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  • "All beautiful in woe":Gender, Nation, and Phillis Wheatley's "Niobe"
  • Jennifer Thorn (bio)

The Scotsman John Gabriel Stedman's praise of Phillis Wheatley, in his 1796 History of a Five Years Expedition, exemplifies the association of Latin with poetry, and both with full humanity, that has persistently framed the reception of Phillis Wheatley's classically-inflected poetry. Having discussed, in successive preceding paragraphs, "the Languages of the African Negroes" and their singing, "like that of some birds, melodious but without Time," Stedman turns to Wheatley. Race seems to trump all other possible measures of identity as he makes his transition from Surinamean "Black People" to the Bostonian Wheatley: "these People are not Divested of a Good Ear, and Even of Poetical Genius, . . . when they have had the Advan[ta]ge of Education," the paragraph begins. Wheatley is proof: "a black Girl Call'd Phillis Wheatley who was a Slave at Boston in New England . . . even learn'd the Latin Language And Wrote 39 Elegant Pieces of Poetry on different Subjects, which were Published in 1773."1 Tellingly, Stedman's examples of "Blackness" are all slaves, even as some are implicitly more fully human than others. Surinamean slaves, representing "uncivilized" blackness, evince a pleasing but animalistic musicality in the ways they speak and sing; Wheatley, as "civilized" blackness, evinces full humanity in the ways she reads Latin and writes "Elegant" poetry. [End Page 233]

Stedman's elevation of Wheatley's Latin against Surinamean singing would seem to serve ably as additional evidence for Henry Louis Gates's influential argument that the Enlightenment valorization of literacy as a crucial marker of civilization undergirded European denigration of Africans as uncivilized and fit for domination.2 But to read Wheatley's epyllion "Niobe in Distress for her Children, Slain by Apollo" in the context of the differences between British and American attitudes toward Latin poetry at the time of the poem's composition is to be made less comfortable with the view that the classical allusions in Wheatley's poetry figured unambiguously and simply as beneficial, as proof of the intelligence and humanity of Africans. That Wheatley pursued, with "Niobe," elevation-by-association is made evident in the poem's full title, "NIOBE in Distress for her children slain by APOLLO, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VI, and from a view of the Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson." To date, the poem has not been read in relation either to Ovid's "Niobe" in the form in which Wheatley would have been most likely to have encountered it, the 1719 compilation edited by Samuel Garth, or to the Welsh Wilson's 1760 The Destruction of Niobe's Children, which made his career. In the belief that this context illuminates the poem, as the poem also illuminates this context, I attempt such a reading here.

Even as Wheatley's lengthy title seems to court approval as a humble imitator, her subtle rendition of "Niobe" marks her as a bold innovator. Though, as I hope to show here, eighteenth-century America and Britain differed markedly in their estimation of the relation of the classics to national well-being, the measure of value for both was the classics' putative effects on young men–their utility, or lack thereof, in instilling ideal masculinities intimately related to national self-definition. This context makes significant Wheatley's selection of Ovid and "Niobe," a tale of female rivalry in which fecundity is imagined as a measure of female claim to divinity and devotion. Wheatley's rendition of the tale emphasizes its moral, an approach that aligns her with America's often moralizing response to the classics. At the same time, the moral that she finds differs starkly from the prevalent early American assumption that the classics instilled effeminacy and immoral ambition in the young.

Wheatley's relation to her English readership is similarly complex. Having failed to find an American publisher, Wheatley adapted the original manuscript of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in pursuit of London publication; this goal prompted the addition of the volume's several classically-inflected poems.3 Less fully discussed to date are the ways in which Wheatley negotiated the competing claims of Britain...


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