Phillis Wheatley and the "Miracle" of Miltonic Influence
In "Blueprint for Negro Writing," twentieth century novelist Richard Wright explains that black writers "must have in their consciousness the foreshortened picture of the whole, nourishing culture from which they were torn in Africa and of the long, complex … struggle to regain in some form and under alien conditions of life a whole culture again."1 His assessment of black writers' struggles in literary tradition points toward the Middle Passage and its linguistic terrors as a salient feature of African American writing. This assessment also brings John Milton's Paradise Lost to mind. African American writers invoke Milton's epic by contributing to a literary blueprint drafted by generations of artists in the black tradition whose writings attest to a cultural project of regaining an African paradise that was plundered by colonialist practices of enslavement. On the basis of their forced migration to the Americas and their colonized status, transplanted African writers and their African American descendants produce writings that mark colonialist civilizations as fallen and separated from God. Select writers in the early African American tradition articulate this Miltonic subtext directly in their works. Alluding [End Page 145] to, troping with, and sometimes justifying Milton as a racialized intertext of literary influence, such writers periodically signify on Paradise Lost to evoke recollections of the transatlantic slave trade that plundered an Africa that, for many, originally figured as a primordial paradise. Phillis Wheatley is a founding literary mother in this Africanist tradition of regaining paradise through speech acts of self-invention as evidenced by her numerous Miltonic engagements in Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (1773). She engages Milton in her extant poems "To a Gentleman of the Navy," which appear in two issues of the Royal American Magazine. These poems reveal Wheatley's ongoing commitment to writing in the epic tradition, a genre of sublime poetry she "neither sought nor knew" until arriving on American shores after surviving the physical traumas associated with the Middle Passage.2
The term "Middle Passage" refers to the forced migration of enslaved Africans to the New World. This horrific adventure across the Atlantic Ocean began with slave traders capturing and then transporting Africans to the New World in the darkened hulls of slave ships. Stephanie E. Smallwood regards this passage as a "setting for brutality and death, but also a locus of unparalleled displacement."3 Such a passage exceeds in scope Satan's horrific voyage through Chaos in book 2 of Paradise Lost. Wheatley survived the physical horrors of the Middle Passage only to experience the difficulty of linguistic variation in the form of learning English as a second language in colonial Anglo-America. Her Poems, the first book published by an African American, attests, to a limited degree, to Wheatley's triumphs in overcoming the linguistic terrors of the Middle Passage. As her poems to a British Navy gentleman demonstrate, Wheatley continued her struggles to overcome these barriers by actualizing her epic ambitions in these works. These poems especially showcase Wheatley's intellectual ability to claim a home space in the epic tradition. She not only inspires and justifies a Miltonic reading of herself and her work but also implicates Milton as an intertext of the Middle Passage along routes of literary influence echoing those of the transatlantic slave trade.
Writing about the "difficult miracle of black poetry in America," June Jordan comments on the "persistence" required of Wheatley, [End Page 146] who "dared to create [herself] a poet."4 It is a persistence, she explains, where black poets resolve to produce poetry whether or not they are "published …, loved, or unloved."5 Wheatley performs this difficult miracle despite having no African American literary tradition upon which to rely. In other words, as a cultural outsider to Western traditions, she must break the barrier of writing as an Africanist Other in such a way as to be understood by audiences of white readers prone to read or evaluate her work as intellectually inferior. These social contexts give poetic voice to the linguistic terrors of the Middle Passage. Undeterred by these formidable challenges, Wheatley resorted to "testing and testifying" with the colonizing language of her oppressors toward "confirming [her] visions of life as it was and … could become."6 Writing in intertextual snippets of the epic tradition provided her a poetic outlet for testing the limits of a tradition that relegated her to outsider status as an Africanist poet of the Americas.
Wheatley's epic strivings deviate from conventional expectations. Long regarded as the loftiest genre of poetry, epic signifies intellectual heroism and literary genius. The genre also reveals a poet's formidable command of a major language and its layered intricacies of complex meaning. In "To Maecenas," the opening poem in her collection, Wheatley laments, "O could I rival thine and Virgil's page / Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage" (39–40). These lines, as I explain elsewhere, signal Wheatley's "ardent desire to occupy symbolic spaces in epic tradition."7 "Niobe in Distress" and "Goliath of Gath" also express this poetic endeavor in the abbreviated form of the epyllion. Her poems to John Prime Iron Rochfort, the British Navy gentleman referenced in the title of two of her extant works, abbreviate the form even further through a generic intertextuality marked by digressive modes of facetious indirection. Wheatley inserts herself into the epic tradition through generic markers that ultimately contribute to "a distinctly American epic intertextuality within the body of her work."8 Robert Kendrick views Wheatley's appropriations of Homer, Virgil, and Milton as "pleas for transgression" that express a "needed violation of the autonomy of the laws of genre which require other author(itie)s to authorize her work."9 She appropriates [End Page 147] snippets of epic convention in "To a Gentleman" by invoking Calliope, the chief muse of epic poetry and echoing scenes from Homer's Iliad. These generic markers, coupled with Wheatley's attention to themes of race and British fallenness, inspire the Miltonic reception that follows in Rochfort's "The Answer." "Philis' Reply" responds to the latter poem in a final act of literary rebellion that uses Milton as an intertextual route for critiquing the transatlantic slave trade.
"To a Gentleman" shows Rochfort's Miltonic reception by combining intertextual epic with an aesthetic of poetic fallenness. Danielle A. St. Hilaire describes a poetics of fallenness as a "permanent loss of a connection with God."10 Relative to Paradise Lost, she locates "the origin of Milton's epic in the creation of fallenness by that 'bad angel,'" Satan, writing that "Epic poetry in particular [constitutes] a distinctly fallen activity, not because it is somehow evil, but because the language in which poetry speaks is a product of the Fall."11 Wheatley promotes an aesthetic of fallenness by signaling her authorial position as an outsider to the very generic tradition she seeks to penetrate. Through her critiques of British imperialism and slavery, as well as her digressive rhetorical style, Wheatley's poems undo the epic tradition with cultural marks of repetitive difference that hyperbolize her literary productions as a cultural by-product of fallenness and colonialist society.
In her poem's opening lines, Wheatley petitions the "Celestial muse" of Greek poetry. She wishes to pay "sacred tribute of ingenious praise" to Rochfort and Samuel Graves, British naval officers she later recognizes as "blooming sons of Neptune's royal race" ("To a Gentleman," 1, 4). Stanza 2 praises both officers through interpoetic engagements with Homer's Iliad. Wheatley notes, "Paris, for Helen's bright resistless charms, / Made Illion bleed," then comments that this critical event "set the world in arms" (9–10). An apostrophe to Rochfort asserts, "Had you appear'd on the Achaian shore / Troy now had stood, and Helen charm'd no more." By this same logic, she conjectures that "the Phrygian hero" likewise would have "resign'd the dame / For purer joys in friendship's sacred flame" (11–14). [End Page 148]
These Homeric engagements suggest Wheatley's belief that, had her addressees served in the Trojan War, they would have changed the course of history and saved Western civilization from a fall into a tyranny of imperialism. Her Homeric and fallen reading of Western civilization distracts readers from the praise of Rochfort and Graves as "Cerulean youths" ("To a Gentleman," 33). Wheatley returns to praising both men as virtuous beings and as diplomatic extensions of the British militia by poem's end. By this point, however, Wheatley has pursued her own innovative project of "things unattempted yet in … rhyme."12 She has, in effect, produced an intertextual epic that takes the pieces of a culturally dispersed and fragmented racial existence and reforms them into a fractured poetic whole suggestive of re-creative fallenness.
Stanza 3 disrupts the narrative flow of Wheatley's poem further by critiquing Calliope as racially biased rather than continuing to praise her addressees. In the two-line stanza, Wheatley charges that Calliope proves "half gracious to [her] prayer" for divine assistance and "scatters [the other] half in [the] air" ("To a Gentleman," 17, 18). These charges of racial bias echo sentiments in "To Maecenas," where Wheatley inquires, "But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace, / To one alone of Afric's sable race" ("To Maecenas," 39–40). Levying this charge in her poem alerts Wheatley's readers to her epic ambitions, though she signals this quest in snippets and through a digressive mode.
This wayward mode of rhetorical communication echoes the existential rupture produced by the Middle Passage. Here, Wheatley ruptures the genre of epic by fragmenting its unified form. This rupture of form produces intertextual chaos for astute readers, who must, of necessity, piece together Wheatley's digressive thoughts into a coherent whole that would yield some semblance of order. Critiquing Calliope, for instance, radically alters the course of the poem's rhetorical direction. This deviation likewise generates a rhythm of discontinuity, creating an undulating sense of rhetorical movement and rhythm that tosses readers to and fro while simulating the tempestuous ebb and flow that captured slaves would have endured throughout the Middle Passage. Rhetorically, Wheatley's [End Page 149] rambling and disorienting speech acts accentuate the "heritage of rhythm" that Langston Hughes recognizes as a critical racial influence on black artists.13 Her wayward rhetorical strategy therefore produces a tempestuous rhythm that amplifies the poetics of rebellious fallenness characterizing the poem's overall form.
These tempestuous rhythms and digressive ruptures also introduce race as a feature of the Africanist presence in the poem. In Writing between the Lines: Race and Intertextuality, Aldon L. Nielsen recognizes race as an "intertext of American reading and American rejections of reading."14 Race, in this context, reverberates throughout colonizers' language systems, yielding a hostile linguistic terrain where perceptions and articulations of racial Otherness function as signs of negation and inferiority. Nielsen further comments that "within each ironic reading of American signifiers is secreted the overironized displacement of race and its multitudinous tropes."15 Race, then, is all but omnipresent in practices of reading and interpretation. Sometimes revealing but often occluding its presence, race instigates the "search through literature and art for a profound reordering and humanizing of everyday existence," occasioning an interpretive space where, according to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the "black political signified" must be rewritten according to revised hermeneutic scripts.16 Stanza 3 of Wheatley's poem highlights race through her critique of Calliope and her wayward rhetorical style. The latter feature infuses the poem with percussive resonances that Milton, in On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, maligns as "timbrelled anthems dark" of the "sable-stolèd sorcerers."17 Milton reinforces with subtlety these anthems as negative, through alliteration.
Wheatley descends to lower registers of poetic fallenness in the epic tradition by pictorializing a scene of British colonialist and racial displacement. Signaling her ongoing investment in epic storytelling, she narrates a scene that takes place "far in the space where ancient Albion keeps / Amidst the roarings of the sacred deeps" ("To a Gentleman," 19–20). Albion, an "ancient name for Britain," imbues the poem with inflections of English antiquity that complement the construction of a different type of origin story [End Page 150] entailing loss and fallenness.18 Wheatley surveys Albion's woodland countryside, then descends to the island's coastline. Ships sail to "distant lands," filling the "trembling natives" who observe the approaching British explorers with "dread." Wheatley constructs this scene of colonialist contact with the Other by describing Albion as a place
Where willing forests leave their native plain,Descend, and instant, plough the wat'ry main.Strange to relate! With canvas wings they speedTo distant worlds, of distant worlds the dread.(21–25)
Because Wheatley composed these lines at a time when Britain's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade was well underway, it is difficult to overlook this scene as pictorially re-creating the hostile encounters between colonizer and African natives that would have been familiar to the enslaved poet. John Shields argues Wheatley's poems "demand [an] interdisciplinary pluralism" that specifically "address[es] the issues that recur in her work."19 These issues include, among others, "those of [the] historical moment [and] personal biography," and certainly the "dialectic of slavery versus freedom," which Shields recognizes as permeating Wheatley's work.20 The narrative journey from Albion to distant lands where natives tremble at the sight of British explorers is but another instance of Wheatley addressing this dialectic through creative speech.
The allusion to slave trading begun with the mention of Albion's forests is chilling. The woodland timber becomes the raw material needed to construct the ships that sail on "canvas wings" to distant lands. The forest trees, their timber, and traveling ships coalesce to form a hieroglyph of interconnected signs. These loaded rhetorical signs converge, "building a line and a movement and an image and a meaning that somersaults … into the singing … [and] absolutely individual voice of the poet."21 Depicting this originating scene of British contact with the native Other deepens Wheatley's poetics of fallenness by alluding to the plundering of African paradise. Within the stanza, Wheatley acknowledges her addressees as [End Page 151] "heroes of the main" and praises them with honorific phrases like "matchless grace," "generous bosom," and "ingenuous face[s]" ("To a Gentleman," 26, 28). Readers cannot wholly trust these sentiments, however, for when considered from the trembling natives' point of view, such plaudits seem deeply ironic. Inasmuch as Wheatley praises both officers as noble extensions of Britain's naval militia, she likewise appropriates them as useful intertextual decoys. This facetious communication, in turn, brings themes of race and British imperialism to her readers' consciousness.
The simile concluding the stanza especially underscores this allusive undermining of British imperialism by characterizing that nation's quest for dominance as comparable to a tyrannical thirst for glory. Addressing the arrival of colonialist explorers, Wheatley notes that they surface "From ocean sprung, like ocean foes to rest, / [as] The thirst of glory burns each youthful breast" ("To a Gentleman," 29–30). The analogy relies on the imagery of visual kinesis that likens the thirst for tyrannical glory to the sudden emergence or disappearance of sighted objects. For example, both the sighting of an approaching ship from the horizon and the discharge of a disposed and sinking body at sea appear or disappear with imperceptible suddenness. Wheatley compares the self-serving thirst for glory to this visual phenomenon. Thus, she makes her verbal picture of British invasion and racial dominance more permeable while amplifying the resonances of poetic fallenness in her intertextual epic.
Although Vincent Caretta denies that "the slave trade has [any] place in either Rochfort's or Wheatley's depiction of Africa," Eveline C. Martin and Julian Mason, in contrast, provide historical contexts that aid readers in seeing race as an intertext embedded within the words and between the lines of the poem.22 Examining the "overseas expansion of the [British] empire," particularly in the years from 1750 to 1785, Martin explains that Britain patrolled and managed no less than eight establishments along West Africa's gold coast during this time period.23 Mason elaborates upon these findings, adding that numerous men of the Royal Navy like Graves, whom Wheatley references in the poem, "served along the coast of [End Page 152] Africa because of the trading done by the English in the Senegambia and Gold Coast areas."24 These contexts reveal race as an allusive intertext in the stanza and Wheatley's rhetorical performance of "deterritorializing signification" as she indirectly addresses issues of race and British tyranny on multiple levels.25 The nautical voyage of the British invasion to distant lands reinforces race as an intertext of Otherness in an intertextual epic poem ruptured by digressive Africanist rhythms and a critique of Calliope as racially biased toward a black poet.
Wheatley concludes the final stanza as if she never deviated from her stated goal of praising Rochfort. She invokes the muses once again, now acknowledging them as indispensable to her project of paying adequate tribute to these "blooming sons of Neptune's royal race." Because her poem supports "virtue's cause," Wheatley aspires to honor Rochfort in strains of epic ("To a Gentleman," 31, 32). Yet, she defers to Rochfort's literary promise, believing white and male poets may curry special favor among the muses of classical Western tradition. Regarding Rochfort as "virtue's offspring," she further resigns herself to the fact that only he can hope to enjoy "Celestial friendship and the muse's care" (37, 38). She, by contrast, must endure the fallen and "difficult miracle" of being a black poet in colonial Anglo-America. This office of poetry requires her to rely upon her own "prodigious aptitude" for making a way out of no way in the English language while "making herself at home" within its inhibiting literary traditions, as June Jordan rightly remarks.26 It is this sense of feigned humility that inspires Rochfort's Miltonic reception of Wheatley herself. With its lavish descriptions of Africa as a primordial Eden of instructional influence, "The Answer" channels Milton on multiple interpretive registers. Of particular note, it esteems Wheatley as superior to Sir Isaac Newton and Milton.
Like Wheatley's lead poem, "The Answer" opens with an appeal to Calliope, completing the second half of the "antiphonal pattern of call and response" that constitutes a major motif in African American literary tradition.27 Rochfort petitions the "Celestial muse" and "sublimest of the nine" with the hope she will "assist [End Page 153] [his] song" in Wheatley's honor ("The Answer," 1, 2). He seeks to "sing this great … lovely virgin's praise" (4). Additionally, his poetic desire to recognize this "lovely daughter of the Affric shore" (8) defies white beauty norms. In the age of postenlightenment, Africa connotes paganism and intellectual inferiority. Identifying Wheatley as a virginal poet of "lovely" African origins resists racial stereotypes that otherwise read her as particularly fallen and as a less than ideal poetic subject. Stanza 2 counters racial stereotypes further by paying homage to Africa and revering its shore as the geographical spot "Where every grace, and every virtue join." Rochfort depicts the African landscape as a beautifully blessed spot that "kindles friendship and makes love divine," in contrast to the ubiquitous depictions of Africa as pagan, primitive, and lost.28 This climate, he argues, endears Wheatley to the Greek muses of poetry, thereby enabling her to surpass the poetic ambitions of her contemporaries or potential rivals, who vainly strive to wear the "immortal wreathe" of a poet laureate. Such an esteemed and noble office, he explains, is "reserv'd for this angelic fair" alone (9, 10, 13, 14).
Rochfort's intertextual epic assumes its Miltonic tenor in stanzas 3 and 4, where he alludes to paradise and Milton. Stanza 3 begins by comparing Africa to Eden in poetic language that generates an image of paradise for astute Milton readers. First, he blesses Africa's "guilded shore" as "the happy land, / Where spring and autumn gently hand in hand" complement each other and provide warmth for this sunny climate ("The Answer," 15–16). Hailing the African continent proves fitting, for as Jordan explains, "the miracle [of Wheatley] begins in Africa."29 Rochfort expresses gratitude for this miraculous African influence through his praise of the sun's light and warmth, which reign "O'er shady forests that scarce know a bound, [and] / In vivid blaze alternately dance round" (17–18). His praise continues by mentioning "cancers torrid heat the soul inspires; / With strains divine and true poetic fires" (19–20). His pastoral conception Africanizes Eden, depicting the continent as a "golden age" of prelapsarian innocence where, according to Carretta, "winter never comes and sin is nowhere to be found."30 In recognizing Africa as a metaphorical paradise, Rochfort praises the [End Page 154] setting as a miracle of literary influence on Wheatley. It exists "far from the reach of Hudson's chilly bay" (21) and affords Wheatley a temperate and ideal climate conducive to comprehending nature in its most Edenic and sublime state. Its "sweet refreshing breezes …, the flow'ry path, the ever verdant lawn, / The artless grottos, and the soft retreats" are additional Edenic features that offer readers a "very romanticized pastoral image" of Africa's Gold Coast while also alluding to Milton's paradise.31
Near the middle of his 26-line stanza, Rochfort recognizes the Edenic African landscape as "At once the lover and thee muse's seats" and the place "Where nature taught, (tho' strange it is to tell,) / [Wheatley's] flowing pencil Europe to excell" ("The Answer," 26–28). Rochfort's parenthetical statement depicts Wheatley's poetic genius as a racial mystery if not an oddity. This conception accords with post-Enlightenment views of blacks as incapable of reason and writing. Rochfort contests this ideological viewpoint by regarding Africa as a preeminent bower of educational instruction. Its educational milieu, he asserts, nurtures and teaches Wheatley to cultivate the poetic gifts responsible for her transatlantic renown. John Shields similarly argues that critics must recognize the shaping significance of Wheatley's African origins as having an appreciable impact on her writings.32 Rochfort continues to support his Edenic and Miltonic view of Africa by misquoting the line from Alexander Pope's long pastoral poem, "Windsor Forest," that reads, "At once the Monarch's and the muse's seats."33 He alters that line by substituting "lover" for "Monarch's." This allusive revision strengthens his Miltonic reading of Wheatley's African genius while channeling Milton through Pope's Miltonic poem.
Pope opens Windsor Forest with an invocation to the muses, then reflects upon the woodland terrain as reminiscent of a lost paradise. His interpoetic connection to Milton surfaces when he likens the forest to "the groves of Eden," which, "vanish'd now so long, / Live in description and look green in song."34 Barbara Lewalski recognizes Milton's imprint on the poem, noting that Pope's allusive debt is "displayed throughout [Pope's] lifetime as an intelligent but never idolatrous admiration for many facets of [End Page 155] Milton's genius and works."35 Miltonic presence in "Windsor Forest" also proves significant because it "specifically invites comparison of its groves with 'the Groves of Eden' and draws upon topoi from Milton's Eden … and the pastoral landscapes of Milton's early verse to suggest that England under the Stuarts was, so far as post-lapsarian conditions permit, a new Eden, a Golden Age restored."36 Nor is Milton's imprint on Pope's poetry limited to "Windsor Forest." According to Lewalski, Milton surfaces in diverse works throughout Pope's oeuvre such as his Pastorals, translations of Homer's epics, Essay on Man, and the Dunciad. By misquoting Pope, then, Rochfort channels Milton as well, repurposing paradise as a poetic means for seeing Eden in a different interpretive light. Misquoting Windsor Forest underscores his goal of praising Africa as a prelapsarian bower of educational instruction. Africa, in this context, homeschools Wheatley into the literary genius she becomes and the miracle whose poetic accomplishments, according to Rochfort, surpass those of Newton and Milton.
Rochfort qualifies this assertion about Wheatley's poetic genius by comparing Africa's educational bower to Britain's classrooms. In his estimation, Newton and Milton rank among the most iconic products of Britain's classrooms in the arts and sciences. Before focusing on Newton and Milton as paradigms of English achievement, Rochfort touts "Britannia's glory" as having long "fill'd the skies; / Whilst other nation, tho' with envious eyes, / Have view'd her growing greatness, and the rules, / That's long been taught in her untainted schools" ("The Answer," 29–32). Newton's "immortal name … still shines the brightest on the seat of fame" (33), Rochfort states. Praising Newton as a philosophical god serves to justify his belief concerning the unrivaled preeminence of British classrooms.
He justifies this claim further and to Miltonic effect in stanza 4. Milton, whom Rochfort reveres as "nature's bard" ("The Answer," 41), produces a quality of poetry that enriches civilization through an artistic "genius that's but very rare" (43). A catalog of scenic snippets from Paradise Lost reinforces this high praise for Milton. Extolling, among other scenes, Milton's "pristine state of paradise" [End Page 156] (42) and that of "the first the only happy pair / That in terrestrial mansions ever reign'd" (44–45), Rochfort praises the poet, who viewed "hap[p]ines now lost, and now regain'd" (46), and who likewise "Unravel'd all the battles of the Gods / And view'd old night below the antipodes" (47–48). Highlighting Milton and Newton's achievements, Rochfort moves closer to achieving his goal of proving Britain to be a global center of Western civilization. Its classrooms, he contends, are the training ground where "lofty bards have dwelt so long" (51) and learned their studies well enough to "ravish Europe with their heavenly song[s]" (52). Only Wheatley's literary debut and transatlantic triumph in the Americas in the latter half of the eighteenth century call Britain's preeminence in the arts and sciences into question.
Wheatley did not enjoy access to the formal education afforded Milton and Newton, as Rochfort would have known. Rather, her entrance exam to the poetic arts was grounded in the curriculum into which she was born as a native African and acculturated as a transplanted American resident. Susanna and John Wheatley supplemented their northern slave's educational experience by tutoring and affording her some homeschooling instruction. This instruction could only approximate the "classical education available to young white men at Harvard."37 Combined, Wheatley's African heritage and the private homeschooling she received from her owners positioned her to do something distinct with her education than did Milton or Newton. That is, she took what was usable from the canon of "white men's literature with which she found herself quite saturated" and achieved more with far less formal training than Milton or Newton acquired.38 Without having ever entered Britain's "untainted" classrooms, Wheatley, as Rochfort explains, learned to excel the literary genius of Europe's most preeminent bards.
The final stanza of Rochfort's poem performs the nearly unthinkable: it expressly elevates Wheatley's literary accomplishments above Newton and Milton combined. Writing in the years leading to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Rochfort recommends Wheatley's "softer strains" of poetic verse as a more aesthetically [End Page 157] suitable style for meeting the political demands of the historical moment. Britain, he insists, no longer enjoys a reputation of unrivaled glory in Western civilization. He explains,
But now this blissful clime, this happy land,That all the neighbouring nations did command;Whose royal navy neptunes waves did sweep,Reign'd Prince alone, and sov'reign of the deep:No more can boast, but of the power to kill,By force of arms, or diabolic skill.("The Answer," 53–58)
In acknowledging Britain's naval might as ruling by military force and diabolical skill, Rochfort condemns the superpower in a language of satanic poetry where evil, like Milton's infernal hero, "takes the form of positive being."39 Britain's diabolic imperialism coincides with a satanic expression of negative positivity by benefiting from its status as a global superpower and gold standard of Western civilization that comes at the expense of tyrannizing others. Rochfort reads Wheatley's poetry differently, interpreting her as speaking from a rhetorical posture of an oppressed nation in search of liberty. As a result, Rochfort concludes, "For softer strains we quickly must repair / To Wheatly's song, for Wheatly is the fair" (59–60). Hers is "the art, which art could ne'er acquire," he adds (61). Furthermore, her lines "dress each sentence with seraphic fire" or angelic tones marked by poetic expressions characteristics of stately sublime (62).
Overall, "The Answer" responds to Wheatley's lead poem by deviating from an engagement with fallen epic poetry and channeling Milton through an interest in an Edenic paradise. Rochfort alludes to Milton by Africanizing Eden as a bower of educational instruction and by misquoting a Miltonic line from Pope's "Windsor Forest." He continues channeling Milton in subsequent stanzas where he praises Milton as an iconic example of British glory. He undercuts Milton's canonical glory by revering Wheatley's "softer strains" of poetic verse instead. Brought to the fallen shores of colonial Anglo-America against her will, this daughter of African paradise arrives in the New World with less educational privilege than a Milton or Sir Isaac Newton. That she overcomes the [End Page 158] linguistic terrors of the Middle Passage in a land suffering under the yoke of British tyranny even as she yet had to endure colonial Anglo-American racism, further makes Rochfort's case for Wheatley's transatlantic genius.
"Philis's [sic] Reply" responds to Rochfort's Miltonic reception of Wheatley by downplaying her poetic admirer's high praise of her talents. Additionally, Wheatley's response poem addresses concerns of racial bias in literary tradition before segueing into a critique of slavery. After petitioning Calliope, the "heavenly goddess" in stanza 1, Wheatley downplays Rochfort's "generous plaudit" of her poetic talents ("Reply" 1, 9). "Struck" by Rochfort's flattering words, she asserts his praises are "not mine to claim." Believing that he enjoys the favored privilege of the "muse's bright celestial fire," Wheatley also understands Rochfort as the muses' white, male, and favored poetic darling. In contrast, she regards herself as a "muse untutor'd, and unknown to fame" (10). Stanza 2 further notes, "The heavenly sisters pour [Rochfort's] notes along" and crown him "with every grace of song" (11–12). Wheatley's pen, however, is "least favour'd by the tuneful nine" (13). Because of these disparities, Wheatley reasons that she "can never rival, never equal" Rochfort's poetic accomplishments (14). She therefore adopts an "entrepreneurial spirit of discovery" that empowers her to remaster the justificatory power of the Miltonic word.40 Lacking the muses' poetic favor, Wheatley dares to
fix the humble Afric muse's seatAt British Homer's and Sir Isaac's feet.Those bards whose fame in deathless strains ariseCreation's boast, and fav'rites of the skies.("Reply," 15–18)
These lines signify on Rochfort's earlier citing of Milton and Newton as preeminent literary icons and products of Britain's "untainted" classrooms. Wheatley also reveres Milton as a British Homer, a popular epithet that could be "found everywhere in eighteenth century comments on [him], largely but not exclusively among minor poetasters and critics."41 By fixing herself at Milton's feet, Wheatley pursues an entrepreneurial project of [End Page 159] homeschooling and independent study that continues to aid her in actualizing her epic ambitions.
The subsequent stanza deviates from a focus on racial bias and Wheatley's pursuit of educational uplift under Milton's tutelage. Instead, Wheatley justifies the Miltonic accuracy of Rochfort's verbal portraiture of Africa. According to Wheatley, Rochfort's poem features "fair descriptions" of her native homeland. His Edenic scenes also cause her bosom to burn as "pleasing Gambia on [her] soul returns" and "Eden blooms again." Rochfort's scenes even remind her of "the tuneful flowing stream / The soft retreats, the lovers golden dream," and the "exhaustless stores" of Africa's "soil spontaneous" ("Reply," 19–27). Wheatley punctuates her reiteration of Rochfort's Eden as a generic marker of Miltonic presence by reversing the syntactical word order when calling attention to Africa's richly fertile soil. By placing the word "spontaneous" after "soil," Wheatley echoes the multiple "reverse adjectival phrasings" appearing throughout her elegies in Poems. These snippets of intertextual appropriation, as I have demonstrated elsewhere, "infuse Wheatley's poem[s] with reverberations of Miltonic English."42 Wheatley's "soil spontaneous" is the second instance where she re-cites Milton's reverse syntax in the poem. Stanza 1, for instance, reverses syntactical order when Wheatley petitions Calliope to aid her in composing "lays divine" (2).
Stanza 4 extends her intertextual engagement with Milton by constructing a false comparison between Africa and Britain. Reflecting on Africa, Wheatley explains, "There, as in Britain's favour'd isle behold / The bending harvest ripen into gold!" (31–32). The comparison exhibits another instance of facetious indirection as a result of Wheatley's acknowledging Africa and Britain as synonymous types of paradise. Wheatley seduces readers into accepting this comparison as a fit analogy by adding, "Just are thy views of Afric's blissful plain, / On the warm limits of the land and main" (33–34). However, Britain's chilly climate in no way resembles Africa's sunlit warmth. It does benefit from Africa's "bending harvests," but Wheatley's agrarian reference belies its true meaning (32). Wheatley's reference to bending harvests, in [End Page 160] effect, metaphorically alludes to the slave trade. Consistent with Wheatley's mode of facetious indirection, Africa's bending harvest connotes the enslaved black bodies that ripen into prized gold for the British Empire and a developing American nation beholden to the economic lure of stealing and trading in human flesh. Once again, Wheatley invites audiences to read between the lines of her poetic discourse, alluding to the plundering of African paradise while inviting readers to discover race as a troubling intertext of sin and fallenness in her poetry.
Her linguistic play with the English language extends to a facetious justifying of the Miltonic word. In book 1 of Paradise Lost, Milton declares as a central goal of his epic to "justify the ways of God to men" (PL 1.26). Wheatley's stanza 4 echoes this Miltonic endeavor through her clipping of Milton's poetic statement. In light of the numerous Miltonic echoes throughout the poem, the stanza signifies on Milton's aim to justify God's ways by claiming Rochfort's views of her African homeland are "just" or accurate. Through this allusive mode of clip art, Wheatley appropriates an abbreviated word of Miltonic matter as a "sacred yet secular talking book" that serves as a "poetic gospel beside the scriptural authority of the Bible."43 In triggering this recall of the Miltonic word, Wheatley snatches an intertextual snippet or leaf from a page of Milton's epic verse. Having already professed to steal a laurel from her patron's "honoured head" in "To Maecenas" (46), she repeats the intertextual offense again in order to preach a gospel of revolt against the mercenary evils committed by slave traders. Wheatley's false comparison of Africa and Britain as Edenic doubles of each other proceeds from this facetious play with words and the canonical tradition.
Two stanzas later Wheatley commends Milton by praising him as "Europa's bard." As Rochfort does in "The Answer," Wheatley delineates a brief catalog of scenes from Paradise Lost that she admires. This Miltonic catalog introduces yet another instance of Wheatley "troping with [Milton] as a poetic statement of black literacy" where her familiarity with Paradise Lost is concerned.44 For Wheatley, Milton is the bard "who the great depth explor'd" [End Page 161] and who also soared "thro' boundless systems" such as "earth …, heaven, and hell's profound domain, / Where night eternal holds her awful reign" ("Reply," 37–40). These snippets perform a basic familiarity with the Miltonic epic and provide an interpretive snapshot of what it is about her precursor and study guide that she especially admires. The catalog ends with Wheatley again turning to a theme of British fallenness. Wheatley, having esteemed Milton so highly, suddenly inquires, "But, lo! In him Britania's prophet dies, / And whence, ah! whence shall other Newton's rise?" (41–42). Lamenting the death of Britain's irreplaceable prophet and "philosophical god" signals Wheatley's recognition that Britain's status as a moral leader and gold standard of advanced artistry and scientific thinking in Western civilization is in decline. A nation without a Milton, Wheatley's lines seem to suggest, is one reflective of significant cultural loss. This reading of cultural loss in British poetic tradition coincides with the sentiments of eighteenth century literary historians, who, according to Griffin, "could not draw any clear line that led from Milton to themselves."45 With no Miltonic progeny to call upon, Britain, Wheatley suggests, languishes in moral and cultural fallenness. In expressing these sentiments, Wheatley circles back to the fall of ancient Greek civilization that she first alluded to in "To a Gentleman" when engaging with Homeric epic.
Before concluding her poem, Wheatley resigns herself to the notion that Rochfort stands the best chance of redeeming Western civilization through the art of poetry. Calliope, she explains, deserves all "plausive glories" since it is the muse's "partial grace [that] mak'st [Rochfort's] verse to excel" (46, 47). The poem ends with Wheatley crowning Rochfort as Britain's "Cerulean bard," "the Muse's darling[,] and the prince of song" (49, 50). Ending the poem with these sentiments underscores the poetic difficulties Wheatley continually faces as both a racial Other and a cultural outsider in the epic tradition. The best she can do under the circumstances of being one of the first Africanist poets in colonial Anglo-America is to begin piecing together the fragments of a fractured racial existence into a unifying intertextual whole. In [End Page 162] doing so, Wheatley successfully author(ize)s herself into a literary tradition that has yet to make room for a homeschooled daughter of African paradise. Having penetrated the epic tradition armed with her snippets of generic intertextual matter, digressive rhetoric, and facetious diction, Wheatley performs a miracle of literary persistence that leads to her achieving transatlantic fame. Her intertextual efforts in the epic tradition serve as a poetic blueprint for her literary sons and daughters of African American literature who continue the quest to regain paradise through diverse writings. They pursue this ontological quest by rupturing the English language and its literary traditions in various ways and through any number of inordinate routes, all the while voicing the linguistic terrors of the Middle Passage in echoes that still reverberate on the pages of published writings and in daily speech.
1. Richard Wright, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York, 2000), 51.
2. Phillis Wheatley, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," in Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta (New York, 2001), 4. All quotations of Wheatley's poetry are from this volume and are hereafter cited in the text by line number.
3. Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), 131.
4. June Jordan, "The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley," in Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays of June Jordan (New York, 2002), 174.
5. Ibid., 185.
6. Frances Smith Foster, Written by Herself (Boston, Mass., 1993), 2.
7. Reginald A. Wilburn, Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African American Literature (Pittsburgh, 2014), 62.
8. Robert Kendrick, "Re-membering America: Phillis Wheatley's Intertextual Epic," African American Review 30, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 72–73.
9. Ibid., 72. [End Page 163]
10. Danielle A. St. Hilaire, Satan's Poetry: Fallenness and Poetic Tradition in "Paradise Lost" (Pittsburgh, 2012), 1.
11. Ibid., 3.
12. John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Scott Elledge (New York, 1993), 1.16. All quotations of Paradise Lost are from this edition, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
13. Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," in African American Literary Theory: A Reader, ed. Winston Napier (New York, 2000), 28.
14. Aldon L. Nielsen, Writing between the Lines: Race and In-tertextuality (Athens, Ga., 1994), 11.
15. Ibid., 10–11.
16. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (New York, 1992), 82.
17. John Milton, The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, ed. William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon (New York, 2007), 219–20.
18. The Oxford Companion to English Literature, s.v. "Albion" (Oxford, 2009), 47.
19. John C. Shields, Phillis Wheatley's Poetics of Liberation: Background and Contexts (Knoxville, Tenn., 2008), 17.
20. Shields, Phillis Wheatley's Poetics of Liberation, 17.
21. Jordan, "Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry," 173.
22. Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius, (Athens, Ga., 2011), 150.
23. Eveline C. Martin, The British West African Settlements, 1750–1821: A Study in Local Administration (London, 1927), 168.
24. Julian D. Mason Jr., The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1989), 159.
25. Nielsen, Writing between the Lines, 6.
26. Jordan, "Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry," 176, 179.
27. Patricia Liggins Hill, gen. ed., preface to Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition (Boston, 1998), xxxiii.
28. Wheatley facetiously alludes to this negative conception of the African continent in a poem like "On being brought from Africa to America" where she asserts, "Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land / Taught my benighted soul to understand / That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too" (1–3).
29. Jordan, "Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry," 176.
30. Carretta, Biography of a Genius, 151.
31. Ibid., 150.
32. Shields, Phillis Wheatley's Poetics of Liberation, 98. [End Page 164]
33. Alexander Pope, "Windsor Forest," in The Works of Alexander Pope, vol. 2, with introduction and notes by Whitwell Elwin (London, 1871).
34. Ibid., 7–8.
35. Barbara K. Lewalski, "On Looking into Pope's Milton," in Milton Studies, vol. 11, ed. James D. Simmonds (Pittsburgh, 1978), 29–50.
36. Ibid., 40.
37. Jordan, "Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry," 177.
38. Ibid., 177.
39. St. Hilaire, "Satan's Poetry," 38.
40. "University of New Hampshire Undergraduate Catalog." This intellectual spirit of academic risk-taking describes the university's "core educational experience," where "new knowledge, ways of thinking, problem-solving skills, and skills of citizenship are acquired and practiced." I contend that Wheatley assumes and embodies this intellectual spirit by humbling herself at Milton's and Isaac Newton's feet.
41. Dustin Griffin, Regaining Paradise: Milton and the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 1986), 33.
42. Wilburn, Preaching the Gospel, 71.
43. Ibid., 17.
44. Ibid., 15.
45. Griffin, Regaining Paradise, 37. [End Page 165]