For a slave to write about slavery might be expected, but in using imagery of the slave trade as an overarching metaphor across her poems on death, Phillis Wheatley sets herself apart. Metaphor places both her journey to America and humanity’s transition to the afterlife in the context of slaves reaching liberation. Wheatley draws from an intimate connection with her subject matter, having been forced abroad from Africa to America herself, and infuses her poetry with a heavy Christian verve. Death may steer a slave ship in Wheatley’s narratives, but his passengers inevitably find freedom through Christianity, whether on a literal boat or a flight to heaven.
Wheatley likens earthly life to the shore of Africa, depicting humanity as a crowd of inevitable victims. In the eulogy “To the Honourable T. H. Esq.: on the Death of his Daughter,” she refers to the departed’s family as “[h]er dear-lov’d parents on earth’s dusky shore” (15-16). By choosing to describe Earth as “dusky,” Wheatley connects this image to her descriptions of Africa, the land of her “sable race” (“On Being Brought from Africa to America,” 5) and of “dark abodes” (“To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” 6) Just as few die by their own volition, few would willingly place themselves in servitude. Death, like a slave ship leading passengers into distant captivity, forces people off of this shore and into the afterlife. Wheatley maligns in “To a Gentleman and Lady on the Death of the Lady’s Brother and Sister, and a Child of the Name of Avis, aged one Year” that “Death reigns tyrant o’er this mortal shore” (18), and in calling Death’s destination for humans “the port of happiness,” she gives the afterlife a place nearly as concrete as the coast of America (“On the Death of J. C. an Infant,” 38-39).
Death leads passage from life’s seeming contentment to the afterlife’s glory, but is also conceived as a cruel and careless pilot. The typical personification of Death kills with a scythe, but the people of this world fear “his dire dart” (“To a Lady on the Death of her Husband,” 9). This Death tranquilizes victims rather than slicing them apart, which is only logical when one approaches these poems through a lens of the transatlantic slave trade — a trader hunting for potential slaves would want the property intact. No apparent mercy lies behind its motives; the poet, upon seeing the dead in Death’s “drear abode” (“Avis,” 3), remarks, “Whole nations in his gloomy den are thrust… Insatiate still he gluts the ample tomb” (7-9). Wheatley gives readers the sense that Death claims bodies out of greed by comparing its victims’ numbers to nations and dubbing their new ruler “insatiate.” Similarly, slave traders, motivated by profit, might be said to “glut” America with slaves. The idea of Death bringing an “iron hand of pain” to the departed further resonates with Wheatley’s assemblage of metaphors (“On the Death of a young Lady of Five Years of Age,” 6) thanks to popular depiction of captives with their hands and ankles bound in chains or cuffs of iron. She evokes this image in a different context of slavery through “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” in which she proclaims, “No longer shalt [America] dread the iron chain,/Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand/Hath made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land” (17-19).
Though it is tempting to call America Wheatley’s “heaven on earth,” one might also claim that the true place of freedom, within both Wheatley’s eulogies and her poems which address slavery more directly, lies within Christianity. Wheatley and her many Christian contemporaries saw their ascension to heaven as a very real possibility. All of her eulogies comfort mourners with the assurance that their loved ones have found a better place. “Resign thy friends to that Almighty hand/Which gave them life,” she exhorts in “Avis” (21-22), for “methinks I hear her in the realms above… [S]eek beatitude beyond the skies” (29-34). By establishing the presence of the Almighty and “blest mansions in eternal day” in such a way, she makes earnest testament to faith (“On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell,” 8). This takes religion past metaphor and directly into her discussion of slavery, as seen in “Cambridge” via its bridging of a slave ship narrative and firm religious belief. She declares, “‘Twas not long since I left my native shore… Father of mercy, ‘twas thy gracious hand/Brought me in safety…” (3-6) Notably, Wheatley heralds not the glories of America or of Africa, nor of any people or peoples, but of God, thanking only His “gracious hand.” At the same time, because of colonial America’s overwhelmingly-Christian population and plentiful churches, Wheatley would have found many more inlets to Christianity through the slave trade. In this way, traveling to America, in her poetry, brings slaves greater knowledge of God while not necessarily bringing themselves closer, in a spatial sense, to God. After all, if Wheatley’s idea of heaven must remain the “blissful shore” separate from “life’s tempestuous sea,” it follows that a nation of the living could not equal heaven (“On the Death of a young Lady” 33-34).
The highly personal conception of the voyage from life to death that Wheatley expresses in her eulogies spills over into her greater body of work. The sentiment pours into her discourse on institutional slavery and even into her more politically-charged works. If heaven grants eternal freedom, she seems to assert, then so should the leaders of our nations, and thus she implores the Earl of Dartmouth to act so that “others may never feel tyrannic sway” (“Dartmouth” 31). This is to say nothing on her penned support of such figures as George Washington, who used that much-admired banner of “freedom” to spearhead the American Revolution. Her eulogies provide readers with a way to contextualize not only her work, but her particular way of thinking within a grand transition from life to pain to afterlife, chains to freedom.
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