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Phillis Wheatley and the Romantics

John C. Shields

Publication Year: 2010

 “This book very conclusively debunks the over two-hundred-year-old conventional wisdom that Wheatley owes her poetic sensibilities to Alexander Pope. . . . It will help rejuvenate the study of Wheatley and will be an exciting contribution to scholarly discourse on Wheatley’s poetry.” —Cedrick May, author of Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760–1835

Phillis Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book. Born in Gambia in 1753, she came to America aboard a slave ship, the Phillis. From an early age, Wheatley exhibited a profound gift for verse, publishing her first poem in 1767. Her tribute to a famed pastor, “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield,” followed in 1770, catapulting her into the international spotlight, and publication of her 1773 Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral in London created her an international star.

Despite the attention she received at the time, history has not been kind to Wheatley. Her work has long been neglected or denigrated by literary critics and historians. John C. Shields, a scholar of early American literature, has tried to help change this perception, and Wheatley has begun to take her place among the elite of American writers.

In Phillis Wheatley and the Romantic Age, Shields contends that Wheatley was not only a brilliant writer but one whose work made a significant impression on renowned Europeans of the Romantic age, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who borrowed liberally from her works, particularly in his famous distinction between fancy and imagination. Shields shows how certain Wheatley texts, particularly her “Long Poem,” consisting of “On Recollection,” “Thoughts on the Works of Providence,” and “On Imagination,” helped shape the face of Romanticism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Phillis Wheatley and the Romantic Age helps demolish the long-held notion that literary culture flowed in only one direction: from Europe to the Americas. Thanks to Wheatley’s influence, Shields argues, the New World was influencing European literary masters far sooner than has been generally understood.

John C. Shields is the editor of The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley and the author of The American Aeneas: Classical Origins of the American Self (named by Choice as an Outstanding Academic Book and awarded honorable mention in competition for the American Comparative Literature Association’s HARRY LEVIN PRIZE) and of Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation. He is Distinguished Professor of English and director of the Center for Classicism in American Culture at Illinois State University.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

This monograph extends the argument of Phillis Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts, which holds that Wheatley is a largely misunderstood yet brilliant author. The objective of this and the earlier text is to ascertain the value of Wheatley’s works, along with their multi-layered meanings. Surprisingly, a productive and provocative...

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pp. xi-xii

I have been toying for several years with the idea that Wheatley’s imagination poetics crossed to the other side of the Pond. Luckily, I have found the time to record this phenomenon. One always serious and informed advisor has been Scot Danforth, director of the University of Tennessee...

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Chapter 1. Before Wheatley: The Imagination from Plato to Bruno

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pp. 1-18

The date was February 17, 1600. The place, Rome. As the flames climbed toward Giordano Bruno’s defiant frame, the Inquisition had at least to concede that seven years of attempts to coerce the accused’s confession...

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Chapter 2. Before Wheatley: The Imagination from Bruno to William Billings

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pp. 19-44

As our investigation of Wheatley’s pursuit of knowledge regarding her forebears’ understanding of the imaginative faculty continues, we now concentrate on how thinkers and writers whom Wheatley may have consulted and those she actually did consult analyzed...

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Chapter 3. Wheatley’s “Long Poem” and Subsequent Considerations

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pp. 45-64

Critics of the British romantics are fond of focusing attention on the so-called Long Poems of romantic authors—for example, Wordsworth’s Prelude or Keats’s Endymion. Such “Long Poems” serve as substantial expressions of what we wish to call “romantic.” As three of Wheatley’s poems, taken together, do assuredly give shape to her theoretics of the imagination...

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Chapter 4. After Wheatley: In England, France, and Germany, Excluding Kant

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pp. 65-84

Having brought forward a formidable account of Phillis Wheatley’s numerous romantic characteristics, perhaps now we have gained new insight into what it was that appealed to such persons as Thomas Clarkson and Gilbert Imlay in the English-speaking world and Johann Blumenbach...

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Chapter 5. Kant and Wheatley

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pp. 85-96

With so much to-do in Germany attending Wheatley’s poetry, it becomes possible that even an unlikely person such as Immanuel Kant may have come across either her name or her poems. I have, since the days of my dissertation, been fascinated by the numerous proximations...

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Chapter 6. Wheatley and Coleridge

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pp. 97-114

When Wheatley subordinated fancy to imagination, she broke the rules of aesthetic decorum. But as James Engell points out, Dugald Stewart is the one who receives the credit for this sort of separation between fancy and imagination, as described in Stewart’s 1792...

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Concluding Remarks: Is Wheatley the Progenetrix of Romanticism?

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pp. 115-120

Among the many male authors Coleridge cites numbers Giordano Bruno, with whose martyrdom this monograph opened. Coleridge is impressed enough by Bruno, perhaps as much by his martyrdom as by what he has to say...

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Postscript: What Remains to Be Done

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pp. 121-122

I should like to state that this text merely opens the door to possibilities regarding Wheatley studies abroad; as well, this monograph signals the need for new approaches to Early American Studies in general. For example, someone with great energy and a highly motivated appreciation...


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pp. 123-124

Works Cited and Consulted

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pp. 125-136


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pp. 137-140

E-ISBN-13: 9781572337121
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572337053

Page Count: 152
Publication Year: 2010