Academic journal article African American Review

Re-Membering America: Phyllis Wheatley's Intertextual Epic

Academic journal article African American Review

Re-Membering America: Phyllis Wheatley's Intertextual Epic

Article excerpt

Though Phillis Wheatley's poetry has received considerable critical attention, much of the commentary on her work focuses on the problem of the "blackness," or lack thereof, of the first published African American woman poet. The issue of race occupies a privileged position in the interpretation of Wheatley's Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and given the biases of Wheatley's period, which dictated authorial legitimation by prestigious white men, how Wheatley addressed her "marginalization" at the hands of her "masters" demands attention. Wheatley's critics are divided into two camps - those who contend that Wheatley critiques white oppression through the skillful use of biblical and classical references, and those who contend that Wheatley used her poetry to assimilate into the dominant culture. Scholars taking the former position include Sondra O'Neale, Houston Baker, James Levernier, and John Shields, while Phillip Richards figures most notably in the latter.

The matter of recognition is of crucial importance in Wheatley's poetry - but ample evidence in her body of work demonstrates that her call to be recognized as a mature poet and as an American subject (regardless of her race or sex) has not been sufficiently answered. For Shields, her more private poems - "To Maecenas," "On Imagination," "An Elegy on Leaving ---- -----," and "On Recollection," in particular - articulate her subversive message through her classicism. For Richards, her appropriation of Christian discourses in her more public poems, including her elegies, demonstrates her wish to assimilate into the Colonial American mainstream. Though O'Neale recognizes the subversive potential in Wheatley's use of Christian figures of discourse, the commentary on Wheatley has divided both the poet and her 1773 volume, leaving the reader with a private, classical, subversive poet, on the one hand, and a public, Christian, assimilationist writer, on the other - two vastly different "Wheatleys" constructed within the same volume with competing agendas. Although Wheatley adopts distinctly different voices in her Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, containing these voices within the categories of "assimilationist" or "rebel" does not form a complete picture of the poet. To the contrary, her self-referential refiguring of both European and African American subject positions in her poetry suggests an attempt to reconstruct narratives which place her at the margins of culture, left with the choice of either assimilation into the mainstream or rebellion against it.

The recognition of Wheatley's claim to artistic maturity and to "American-ness" depends on the recognition of the development and detournement of epic themes and motifs in Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and in other texts, as she develops a distinctly American epic intertextually within the body of her work.(1) Though Wheatley did not attempt to create a neo-classical epic patterned after the Iliad or the Aeneid, or a Christian epic along the lines of Dante's Commedia or Milton's Paradise Lost, she nevertheless declares, in "To Maecenas," that she aspires to the same level of greatness as these authors, writing, "O could I rival . . . Virgil's page / Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage" (Wheatley 10) - two references to Virgil (Oxford Classical Dictionary 936) - while in "A Hymn to the Morning" she invokes Calliope, the muse of epic poetry (Wheatley 56). Though one may read these invocations as ornament, a careful reading of Wheatley's works reveals that these calls echo across her entire work, transgressing the borderlines that divide each poem in her 1773 volume, and this volume from the remainder of her work. These calls announce pleas for transgression, a needed violation of the autonomy of the laws of genre which require other author(itie)s to authorize her work. Wheatley assumes a paradoxical task: to write an epic (the most legitimate and inviolable of genres) of illegitimacy and transgression. …

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