Divine Quiet: Phillis Wheatley’s Gentle Mastery of Meter, Genre, and Address

Dana Murphy
UC Irvine

One of the difficulties in studying poetry is accounting for the likelihood that no two people will read one poem the same way. Nevertheless, there is a small window for interpretive variation in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). This project proposed that early African American poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784) uses poetic meter, genre, and address as strategies of quietness that enable her to “speak” about her enslavement through a strict adherence to (rather than departure from) poetic form and reconsidered Wheatley’s poetics when theorized as a form of “divine” quiet, to use her own word. For over two centuries, readers have fine-combed Wheatley’s poems for signs of resistance, for her voice of protest. But what if they are intentionally voiceless? This project problematized the preeminence of emancipated speech in the history of poetics, situating Wheatley’s adherence to genre within theories of black social life that interpret seemingly-incongruous materials and forms as essential to poetic chronicles of African diasporic movement like Sherley Anne Williams’ “Letters From a New England Negro” (1979), Gayl Jones’ Song for Anninho (1981), and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014).