Academic journal article Early American Literature

"ON Deaths Domain Intent I Fix My Eyes": Text, Context, and Subtext in the Elegies of Phillis Wheatley

Academic journal article Early American Literature

"ON Deaths Domain Intent I Fix My Eyes": Text, Context, and Subtext in the Elegies of Phillis Wheatley

Article excerpt

Abstract: Phillis Wheatley's modern critics are divided. Some, for example, have characterized the slave-poet's work as examples of a colonized mind. Other scholars, however, have observed in her writings an appropriation of Western traditions to subtly critique slavery, remember her native Africa, and contemplate freedom. In none of these analyses have scholars begun to consider her elegies. Indeed, missing in modern studies of Wheatley's work is a critical examination of how Wheatley manipulated typography as a literary device to transform the literal meanings of her funerary poems: "Sass." An aesthetic adopted by peoples of Africa or of African descent in response to racial prejudice, Sass represents an expression of agency that is at once deferential and defiant, polite and contrarian. In the essay that follows, Wheatley's Sass, a unique part of the poet's elegiac style, is explored.

KEYWORDS: Phillis Wheatley, elegies, typography, sass, slave agency, colonial New England


Forms effect meaning.

--D. F. McKenzie, Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts

The author explains the presence of certain events within a text, as well as their transformations, distortions, and their various modifications.

--Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-memory, Practice

The poet asks, and Phillis can't refuse / To shew th'obedience of the Infant muse.

--Phillis Wheatley, "An Answer to the Rebus"

Before she was brought from Africa to America, Phillis Wheatley must have learned the rudiments of reading and writing in her native, so-called "Pagan land" (Poems 18). According to Margaret Matilda Oddell, who was one of the poet's earliest biographers, the African-born girl did indeed demonstrate a certain understanding of the significance of literacy. Not long after the slave arrived in New England, recalled the great-grandniece of Phillis Wheatley's mistress, the seven- or eight-year-old African "soon gave indications of uncommon intelligence, and was frequently seen endeavoring to make letters upon the wall with a piece of chalk or charcoal" (Wheatley, Memoir 10). Whether Oddell had witnessed Wheatley's achievement firsthand or perhaps had heard of Wheatley's efforts to write as part of the family's oral history is unclear. One thing, however, is certain. Upon entering the Wheatley's household, the African girl tried to communicate with her captors, and her endeavors left a strong impression that soon became a part of the Wheatley family's lore. Indeed, Phillis's early attempts to write might explain why the Wheatleys began teaching the young Gambian child. In "sixteen Months Time from her Arrival," explained John Wheatley, her master and her first biographer, the bondservant who had been an "utter Stranger" to the English language learned "to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her." Not long thereafter, she learned to write. She had also, her master continued, developed an inclination to learn the Latin tongue (Wheatley, Poems vi).

Surely Wheatley's exposure to literacy among her native people played a role in how quickly she mastered English and later Latin. Considering the presence of Islam in West Africa at that time, it is reasonable to believe that she tried to write something in Arabic on the wall in the Wheat-leys' home. By the middle of the twelfth century, Africans in the Senegambian region had adopted Islam (Gamble 70). Children as young as six or seven were taught to memorize passages from the Quran and received instruction in letters. The Surahs served as their primer. Like her Gambian contemporary Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (also known as Job ben Solomon), Wheatley came of age understanding the importance of literacy. (1) But before the introduction of Islam and Arabic, many West Africans had already developed their own systems of writing. As David Dalby's studies of these African scripts demonstrate, the Wolof (the ethnic group to whom many scholars believe Wheatley belonged) had used their own signs to express themselves--much like their Mende, Fula, Yoruba, Bundu, Vai, Kpelle, and Bassa neighbors. …

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