- Expanding Circles of Influence: Wheatley and Dissent
Paula Loscocco’s Phillis Wheatley’s Miltonic Poetics and Tessa White-house’s The Textual Culture of English Protestant Dissent 1720–1800 examine how eminent members of certain marginalized communities in eighteenth-century Britain and British North America worked largely through the processes of textual circulation to transcend social stigmatization and establish a secure place within dominant currents of period English culture. Loscocco recognizes Phillis Wheatley as the African American “founding mother” of an emergent Anglo-American culture who assumed the persona of a Miltonic bard to sing her vision of an “American republic comprised of Britons, Africans, and Native Americans, including women” (7). Whitehouse focuses on a group of dissenting ministers, primarily Philip Doddridge and Isaac Watts, who through the dissemination of a wide variety of manuscript and print material established themselves as “authors” of a unique dissenting tradition that at the same time was “influenced by and could participate in the polite world of letters” (9). Both studies cast new and needed light on the significance of religious education in shaping transatlantic long-eighteenth-century textual networks, as well as on the considerable interculturality of those networks—between dissenters, Anglicans, and Methodists in Whitehouse’s book, and between African Americans, Articles-- Americans, and Britons in Loscocco’s.
The chief argument of Wheatley’s Miltonic Poetics is that Wheatley had John Milton—and specifically Milton’s Poems . . . Both English and Latin (1645)—almost exclusively in view as she composed her own Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) and readied them for publication. According to Loscocco, Wheatley also modeled her authorial persona on Milton, for she “understood herself to stand in relation to her emerging Anglo-American culture in 1773 as Milton did to the nascent English republic in 1645” (10). “Like Milton,” Loscocco contends, Wheatley “saw herself not as a derivative or muffled victim, but as a powerful presence and voice” laboring toward a common “discursive community whose inclusive nature makes it potentially available to a mix of speakers” (25, 35). Loscocco’s Wheatley was a deep miner of Milton’s works who turned to his inaugural miscellany as her structural and thematic model. Wheatley’s 1773 Poems can therefore be read as “a self-contained whole with a single metapoetic narrative” based on a progressive pattern that Loscocco discerns (via Stella Revard) in Milton’s 1645 Poems (8). After a helpful introductory chapter that moves to reverse the “disinclination” among some critics in postcolonial studies and in American and African American literature “to situate provincial or Anglo-American writers” within “metropolitan British culture” (3), Wheatley’s Miltonic Poetics proceeds through that five-part pattern: the poet first asserts vatic authority, then articulates a sublime poetics, bears witness to cultural trauma and consoles its victims, and finally envisions a community “committed to her [End Page 443] poetry’s animating principle of the inalienable freedom of inspired consciousness defiant of external coercion” (127). For each of the pieces in Wheatley’s Poems (including the frontispiece!) Loscocco locates a Miltonic precedent: for instance, the poems from “On Virtue” through the Whitefield elegy draw on “Lycidas” and Comus; and those from “Goliath” to “On Imagination” echo the nativity ode, “Il Penseroso,” and (oddly, given that they do not appear in the 1645 Poems) Samson Agonistes and Milton’s epics. Loscocco allots roughly equal space to these, the first two sections she discerns in Wheatley’s Poems, which receive extended treatment. But the remaining three enjoy considerably less attention—the discussion of sections 3–5 (containing close to half of the content of Poems) is limited to the book’s final seven pages—and the resultant imbalance in coverage prevents us from being fully persuaded that Wheatley’s book constitutes a “self-contained whole with a single metapoetic narrative” (8).
A stumbling block, too, is the methodology employed to identify links between Wheatley and Milton. Loscocco relies on a concept of allusion as less...