Phyllis Wheatley Poetry and African-American Print Culture Term Paper

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African-American Literature:

A Comparison of Two Poems by Phillis Wheatley

In times of hardship, a community often finds a voice through which it can express its torment and its hopes. This can range from expressions of culture through storytelling to the incitement of a movement. The Black community, for instance, has always endured a unique hardship, especially in the United States. For this reason, it has adopted many kinds of means of expression. One of the earliest pioneers of the African-American 'voice' was Phillis Wheatley. Along with a few other early African-American authors, Wheatley helped establish the earliest Black print presence in the United States in a time reserved only for those privileged. This paper will analyze two Wheatley poems, both focusing on the death of Reverend George Whitefield, in order to better understand Wheatley's role during this time in American history.

An Elegiac Poem and On the Death of Mr. Whitefield

The two poems to be presented here will analyze various printed and visual aspects. These poems, entitled "An Elegiac Poem" and "On the Death of Mr. Whitefield" focus on the death of George Whitefield, a reverend. Though this subject is the same in both poems, the first poem offers different ornamentation to the audience, as well as paratexts, various differences in formatting and lastly, varied typography. This latter aspect, then, is different from that in the next poem, which is much more simply presented.

Prior to undertaking the comparison of the two poems, it is important to understand the conditions involved in Wheatley's life, conditions that affected her writing. During the 1700's and early 1800's, the Black community was not able to partake in any of the White successes of the newly freed America. Thus, Wheatley began to write on religion, and was sponsored by religious people, or evangelicals. This was a practical answer on Wheatley's part, to her inability to have her (own) African-American voice. Because Black people were not free, the subjects on which they wrote had to be chosen tactfully as well.

It is for this reason that the two poems not only deal with a religious subject, but their images, paratexts, and even structure mirrors that of verses heard in the Church or found in the Bible. The picture presented in the first poem, for instance, is that of a reclining man, under who lays a coffin. One can thus assume, from this man's frozen features and stiff, unnatural position that he is dead. This, then, must be Mr. George Whitefield. The picture sets the tone for the poem, and allows Wheatley to express this subject by giving the viewer a preview of what will be discussed.

To commend and ascertain the certainty of the above fact, Wheatley's work is preceded by a dedication to Jesus Christ and the Reverend himself. The writer of this dedication states that the poem was written by "Phillis, a Servant Girl of 17 Years of Age, belonging to Mr. J. Wheatley, of Boston -- And has been but 9 Years in the Country from Africa." This statement may be the kind of statement that disrespects the writer by illuminating her status today, but it may also have been necessary back then for her acceptance as a writer, and a subsequent publication. In other words, the paratext was written to tell the audience, comprised mostly of White Americans that the reason that a Black woman wrote the poem was because she respected and knew her master, and this was the way in which she could repay him. The religious aspect, however false, provides a sense of acceptance in both poems, whether with or without pictures, and whether with or without paratexts.

Regardless of the above analysis, what is certain is that within the first few seconds of seeing the poem, an individual notices various facets that set the poems apart, which include, as mentioned above varied typography, entailing small and large capitalizations, and differences in ornamentation, which includes the image described above and such things as clear borders around and within the poem. As mentioned above, a paratext is also present, in the form of introductory material (i.e. Wheatley's "On the death…" introduction), and a succinct dedication. Lastly, varied formatting is also present in the form of a two-column break, as well as paragraph breaks.

The language utilized in the poems is also important, as it elucidates the reason why the poems were written. The practicality of striving to be published led Wheatley to be very astute indeed. For this reason, she starts the poems by extolling the exceptional abilities of the Revered, thereby probably ascertaining that the work will be published. She claims that although the 'happy Saint,' is joyous to have received the recently deceased man, those left on Earth are 'unhappy' and 'the setting Sun" shines no more for them. This is quite a statement to make, especially coming from a slave, and especially in light of the conditions that these people usually lived in.

Whitefield is compared not only to God here, but he is king, saint and chaplain, among other descriptions, all respectable and laudable as well. Again, Wheatley is very wise in characterizing the man as such, for it allows her to command respect from her benefactors. Specifically, Wheatley commends the revered for having taught her about religion in the verses below:

"Take Him, 'my dear Americans," he said

Be your complaints in his kind bosom laid;

Take him ye Africans, he longs for you;

Impartial Saviour, is his title due;"

In these verses, Wheatley thus continues to extol the reverend, claiming a kind of equality for both American and Africans, all of whom can partake in the same religion. This particular section has a few important capitalizations. The words Americans, Africans, and Saviour are all capitalized in the first poem. The words Americans and Saviour are fully capitalized, whereas the word Africans is italicized, and only the first letter is capitalized. This is the same structure that is utilized in the second poem, yet here, the word Africans, is not italicized, and only the previous two words jump off the page as important.

The second poem's version, in stark contrast to the first, is much simpler, as seen from the short descriptions above. Though the poem is quite the same, the way in which it is presented is clearly either for a smaller audience, or for personal care. This may thus have been the version printed even for Wheatley's sake, as it only includes a small photo in the beginning of Whitefield surrounded by people, as he perhaps was when alive. This is another reason why the first poem is believed to have been written for a larger audience, for this is the kind of poem that would have been presented, perhaps, at a Black service for the man.

Another facet that is present in the first poem, and not in the second, further simplifying the ornamentation aspects found in the latter is the bookseller information. In the first version, the bookseller is identified as Ezekiel Russel, in Queen Street and John Boyles, in Marlboro Street. These names thus lead one to believe that those interested in either purchasing the Wheatley poem could go to these printers and request it. In the second version, there is no such typing.

In addition to different ornamentation and truly lack of it, save for the sole picture at the top, the second poem does not have many breaks within it either, which differs from the first, even though it has two columns as well. Thus, there is no separation of the extolment offered, and no chronology either. In the first poem, the separation of the different ideas led to the belief that the poem was more organized, and imparted information from various areas of the man's life. This former version also offered a more Biblical aspect to the poem, which mirrored Bible verses in its structure.

The second poem seems more of a train of thought, and seems a more personal account by a friend, i.e. A story. The most striking facet that differs between the two poems is the lack of a dedication in the second poem, and the simplicity of the heading: Phillis's Poem on the Death of Mr. Whitefield. Also, as mentioned above, there are fewer capitalizations, and the only words that one can see in perusing the poem are: Whitefield, Americans, That, God, Him, God, Son, Him, Americans, Him, Saviour, Countess, Whitefield, and America. These capitalized words share that ideas of a focus on Whitefield himself, without stressing those he 'helped,' i.e. The African-American population. Thus, though the subject and the language is the same, but the structure of the two poems says a lot about the audience for which they were written whereas the language, as stated in the Background section above, tells the audience more about the circumstances and influences of the writer.

This latter aspect can also signify less of a concern with what those in…[continue]

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