- Phillis Wheatley’s Miltonic Poetics by Paula Loscocco
After more than three decades of work on the part of scholars to recuperate and garner attention for the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, the reward has been an annually increasing number of studies, each one adding to an ever more complex picture of the first published African American writer. This scholarship, for good reason, has focused rather intensively on the two aspects of Wheatley’s life that had long consigned her to the shadows: her race and her gender. However, a more recent trend has been to look at Wheatley’s writing, both her poems and letters, within the larger context of the period in which she wrote, pre-Revolutionary America, thereby expanding our understanding of the possible influences on her work. More recently, the aesthetic turn in criticism has led to a broader interest in examining her poems through this lens as well. Paula Loscocco’s Phillis Wheatley’s Miltonic Poetics is a thoughtful and well-argued addition to this growing body of criticism, considering both the historical and cultural moment in which Wheatley wrote as well as the poems’ structures, imagery, and allusions, specifically as an engagement with the poetry of John Milton.
While critics have traced various influences on Wheatley’s poetry—classicist, neoclassicist, and biblical, to name a few—Loscocco observes in her introduction that until 2014, there were no essays specifically examining the Wheatley-Milton connection, despite some rather obvious parallels. For example, just as Wheatley was writing in the tumultuous world of pre-Revolutionary America, Milton was writing during the English Civil Wars of the early seventeenth century. Countering a tradition of criticism that has not only ignored Milton’s influence but even rejected it, Loscocco provides convincing evidence for the likelihood of direct inspiration based on Wheatley’s access to Milton’s works as well as Milton’s influence on early American writing more broadly, especially in the Revolutionary period. Loscocco points to gaps in the work of prior critics, who have left out writers of color and women writers when discussing British literary influences or who have rejected a too-great emphasis on British influences outright, while she also acknowledges contemporary revisionist histories that have informed her own work.
In addition to establishing Wheatley’s Miltonic connection, however, Loscocco’s study makes a strong case for considering Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) not only as a carefully constructed unit—as opposed to a volume containing several discrete units—but also as specifically modeled on the miscellany form of Milton’s first book, Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin (1645). This [End Page 269] strategy allows Loscocco to identify “five major poetic groupings that structure [Wheatley’s] volume,” which in turn inform Loscocco’s chapter divisions: poems of “ministerial authority,” poems that explore “a poetics of the imaginative and fanciful sublime,” poems about the “traumas of historical and geographical experience,” poems that respond to “the pain and sorrow of transatlantic trauma and loss,” and finally, poems that imagine “an ideal vision of an inspired Anglo-America” (pp. 8-9).
After carefully laying this groundwork in the first chapter, Loscocco begins her analysis of the 1773 volume with Wheatley’s prefatory material and first major group of poems, arguing that from the start, the poet created parallels to her predecessor both in imagery and in verse. “To Maecenas” is the meeting ground for a carefully crafted interplay of images and allusions based on Milton’s “Il Penseroso” and “Lycidas” (both included in his 1645 Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin), while the engraving of Milton that accompanied “Il Penseroso” in the 1761 edition becomes a reference point for Wheatley’s own frontispiece portrait. According to Loscocco, “Lycidas” is the Miltonic touchstone for the first grouping of Wheatley’s poems, exploring in increasingly personal ways what Loscocco describes as “the interrelationship of elegiac consolation and public discourse at a time of national reformation” (p. 45).
Loscocco provides detailed and informed...