Robert Hayden’s “A Letter From Phillis Wheatley, London 1773”

As I got ready to teach Phillis Wheatley recently, I decided to incorporate Robert Hayden’s “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley London, 1773” which originally appeared in his 1978 collection American Journal. Of course, during our discussions, we related Hayden’s poem to Wheatley, but we also thought about other connections that could be made between “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley” and other texts we have looked at throughout the course, specifically Samson Occom’s Autobiographical Narrative. Today, I want to briefly examine the ways we can, and should, use Hayden’s poem in relation to both Wheatley and Occom.

 

“A Letter to Phillis Wheatley” is a “psychogram,” an epistolary technique that sees Hayden taking on the voice of an individual during their own social context, imitating that person’s language and diction in a way that adds to the verisimilitude of the text. Writing to her friend Obour, Wheatley relates, as the narrator of the poem, her experiences during her 1773 trip to England where she traveled with her master’s son, Nathaniel, to seek support and funding to publish Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). Hayden deftly presents the ironies of Wheatley’s journey through the juxtaposition of words that he uses throughout the poem. At times, Wheatley brings these ironies up herself; elsewhere, she seems to not even recognize them.

The opening lines of “A Letter to Phillis Wheatley” immediately conjure up thoughts of Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” where she writes, “‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,/Taught my benighted soul to understand.” On the surface, these lines feel like Wheatley is thankful for her situation because it provided her the opportunity to receive Christianity. What is absent from Wheatley’s poem, of course, is any reference to the Middle Passage. The Middle Passage exists in the silences, because while Wheatley appears thankful, that thankfulness is not without tinges of irony.

In Hayden’s poem, Wheatley comments on the Middle Passage, even if she cannot remember much about it. We must remember she became a slave and experienced the Middle Passage at about seven or eight years old. Even though she does not recall much about the voyage from Africa to North America, she remembers some of it. Hayden makes Wheatley sound similar to the opening lines of “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” but he immediately has her undercut them through a reference to the Middle Passage.

                          Our crossing was without
event. I could not help, at times,
reflecting on that first–my Destined–
voyage long ago (I yet
have some remembrance of its Horrors)
and marveling at God’s Ways.

The silence that remains in Wheatley’s poems gets expressed in Hayden’s. Wheatley still marvels at the thought that God ordained her captivity so that she might receive salvation; however, she also questions that thought by remembering the “Horrors” she encountered during the Middle Passage. These horrors, though, get subsumed into the identity that she creates for herself as a Bostonian and American because she cannot tell her audience much about Africa from her recollections.

By these little moves, Hayden shows the psychological effects of slavery on Wheatley’s construction of her identity. She comes to identify with America, not Africa, and she even talks about declining an offer to appear before the Court because of “Patriot” duty to the American cause. In these instances, Hayden paints Wheatley as lacking any identity part from her position as an enslaved individual or lacking any recognition of the ways that others perceive her as less than human because of her enslaved status.

Hayden provides Wheatley with space to show that she does recognize her position as enslaved and not free and that she consciously addresses the discrepancies caused by the institution of slavery. After causing the Countess of Huntington and others to cry upon hearing her read her poetry, the party goes to dinner, and Wheatley tells Obour that she dined apart from the others like “captive Royalty.” These two words juxtapose one another, and through this juxtaposition, the narrator Wheatley expresses the absurdity of her position: reading her own poetry in front of the Countess and receiving applause while also being a slave to Joseph Wheatley. Hayden deploys other such juxtapositions throughout the poem to show Wheatley’s acknowledgement of her enslaved status.

Describing “Idyllic England,” the narrator Wheatley comments on the serpent that lingers beneath the Edenic image waiting to strike. It flicks its tongue “when foppish would-be Wits” talk about “the Yankee Pedlar and his Cannibal Mockingbird.” Here we see two pairings that warrant discussion. The “Yankee Pedlar,” of course, refers to Nathaniel, and we see him as someone from the colonies but also as someone selling something. We can take this in two ways. One, he is an American selling Wheatley’s talents in hopes of raising money to publish her book of poetry. Two, we can read this as commenting on Nathaniel’s position as a slaveholder and “Pedlar” of human flesh in general. I would say that we should apply both of these meanings here. As for Wheatley being the “Cannibal Mockingbird,” the juxtaposition comes about between her African ancestry and her role as a poet. While mockingbird carries with it some pleasant connotations, the ultimate meaning is one of disdain because the “foppish” murmurers use it to label Wheatley as imitative, not original. This is something that Wheatley herself addresses somewhat in “To Maecenas.”

The action in Hayden’s poem, of Nathaniel presenting Wheatley to the Countess and others in hopes of funding, placing Wheatley not as an independent person but as an enslaved spectacle, almost like a carnival attraction highlights the vileness of the institution of slavery. The Countess and others cheer and cry at her poetry, even saying they will affirm her authenticity for others; but they shun her and send her to eat at a separate table when they partake of dinner, and we see it when the “would-be Wits” refer to her not as a poet but as a “Cannibal Mockingbird.” All of this brings to mind Samson Occom’s condemnation of Wheelock and others at the end of his Autobiographical Narrative when essentially says they see him as nothing more than a token representation of Native Americans. In his July 24, 1771, letter to Eleazar Wheelock, Occom even says they view him as “Indian Bait.” The account of Wheatley in Hayden’s poem carries with it the same feeling. Wheatley becomes “Black Bait” for Nathaniel and the Wheatleys in their interactions with the Countess and others in England.

Hayden’s poem ends with Wheatley laughing at the “lighter ironies,” as Fred Fetrow says, when a young chimney-sweep, with soot all over his face, asks Wheatley if she sweeps chimneys as well. She simply laughs while Nathaniel does not find amusement in the question. I would argue that this turn, at the end, is very important because Wheatley laughs at the innocent question of a young boy who does not necessarily see Wheatley as being different from himself. Nathaniel, on the other hand, takes offense because he perceives the boy’s question, as innocent as it is, as demeaning. Where was Nathaniel’s ire when Wheatley had to eat at another table while he partook of dinner with the Countess? Where was his ire when the “foppish would-be Wits” called her “Cannibal Mockingbird”? Where was his ire when she came to his family a slave? Nathaniel’s response here does not match his previous behavior, and thus reinforces his position as master and Wheatley as slave because while we can say Nathaniel sees the boy’s question as demeaning, we must also take into account that by allowing the boy to see himself and Wheatley as equals he is granting Wheatley humanity, thus making it impossible to justify keeping her in bondage.

There is a lot here with Hayden’s poem. What are your thoughts and suggestions? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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