Phillis Wheatley was the
first African-American woman in America to publish a book of poems after being
taken as a slave in America by the Wheatley family, who eventually taught her
to read Latin and Greek in the late 1700s. Although most of Wheatley’s works
typically address religion and avoid issues of race, “On Being Brought
from Africa to America” is a short, but powerful, poem about slavery of
which I’m going to explore and analyse throughout this essay.
wrote the poem in Iambic Pentameter and heroic couplets are used throughout.
The rigid structure used could have been a reaction to romanticism, but
they’re also what Wheatley would have been most familiar with at the time that
was she educated.
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand (1-2)
However, it’s also suggestive of the poet’s
new way of thinking. The argument, expressed in the rhymed couplets of her
form, uses logic and a fixed rhythm that mimics the balance of her thinking and
message. The straightforward progression of iambic lines, the end rhymes and
the clear, rational thinking are classic neo-classicism, implying that the form
is the message, and Wheatley’s message is that she was saved by being brought
to and educated in a new country.
are used within the first line to add emphasise to the lexis ‘Pagan’ (1), highlighting to the audience
it’s importance. Italicizing this suggests that the speaker wants to stress
that she came from a Godless country. As Religion is a dominant theme within
the poem, shown by the semantic field of religious language within the first
two lines, ‘mercy’, ‘Pagan’ and ‘soul’ (1-2), Wheatley wants the reader to
wants focus on her movement from her old country to her new religious and
poet personifies the lexis ‘mercy’ (1) to show how she escaped the ‘Pagan land’
(1). This indicates that Wheatley is grateful for the ‘mercy’ (1) of the whites
who brought her to America and showed her kindness, yet it also could be
referring to the ‘mercy’ of God, referring to him as a ‘saviour’ (3).
poet’s gratefulness to the Americans who saved her is further highlighted when
she refers back to her past. ‘Once I redemption neither sought nor knew’ (4),
this suggests that Wheatley lost herself, lost hope and saw no possibility of
being saved, only emphasising how thankful she is now to live the life she does
in a time where all the odds were against her.
creates a tension between Africa and America, portraying Africa as wicked, Pagan,
and black, stereotypically, while America as good, Christian, and white. This
dichotomy continues throughout the rest of the poem, for example, the phrase
‘benighted soul’ (2) implies that before she was taken to America, her soul was
dark and unsaved. Although it could also be a literal darkness, as in a black,
African soul, representative of the colour of her skin. This duality in
language used by Wheatley embodies the paradox of the poem. Sometimes it
appears like she’s degrading and looking down on her race down, and sometimes,
those images of darkness are meant to be read as a religious, moral, and
conflicting nature of the poem is noted again in the second stanza,
particularly the line ‘Some view our sable race with scornful eye’ (5). The
lexis ‘sable’ (5) reinforces the idea of a darkness that is bad and unholy, an
extension of the Pagan land where slaves were coming from, yet It can also be
interpreted as the literal darkness of an Africans skin, but doesn’t have negative
connotations. Sable furs were valuable, so arguably, could be referring to ‘our
sable race’ as something precious and cherished. Either way, this couplet is
where the poet shows us her ideas about herself through the perspective of
society, ‘”Their colour is a diabolic die”‘(6), the speech marks
showing that this was a common opinion of slaves across America.
is used throughout the poem to convey the speaker’s passion. Not only has
‘mercy’ (1) taught the speaker ‘that there’s a God,’ (3) but also that God is a
‘Saviour’ (3), employing a sense of excitement from the persona.
7 and 8 of the poem are seen to bring a close to her argument. The use of the
imperative, ‘Remember’ (7) suggests that she’s trying to teach her audience a
lesson, raising awareness of slavery and equality and teaching readers not to
give up hope. The speaker’s tone is authoritative, as if addressing an audience
who don’t believe what the speaker believes. The last line of the poem refers
to the speaker’s spiritual awakening. Just as mercy enlightened the speaker
earlier in the poem, all ‘Christians’ (7), including ‘Negroes’ (7), can be
‘refin’d and join th’ angelic train’ (8) implying that God’s saving grace
reaches out to all Christians, reminding them not to give up hope. Wheatley
uses a metaphor to liken
this ‘angelic train’ (8) with Heaven.
Wheatley has written a piece weighted with racial tensions in America during
the eighteenth century, with phrases such as ‘sable race’ (6) and ‘diabolic
die’ (7) to highlight the type of discrimination and feelings towards black
people at the time. However, with the use of metaphors, personification and the
religious language throughout, the poet reminds readers that we can all be
saved one day in the same way that she was.