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Phillis Wheatley and the Sentimental Tradition

  • Annie Finch

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  • Annie Finch
    Miami University

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Although Phillis Wheatley's poetry is typical of her time in being highly rhetorical--conventional and persuasive towards public action--it also has certain contrasting, sentimental elements which do not seem to occur in other poems of the time, although they would become common in early nineteenth-century poetry. While the rhetorical tone in Wheatley's poetry correlates with themes and tropes that were common to eighteenth-century American poetry--namely public and political subjects--the sentimental tone correlates with the situations and tropes that were common in early 19th century sentimental poetry--namely death and bereavement.

Northrop Frye in "Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility" describes a late eighteenth-century alternative to the imitative kind of art, using Blake, Smart, and the graveyard poets as examples of a poetry that is concerned with "process," fragmented, and informed by free-floating emotion. Wheatley's extreme formality and conventionality suggest that her work is generally Enlightenment poetry, not poetry of sensibility: in Frye's terms, her work defines itself as product rather than process. Wheatley seems to have had an ambivalent relation to the poetic imagination per se, unlike, for example, Philip Freneau, who anticipated romanticism in his interest in Fancy and obsession with melancholy and sensitive themes. There are, however, in Wheatley's religious elegies, many moments when she allows imagination to express itself in highly sentimentalized terms; it is as if sentimentality offered her one of the only ways to blatantly exercise imaginative power.

The word "sentimentality" is so often used as a judgmental term that it will be useful to describe its meaning anew for this essay. Jacques Barzun makes a useful distinction: sensibility inspires one to action while sentimentality evokes feelings for their own sake (1). Similarly, Doyle gives sentimentality two characteristics: faith in the goodness of human nature and pleasure in emotion for its own sake (2). This distinction corresponds to the ancient distinction between rhetoric, "concerned with language designed to bring about action in the material world" and poetics, "concerned with language that existed as an object of contemplation" (Berlin 522). But whereas literature that appeals to sensibility might be classified, according to Bourgeois's definition, as a kind of privatized, internalized rhetoric because of its relation to action, sentimental literature does not correspond exactly to the other side of the ancient dichotomy: it is certainly not concerned with language as an object of contemplation. Rather, sentimentality seems to occupy a middle ground between the rhetorical and the aestheticized. Bigelow notes that the operative difference between rhetoric and poetry is that in rhetoric, emotions are always organized in the service of a central persuasive logic, while in poetry emotions take over and organize the textual structure with their own irrational or subrational structure. Sentimental literature, as I define it, escapes both of these models. Though evoking emotion is sentimentality's central aim (Janet Todd writes that "when sentimental works are accepted and in fashion, they primarily make the reader or watcher cry" (3)), sentimentality accomplishes this aim not by ignoring persuasive, publicly comprehensible rhetorical logic but by manipulating it. The violence with which people tend to discount sentimentality during periods when it is out of style may relate to its fundamental violation of the commonly accepted reason-over-emotion hierarchy. Manipulating rational power in the service of emotion is often considered a worse crime than choosing to do without rationality altogether.

The conventionalized, communal self that replaces the individualistic self-expressive artist in sentimental literature is only possible because of this public, rhetorical aspect of sentimental art. A good example of sentimental art according to this definition is Thomas Hovenden’s painting "The Last Moments of John Brown" in the De Young Museum. The picture's journalistically "realistic" historical content and hyperrealistic style give it the sense of publically comprehensible art; it is not an obviously subjective or "poetic" rendering of the scene from an unabashedly personal perspective. Nor is it a more obviously "rhetorical" history painting where a note of pathos is one small device that helps to make a larger, more "rational" public point about patriotism, heroism, or the transience of glory. Instead, in "The Last Moments of John Brown" the conventions of objective representation, which a typical viewer will tend to trust at first glance as representations of something true--an unobtrusive and uniform painting style, a sense of interrupted action conveyed by candid poses, the general sense of accuracy enforced by mundane details--are all exploited in the mere service of an emotional goal. The painting's purpose is not primarily to educate or even to elevate in the tragic sense. It exists only to move the viewer emotionally.

Sentimental art seems to presuppose a public community of viewers who will feel what the artist has intended them to feel. The presumption that they will react as planned is probably a major reason that contemporary viewers typically dislike sentimental art. The fear of being violated, of being known so intimately by an artist that one can be too obviously manipulated (not in the subtle, secret way of high art, but in a way that is embarrassingly evident to any other person), ties in with the fears of intimacy and dependence one can find in American culture generally.

Phillis Wheatley's sentimental poetry was ahead of its time. Although there were many sentimental novels published during the American Enlightenment, in the sense that they evoked public, conventional, and socially sanctioned emotion as a primary goal, poems and paintings did not become sentimental in this sense until the early nineteenth century. The poems of sensibility of the Enlightenment period, as described by Frye and Todd, were concerned more with conveying the sensitivity of the poet than with evoking an emotionally appropriate reaction to the subject matter. The difference between sensibility and sentimentality in my use of the terms, between Young's "Night Thoughts" and a nineteenth-century poem about a mother's love, is this difference between a private exploration of emotion (which will ideally lead, as Todd says, to some kind of action or at least increased sensitivity) and a publicly shared reinforcement of a communal emotion (the experience of which, although it may have morally improving effects, is a sufficient end in itself). Since both paintings and poems (often read aloud until the twentieth century) are more public forms of art than novels, their lag behind novels in terms of sentimentality may result from the greater embarrassment that viewers of paintings and readers of poetry needed to overcome in order to participate in sentimental experience. Perhaps the urgency of race consciousness in several of Wheatley's poems provided her an unusually appropriate avenue for offering to share publicly her private emotion.

Certainly, most of Phillis Wheatley's poetry is generally typical of the American Enlightenment in that it is rhetorically, but not sentimentally, public. Her poems' themes are political, their mode allegorical, their language formal, their images classical. They appeal to public emotions--patriotism, love of a great cultural tradition, emulation of public figures--rather than to communally shared private emotions. They certainly contain very little evidence of "sensibility," of sensitivity cultivated for its own sake. Yet, in Wheatley's elegies particularly, there are strains of an emerging sentimentality, a feeling in tune with an age that translated "a growing distrust of reason and rational persuasion into a wishful faith in an irresistible discourse of feelings" (Fliegelman 17).

Arthur P. Davis points out that race consciousness is the most pervasive personal element in Wheatley's poetry. When Wheatley refers to herself she allegorizes herself; she does not dwell on her own personal feelings but rather on the poignancy of her role as a black poet trying to be heard:

Mneme, begin. Inspire, ye sacred Nine,
Your ven'trous Afric, in her grand design.
 --"To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor"

Nor canst thou, Oliver, assent refuse
To heav'nly tidings from the Afric Muse.
 -"On Recollection"

Wheatley's use of her race for its poetic connotations has a sentimental cast: like a nineteenth century woman writing a poem explicitly in her capacity as a mother, Wheatley allegorizes herself and her public role for emotional purposes. The device adds a completely different feeling to the poems in which it appears than do Wheatley's other, purely rhetorical, allegorical figures. But this increased feeling is not a result of the poet's sensibility; she has not brought herself into the poem in order to convey her emotions or poeticize her internal experience. Rather, she has sentimentalized herself as an object, from the public position of an outsider like the reader. Such a poetic focus on external images rather than on a centralized subjectivity is one of the key characteristics that distinguishes sentimental poetry from the poetry of sensibility.

Wheatley's conventional allegorical figures themselves are often sentimentalized. Emotionally vulnerable and dramatically expressive, some seem as if they could have come straight out of an eighteenth-century novel of seduction:

The hapless Muse her loss in Cooper mourns,
And as she sits, she writes and weeps by turns;
A Friend sincere, whose mild indulgent grace
Encourag'd oft, and oft approv'd her lays.

John Shields points out that Wheatley expanded the conventional, formal invocation to the muse typical of eighteenth-century poetry into a longer, prayerlike address that combined classical and Christian elements (102). By giving internal feelings to the muse as she does here, Wheatley changes the conventional Muse even more radically. A humanized, sentimental Muse occurs again at the end of "To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor," where the poet asks the governor to "Forgive the Muse, forgive the adventurous lays, / that fain thy soul to heavenly scenes would raise." In "To a Clergyman, On the Death of His Lady," the Muse becomes almost a motherly figure. The conflation of the Muse's attributes with those of the increasingly idealized eighteenth-century woman becomes obvious when Wheatley writes:

Now sorrow is incumbent on thy heart,
Permit the Muse a cordial to impart;
Who can to thee their tenderest tears refuse?
To dry thy tears, how longs the heavenly muse!

In all of these instances, the figure of the muse can be read both as a humanized allegorical figure and as a stand-in for Wheatley herself, which might be sufficient explanation for its sentimental quality. But Wheatley's tendency to sentimentalize mythic figures is also apparent when she describes other allegorical figures with whom she has no identification.

Even the enemy Brittania in the very political poem "To His Excellency General Washington" is endowed with sentimental human emotions of sadness and contrition:

Anon Brittania droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

In the long poem "Niobe In Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo," Wheatley makes it clear at the beginning that the central aim of her poem is to convey the emotionally moving picture of Niobe at the moment of most intense pathos:

Muse! lend thine aid, nor let me sue in vain,
Though last and meanest of the rhyming train.
Oh! Guide my pen in lofty strains to show
The Phrygian queen all beautiful in woe.

The emphasis here on a picture, a frozen moment that can be contemplated at length until the desired emotional effect is achieved, obscures the narrative movement of the poem, and sentimental emotion obscures any exemplary moral that might be communicated by the tale of Niobe's behavior and its consequences in the proper sequence.

Even death itself sometimes seems to be turned into a human figure at the expense of some of its moral force as Wheatley repeatedly addresses it (him) directly in her elegies. "To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor" begins, not with an address to the lieutenant governor, but with the line "All-conquering Death! by thy resistless power . . " Later in the poem, Wheatley advises the bereaved:

But cease thy strife with death; fond Nature cease:
He leads the virtuous to the realms of peace;
His to conduct to the immortal plains,
Where heaven's Supreme in bliss and glory reigns.

Wheatley's last published poem, "To Mr. and Mrs. ***** on the Death of Their Infant Son,” begins with the rhetorical question

O Death! Whose sceptre, trembling realms obey,
and weeping millions mourn thy savage sway;
say, shall we call thee by the name of friend,
who blasts our joys, and bids our glories end?

The very possibility that death could be considered to be a friend evokes the self-deluding hopefulness of Eliza in the sentimental novel The Coquette, while the emphasis on death's power coupled with the anthropomorphizing in both of these passages are reminiscent of Emily Dickinson's more ironic sentimentalization of death as the seducer in "Because I could not stop for Death."

By far the most common sentimental aspect of Wheatley's poetry is the evocation of the afterlife in her elegies, often accomplished through a complex visual image. In the "Elegy on the Death of Rev. George Whitefield," Wheatley addresses Whitefield: "Thy pray'rs, great Saint, and thine incessant cries / Have pierc'd the bosom of thy native skies. / Thou moon hast seen, and all the stars of light, / How he has wrestled with his God by night." The final plea is "let ev'ry heart to this bright vision rise." The emphasis on the vision of Whitefield as his final, saving legacy echoes the importance of the picture of Niobe weeping and is typical of the sentimental vignettes on which much of Wheatley's emotional effects depend. The moon and stars are evoked as witnesses, again emphasizing the visual: if others besides the poet have seen the vision, it is validated; if others have felt the emotion, in this case “the skies” whose bosom has been pierced, it is validated as well.

A shifting point of view, lending a public nature to the bereavement, occurs again and again in Wheatley's elegies. In "To a Lady on Her Husband's Death," the site of vision is first the eyes of Death himself, then in the eyes of the lady, then apparently in the eyes of the reader, and finally in the eyes of the lady again:

Grim monarch! see, deprived of vital breath,
A young physician in the dust of death . . . .
Fair mourner, there see thy loved Leonard laid . . . .
 But see the softly-stealing tears apace
Pursue each other down the mourner's face:
But cease thy tears, bid every sigh depart,
And cast the load of anguish from thine heart:
From the cold shell of his great soul arise,
and look beyond, thou native of the skies;
there fix thy view, where, fleeter than the wind,
thy Leonard mounts . . .

In this unusually moving poem, Wheatley addresses the reader directly, offering the reader the sentimental sight of the fair mourner, to whom in turn Wheatley offers the consoling sight of her husband's spirit. Here it is clear that the audience for the poem is not only the person addressed and that the best sight for the one might not be best for the other. Wheatley here seems to be entering into a communally shared emotional realm that she does not enter in the politically allegorical poems. An even more dramatically shifting point of view is evident in "Thoughts on the Works of Providence," where Wheatley speculates on how the earth looks to God: "Adored forever be the God unseen,/Which round the sun revolves this vast machine,/Though to his eye its mass a point appears."

If Wheatley describes the Christian afterlife with a complex series of sentimentalized constructions, the images of the dead themselves which populate her poems are even more unabashedly and conventionally sentimental: they act in domestic scenes allegorized that are thereby treated publicly, as if they were political events, and the spirits of the dead are described in extremely tangible terms. In "On the Death of a Young Lady of Five Years of Age" the child's parents are told to "hear in heaven's blest bowers your Nancy fair,/ and learn to imitate her language there." Nancy is described as she "looks down, and smiling, beckons you to come." Not only speech and vision but touch are different in heaven; Nancy "feels the iron hand of pain no more," and Leonard welcomes his bereaved wife to "pleasures more refined,/And better suited to the immortal mind." Later, when Leonard's wife has died herself, Wheatley describes her, in a poem addressed to her parents, as speaking from heaven:

And thus I hear her from the realms above:
"Lo this the kingdom of celestial love!
Could ye, fond parents, see our present bliss,
How soon would you each sigh, each fear dismiss . . .

This kind of tangible presentation of pictures of the dead is encapsulated in "To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor”: “There sits, illustrious Sir, thy beauteous spouse;/A gem-blazed circle beaming on her brows." Such tangible presentation marks a clear departure from elegiac convention. A typical contemporaneous elegy, "On the Death of Mrs. S —, who died within a few Days after her Marriage," by Mercy Otis Warren, for instance, has no such elements. Warren's poem compares the tragedy to the fading of a flower and mourns the fact that "the grave with open mouth destroys/Life's choicest blessings, purest joys," but it has no Wheatleyian image of the dead woman in the afterlife. "The dialogue of solace between the dead and the living is not common in the poetry of the time," writes Isani (211).

While much of Wheatley's sentimentality, like that of most of her contemporaries, is closely linked to her religious beliefs, religiosity is not the only factor in Wheatley's sentimentality. Her ambivalent attitude towards the poetic imagination also channels much of her poetic energy towards the sentimental. The importance of Wheatley's ambivalence towards imaginative power is clear when her "On Imagination" is contrasted with Philip Freneau's more conventional view of imagination in "The Power of Fancy." Freneau's Fancy carries him wherever he likes, showing him things all over the world, but stopping at his command--"Fancy, stop, and rove no more." She is so cooperative that he exclaims near the end of the poem, "Fancy, to thy power I owe / Half my happiness below." Wheatley's poem, on the other hand, emphasizes the pure power of imagination with its possibly problematic aspects instead of its ability to bring her happiness. Her poem begins, "Thy various works, imperial queen, we see . . .Thy wondrous acts in beauteous order stand, / and all attest how potent is thy hand." Imagination's potency is stressed while the possibly ambiguous nature of the "various acts" is not clarified. The association of imagination with captivity several lines later continues the ambivalent picture of imagination:

Now here, how there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some loved object strikes her wand'ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.

In the third stanza, Wheatley writes that in Fancy "the frozen deeps may burst their iron bands"; but for her, the power that can free can also captivate. Rather than the kind of handmaid that she is for Freneau, Fancy for Wheatley is "the leader of the mental train": "Of subject-passions sov'reign ruler Thou; at thy command joy rushes on the heart . . ." At the end of the poem, when Wheatley feels that she must leave "the pleasing views" Fancy could provide because "Winter austere forbids me to aspire," a reader could easily be left with the feeling that this sad ending is yet another trick on the part of the all-powerful poetic imagination. A similar sense of the poet's lack of control over the poetic powers she has invoked occurs at the end of "Hymn to the Morning," where after praising and abetting the arrival of dawn ("Ye shady groves, your verdant bloom display,/To shield your poet from the light of day: / Calliope, awake the sacred lyre . . ."), the poem abruptly concludes:

See in the east, the illustrius king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away --
But oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes the abortive song.

The third-person verb form in the last line deprives the poet even of the power of concluding her own song. Wheatley's only poem explicitly about art, "To S.M., a Young African Painter," also ends on a depressive note: "Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night / Now seals the fair creation from my sight."

By contrast, Wheatley's sentimentalized elegies never end with such self-consciousness and letdown. Some representative last lines from her elegies are "And to your God immortal anthems raise" ("To a Lady and Her Children"); "Converse with heaven, and taste the promised joy" (To the Hon. T.H., Esq."); "in pleasures without measure, without end" ("A Funeral Poem"). In all the elegies, the dead converse freely in heaven, without boundaries, self-consciousness, or end. This offers a possible explanation of why Wheatley modified the elegiac form to include dialogues between the dead and the living. Justified and supported by the power of religion, Wheatley in her elegies allows her imagination to run wild in sentimentalized pictures and reports of the afterlife; sharing beliefs with the communal audience of the bereaved, she is free to manipulate their emotions through the rhetorical use of sentimental images and conceits. The loss of the personal self that occurs in the process of producing and consuming sentimental art is captured in this line from "To a Lady, on the Death of Three Relations": "Lost in our woe for thee, blest shade, we mourn." The personal poet is lost, as is the personal reader, in the publicly shared emotional experience.

There is only one point in Wheatley's poetry where the poet allows herself to indulge the poetic imagination so-called, at the end of "Thoughts on the Works of Providence":

Among the mental powers a question rose,
what most the image of the Eternal shows;
When thus to reason (so let Fancy rove,)
Her great companion spoke, immortal Love:"

Love declares that she is the divine cause of all things, and Reason happily concurs, embracing Love passionately with the words, "In thee resplendent is the Godhead shown." Wheatley ends the poem, "To him whose works arrayed in mercy shine, / What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!" That such divine songs, led freely by Fancy, occur only in Wheatley's elegies except for this poem suggests that there is something particular in the embrace of Reason and Love that allows the poet to indulge her imagination at this moment. If we read reason as external (societal) acceptance and understanding and love as internal (personal) emotion, then their embrace is a concise allegorical figure for sentimentality itself as defined earlier in this essay. In this one non-sentimental narrative, Wheatley may be seen to have written a manifesto of sentimentality that explains why she wrote so much sentimentality into her elegies.

While in her political poems Wheatley is free to write about shared public and patriotic beliefs, political poetry confines her to a formalized, extrinsic subject matter expressive of reason but not necessarily of love. Her form of the elegy, however, allowed Wheatley a free imaginative rein for personal, domestic subjects that she would perhaps, as an always diffident and hesitant poetic authority who twice refers to her own "groveling mind" ("To a Lady" and "To Maecenas") have had difficulty writing about directly on the basis of her "sensibility" alone. Sentimentality gave her a socially sanctioned, publically useful way to write about private topics and inner feelings. Wheatley's poetic insecurities may have led her to prefigure the sentimentality of those nineteenth-century women poets, also poetically insecure, who made sentimentality a widespread poetic strategy.

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