Daily RC Article 1

Phillis Wheatley

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For the poet Philips Whitely, who was brought to colonial New England as a slave in 1761, the formal literary code of eighteenth-century English was thrice removed: by the initial barrier of the unfamiliar English language, by the discrepancy between spoken and literary forms of English, and by the African tradition of oral rather than written verbal art. Wheatley transcended these barriers—she learned the English language and English literary forms so quickly and well that she was composing good poetry in English within a few years of her arrival in New England.

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Wheatley’s experience exemplifies the meeting of oral and written literary cultures. The aesthetic principles of the African oral tradition were preserved in America by folk artists in work songs, dancing, field hollers, religious music, the use of the drum, and, after the drum was forbidden, in the perpetuation of drum effects in song. African languages and the functions of language in African societies not only contributed to the emergence of a distinctive Black English but also exerted demonstrable effects on the manner in which other Americans spoke English. Given her African heritage and her facility with English and the conventions of English poetry, Wheatley’s work had the potential to apply the ideas of a written literature to an oral literary tradition in the creation of an African American literary language.

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But this was a potential that her poetry unfortunately did not exploit. The standards of eighteenth-century English poetry, which itself reflected little of the American language, led Wheatley to develop a notion of poetry as a closed system, derived from imitation of earlier written works. No place existed for the rough-and-ready Americanized English she heard in the streets, for the English spoken by Black people, or for Africanisms. The conventions of eighteenth-century neoclassical poetry ruled out casual talk; her choice and feelings had to be generalized according to rules of poetic diction and characterization; the particulars of her African past, if they were to be dealt with at all, had to be subordinated to the reigning conventions. African poetry did not count as poetry in her new situation, and African aesthetic canons were irrelevant to the new context because no linguistic or social framework existed to reinforce them. Wheatley adopted a foreign language and a foreign literary tradition; they were not extensions of her past experience, but replacements.

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Thus limited by the eighteenth-century English literary code, Wheatley’s poetry contributed little to the development of a distinctive African American literary language. Yet by the standards of the literary conventions in which she chose to work, Wheatley’s poetry is undeniably accomplished, and she is justly celebrated as the first Black American poet.

Topic and Scope:

Phillis Wheatley, specifically Wheatley’s poetry.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author’s purpose is to discuss and evaluate Wheatley’s poetry. The author’s specific main idea is that Wheatley was an accomplished poet who rightly deserves to be known as the first African American poet, though her poetry was not influenced by African traditions and did not contribute to the growth of an African American literary tradition.

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 states that Wheatley quickly became an accomplished poet, even though she was not raised in an English-language environment. Paragraph 2 digresses from the topic in order to discuss the background of African American English. paragraph 3 reveals the author’s belief that Wheatley’s poetry was not influenced by her African heritage.

Paragraph 4 summarizes the author’s feelings about Wheatley: though she did not contribute to the growth of an African American literary tradition, she was nevertheless an accomplished poet who deserves to be recognized as the first African American poet.

The Big Picture:

  • Topic and scope are evident early on in the passage, but purpose and main idea are not. Instead, the passage hits you with a lot of details. It’s not until paragraph s 3 and 4 that you get a strong sense of authorial purpose and main idea. On Test Day, it might be better to leave a similarly structured passage for later in the section. In general, it’s best to begin your work on the Reading Comprehension section with a passage whose purpose and main idea (if there is one) are apparent early in the text.
  • Don’t assume that all the key information is contained in the first paragraph . In this passage, for instance, most of the important information emerges toward the end. Always apply your critical reading skills to the entire passage.

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