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A Chain of Misattribution: Phillis Wheatley, Mary Whateley, and "An Elegy on Leaving"

From: Early American Literature
Volume 47, Number 3, 2012
pp. 679-684 | 10.1353/eal.2012.0049

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Ever since its discovery by Mukhtar Ali Isani in 1986, the poem believed to be Phillis Wheatley's last publication during her lifetime, "An Elegy on Leaving," has struck scholars as displaying an "atypical weariness and lack of hope" (Isani, "Elegy on Leaving" 611). From its opening lines, the poem evokes a scene of unwelcome departure from a pastoral haven:

FAREWEL! ye friendly bow'rs, ye streams adieu,
   I leave with sorrow each sequester'd seat:
The lawns, where oft I swept the morning dew,
   The groves, from noon-tide rays a kind retreat.

(Wheatley, Complete Writings 102-03)

John C. Shields, in his survey of Wheatley's "employ[ment] of [the] subversive pastoral," identifies it as "one of her bleakest, for she appears to bid adieu to the entire world of poetic creativity" ("Phillis Wheatley's Subversive Pastoral" 632, 646). Vincent Carretta, in his remarkable new biography of Wheatley, sees in the poem a "fittingly poignant farewell to more than just a life of seclusion" (189). Those who mark the propinquity of its publication to Wheatley's death—it was published only months before in the July 1784 issue of London's Arminian Magazine—welcome its uncharacteristic directness of pastoral sentiment; it symbolically sounds a mournful endnote for her tragically abbreviated life and work. This elegiac mood pervades most scholarly discussions of the poem, and few other substantive analyses exist. Indeed, when compelled to discuss its literary merits in his introductory essay, Isani asserts that its "importance is mainly historical" and admits that the poem "does not escape the conventions of [Wheatley's] day" ("Elegy on Leaving" 612).

The sensitivity of previous scholars to these differences in tone and quality between this poem and the rest of Wheatley's oeuvre is better explained, however, by new evidence that proves that the work is not Wheatley's after all. Rather, it is the work of English poet Mary Whateley (1738-1825), who included it as "Elegy on Leaving" in her 1764 collection Original Poems on Several Occasions (see Figure 1). Whateley was the daughter of a gentleman farmer of Beoley village in Worcestershire. Though her mother was "barely literate" and her father owned only a "parcel" of "old" books, her close friendship with the daughter of the local vicar gave her access to an Oxonian's more substantial library (Messenger 15). Moreover, the location of her village in the Midlands brought her to the attention of William Shenstone, a landscape gardener and poet known for the pastoral mode, who acted as a mentor. She also came to the attention of poet and translator John Langhorne, who wrote the prefatory poem to her first book and commended her writing in the Monthly Review. These two men introduced her to additional literary connections and assisted her in the publication of her verse. In her early twenties, she moved to Walsall in Staffordshire, where she was to "keep house for her brother Henry" (Messenger 24-25). Though she was initially reluctant to move, she grew to appreciate the town's artistic and intellectual community. After returning to Beoley for a period and publishing her book, she came back to Walsall and married a local curate, John Darwall. Marriage and motherhood slowed but did not end her literary career; a widowed Mary Whateley Darwall published a two-volume work of poetry in 1794, the similarly titled Poems on Several Occasions. According to her biographer, Ann Messenger, the undated "Elegy on Leaving" was undoubtedly composed in 1759/60 as it "obviously chronicles her feelings about having to trade [the] rural peace" of Beoley for the more populous Walsall. Messenger admires the poem, which she deems "conventionally and simply pastoral," more for its insight into Whateley's emotions than for its art (24-25, 65), an opinion that resonates with many Wheatley scholars' assessments of the mis-ascribed work. The poems themselves are identical, with the exception of occasional changes in orthography, punctuation, capitalization, and italicization.

The source of the current misattribution of Whateley's poem as Wheatley's lies in the eighteenth century. In identifying "An Elegy on Leaving" as a "New Poem by Phillis Wheatley," Isani follows the Arminian Magazine. Between February and December...



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