go through ‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’ and summarise its content, before moving to an analysis of the poem’s meaning.

‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’: summary

While an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
’Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.

Following eighteenth-century Augustan poetic tradition, Phillis Wheatley begins her poem by humbly invoking the muses to help her write what she wants to write. She also mentions some personal information about herself, informing her readers that she only recently left her ‘native’ land, in West Africa. (She was actually captured and sold into slavery in 1761, and taken to America; she was freed in 1773.)

Wheatley makes some disparaging remarks about the African land she hailed from, calling it a ‘land of errors’ and ‘Egyptian gloom’. She evokes God, the ‘father of mercy’, whose ‘gracious hand’ led her to the ‘safety’ of life in America. (To modern readers, this may seem a strange way of describing being sold into slavery, but it is a testament to Wheatley’s complex relationship to her owner, and patron, and reflects the times in which she was writing, when being an ‘African-American poet’ was still a wholly new concept.)

Her reference to ‘dark abodes’ alludes to Exodus 10:21-22, which sees the ninth plague of darkness visited upon Egypt: ‘And the Lord said unto Moses, Stretch out thine hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt.’

Students, to you ’tis giv’n to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heav’n,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.

Wheatley now turns to address the students at Harvard University, whose role and honour is to study the stars and heavens, among other things. But as well as studying the heavens in the name of scientific enquiry, these students are also in possession of the knowledge that Jesus Christ died in order to secure their salvation or ‘redemption’, as he did – according to Christianity – for all humans who have ever or who will ever live.

See him with hands out-stretcht upon the cross;
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!

Wheatley describes the figure of Jesus Christ being crucified on the Cross. He hears people insulting and ridiculing him, but he does not resent them, as he is full of compassion and mercy for all people.

When the whole human race by sin had fall’n,
He deign’d to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.

Wheatley references Jesus’ sacrifice: he took it upon himself to die so that all of humankind, which had been laid low by the sins it had committed, might be cleansed of its sins and rise to greatness again. By doing this, he ensured that humankind will be able to share heaven (‘the sublimest skies’) with God and Jesus.

Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heav’n.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shunn’d, nor once remit your guard;
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.

Wheatley entreats the students of Harvard to improve their ‘privileges’ or gifts while they still have them, and to ‘redeem’ every hour that they live by trying to do good deeds. They should avoid or reject sin and the temptation to commit sinful deeds, and never let down their guard against the possibility of temptation.

In a striking metaphor, Wheatley compares this temptation to a ‘deadly serpent’, recalling the snake that tempted Eve to fall and commit sin in the Garden of Eden.

Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you ’tis your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.

Wheatley concludes her poem by calling the young students ‘blooming plants’, flourishing and budding. She reminds them that the human rice is ‘divine’ (thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice which made our redemption possible), and tells them (speaking as an ‘Ethiop’ or African herself) that sin is their greatest enemy.

Whatever short-lived pleasure committing a sin might bring, it quickly turns to pain that lasts forever, perhaps because it eats away at the person who has committed the sin, but also because it condemns the sinner to hell and damnation – or ‘perdition’ – rather than eternity in heaven.

‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’: analysis

‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’ is an example of a genre known as the ‘occasional poem’ or ‘poem of occasion’. It’s believed she wrote it in 1767. We’re not entirely sure when Wheatley was born, since records surrounding her life in Africa are non-existent, but the commonest date given for her birth is 1753. This means she was perhaps as young as fourteen when she wrote this poem!

The poem is interesting for the way Wheatley begins by pointing out her own background, which we can probably safely assume would have been different from that of any of the students she is addressing in ‘To the University of Cambridge’. In essence, she is pointing out that she was fortunate to be brought from the ‘land of errors’ in Africa to the New World. Of course, the fact that she was a victim of the slave trade should not be overlooked, although here Wheatley is viewing America as the beacon of enlightenment, contrasted with the ‘gloom’ of her native land.

She is also, of course, subtly implying that the Harvard students have been given an opportunity someone like Wheatley herself will never know: the chance to gain an advanced education and become successful off the back of it. This is why she exhorts them not to sin: it would be throwing away not only their immortal souls, but the opportunity many people in the world will never know.

‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’ is written in blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. A line of iambic pentameter contains five iambs, an iamb being a metrical foot comprising two syllables, the first containing a light stress and the second containing a heavy stress, as in the word ‘im-PROVE’.

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