The exotic daughter of Africa whose poetry inspired a cause of freedom and social justice in a different land while using the traditional religious view of her heritage. Whose words and symbolism still resonate through the world as reminders of a dream of equality and freedom from monarchal tyranny. This exemplary figure of true patriotism is Phillis Wheatley an African woman born along the Gambia River in Africa to the Fulani tribe (Shields 473). In two of her finest works “To his Excellency General Washington” and “Liberty and Peace” Phillis Wheatley uses the African tradition of solar worship to justify the American Revolution.
Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 to a Fulani woman who either practiced an ancient tribal form of solar worship or was a devout Muslim. Wheatley had only one fond memory of her life in Africa and that memory is of her mother performing a ritual every morning to the sun. ‘“before the sun at his rising” and then “prostrating herself” in the direction of the risen sun,”’ (Shields 473). The theory that Phillis Wheatley’s mother was a Muslim is plausible because the rising sun is in the direction of Mecca. Also, the word of Islam had spread to this part of Africa and the number of Muslims in western Africa was growing during that time period.
However, the theory that Phillis Wheatley’s mother is Muslim is discredited through the use of sun allusions in Wheatley’s poetry. “Her mother’s solar worship surely is the source of her exaltation of the sun, which she names in her poems nine times as Aurora; as Apollo, seven; as Phoebus, twelve, and as Sol, twice,” (Shields). This shows the love and admiration that Phillis Wheatley had for the sun; a love that was instilled in her by her mother when Wheatley was a small child watching her mother praise Apollo.
“To his Excellency General Washington” was published in April of 1776 by Phillis Wheatley in Boston Massachusetts. This poem to George Washington commemorates him for his efforts to promote freedom. This was the first written work to be published that supported him in his endeavor to free the young country (Williams). In the opening lines of the poem Phillis Wheatley uses a muse, a device of neoclassicism, which exposes the inspiration for her literary work. The muse of this poem is the celestial choir which can be interpreted as the sun god because in line one she writes, “Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,” (CITATION POETRY FOR STUDENTS). “Enthron’d in realms of light” means that light surrounds the celestial choir which must come from the sun.
In lines nine through twelve Wheatley explains a sun goddess that aides the American cause, “The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair/…Wherever shines this native of the skies/ Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise,” (CITATION POETRY FOR STUDENTS). This native of the skies shines wherever she roams; she is the female embodiment of the sun god. . She understands the validity of the American cause because she is fair and just that is why she supports America. The goddess shines on America and with this divine light comes unnumbered charms and graces that fall upon the young nation. She helps America by protecting them in the ultimate struggle they have at hand against the British.
The theme of the poem is expressed in lines thirty one through thirty two, “And so may you, whoever dares disgrace/ This land of freedom’s heaven-defended race,” (CITATION POETRY FOR STUDENTS). The theme of this poem is simply freedom; freedom for the common man, woman and child, and that no person should be subject to any form of oppression or tyranny. The message of freedom is exemplified in these lines because America is being defended by the solar goddess. She promotes the continuation of the belief that every man is entitled freedom by birth. Therefore, these lines show that America is justified by heaven to fight the British. This heavenly protection serves as defense and as a means of dissuading any advances on America. The first line shows the warning to all that may want to pose a threat to America because it is a land of freedom that is divinely protected by the sun goddess. So, these two lines show that America is a land of freedom and that it is defended by the sun goddess against all that transgress against America’s boundaries.
After the defeat of the British in the American Revolutionary War and the Treaty of Paris of 1783 was signed, Phillis Wheatley wrote “Liberty and Peace”; a poem that celebrated the new countries independence (Shields 489-490). The poem was published in 1784 and praised the defeat of Britannia by America, which has just been established as a sovereign state (Doak 86). It was also one of her last notable works because during that same year she passed away (O’Neale). The overall theme and message of the poem is that America is noble and just for fighting for its independence and that she is and will always be divinely protected. Britain is considered a menace and dictator for holding the colonies back for becoming their own separate country (Jamison).
In “Liberty and Peace” on line sixty four Phillis Wheatley explains how her ancestral sun god is on the side of America and that it is the reason why America defeated the British. The line reads, “And Heavenly Freedom spread her gold Ray,” (O’Neale). This line shows that the golden ray of heaven will be spread by heavenly freedom. The golden ray was graced upon America by the female embodiment of the sun god. This ray of freedom will spread to any land where America spreads its sails. America being able to spread its ray of freedom is shown in lines sixty two through sixty three of “Liberty and Peace”, “Where e’er Columbia spreads her swelling Sails/ To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display,” (O’Neale). This quote illustrates that the golden ray placed upon America by the sun goddess will spread to other lands by heavenly freedom. That any land America encounters will be instilled with the American virtues of peace and freedom.
Phillis Wheatley is a true American patriot for the American quest of peace and freedom from the British menace. She uses her ancestral tradition of solar worship to justify the American cause and to support the troops in their enormous endeavor. In “To his Excellency General Washington” Phillis Wheatley illustrates a sun goddess that aides on the side of the Americans during the revolutionary war. Wheatley goes on to further explain that American people are a group of people that are divinely protected because they exemplify a spirit of freedom that has never been seen in the world to date.
In “Liberty and Peace” Phillis Wheatley shows that the values and beliefs that are at the core of America are protected by the sun god; that is the reason why America was able to triumph over the British. It was able to because it was fighting for freedom and the sun god protects and defends the righteous in all their endeavors. America will also inspire every land she touches to fight for freedom and equality because America is heavenly defended and her virtues are protected by the sun god.
It is clear to see the instances of solar allusions in Phillis Wheatley’s work. She uses her mother’s religion of solar worship to show the validity of the American cause in the Revolutionary War. Phillis Wheatley supported and whole-heartedly believed in the American Revolution due to the fact that in “To his Excellency General Washington” and “Liberty and Peace she uses her tradition of solar worship to support America.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 20 September 2016
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