Divine Quiet: Phillis Wheatley’s Gentle Mastery of Meter, Genre, and Address
As far as we know, in the late eighteenth century, there was only one woman who survived the Middle Passage, was renamed after the slave ship that bore her and the Boston master that bought her, and saw to the publication of her book of poems during a trip to London about twelve years later. The name now belonging to Phillis Wheatley would live long after each of its original owners. But Wheatley's poems have often been disowned by literary critics due to one glaring omission: only a handful of her lines reference her experience of enslavement. In fact, Wheatley's adherence to neoclassical heroic couplets, the Puritan funeral elegy, and the conventions of occasional address have long been the subject of fierce debate: why didn't Wheatley free herself from her enslavers' poetic forms? "Divine Quiet: Phillis Wheatley's Gentle Mastery of Meter, Genre, and Address" seeks to change the questions we ask about both Wheatley and African American poetics generally. It does so by reading Wheatley's rigorous preservation of the poetic conventions of a century that institutionalized slavery as a mode of address to future readers who are compelled to supply what is unspoken in her poems.
For many critics of African American literature, Wheatley functions hermeneutically, as the limitations gauged in her work are used to revitalize methods of interpretation in the field at large. My first chapter argues that Wheatley's engagement with forms of constraint is also a site of connection and becomes the dialect of a shared language with various African American artists, critics, and poets. While many of Wheatley's modern critics view her imitation of Alexander Pope with disdain, my second chapter demonstrates that Wheatley was not the only eighteenth-century woman poet to risk censure to transport Pope's poetic laurels to different shores. My third chapter inscribes Wheatley's elegiac instruction in spiritual calm within a tradition of works that mourn her own life, in which Wheatley's performance of silenced mourning and her elegiac address to deceased subjects who cannot speak creates the obligation of divine response. In my final chapter, Wheatley's unfinished correspondence with Obour Tanner empowers black diasporic longing and hails future readers to mend broken lines of correspondence. Concluding this dissertation with works by future African American poets who mourn those who could not tell their own stories is one way of telling Wheatley's.