The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Questions on Phillis Wheatley's Poetry:


  1. What does the author of the "Preface" wish to tell his/her audience about Wheatley? Do you think that such explanations would have been commonly offered?
  2. What important information about Wheatley can be derived from John Wheatley's letter?
  3. What social attitudes are expressed in the statement of the signatories to Wheatley's volume? What was their social standing? What may have been their motives in signing?

"To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North-America, Etc."

  1. What were Wheatley's motives for addressing a poem to Dartmouth? What audience would have been expected to approve of this poem? What benefits might she have hoped for from writing a poem on this subject?
  2. What is the poem's rhythm and rhyme scheme? How do these harmonize with the poem's content? What are some uses of metaphor?
  3. What is the poem's sequence of thought? What do you think are the poet's motives for praising the Earl of Dartmouth? Do you think her methods for disguising the fact that she is giving advice are effective?
  4. What reason does the poem give for her love of freedom? To what extent do you think this reason would have startled her audience?
  5. What attitudes toward Africa are conveyed by the adjectives "seeming" cruel fate and "fancy'd" happy seat? Are these consistent with her attack on the slavers' "tyrannic sway"?
  6. What moment is dramatized in her account of enlavement? Why might she have chosen this to appeal to her audience? Why do you think she focused on her father's grief, not her mother's or her own? To what emotions in her audience does she strive to appeal?
  7. What does the poet wish from the Earl of Dartmouth, and what benefits does she wish and prophecy for him? What seems the motive of the poem's final appeal to the "ethereal plain" of heaven?
  8. Did Dartmouth heed her poetic petition? What are memorable features of this poem?

"To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works"

  1. Why might the poet Wheatley have chosen this subject? How does she respond to her friend's painting? What does she wish for his artistic career?
  2. What metaphors does the poet use to convey artistic and religious meaning? What suggestions to him are prompted by thoughts of death? What changes will heaven bring to their respective arts?
  3. Why will she and he no longer write or paint stories of Damon and Aurora? What effect is created by the poem's final image of night obscuring the "fair creation"?
  4. Do you think S. M. might have been offended by receiving poetic advice? If not, why? Are the poem's meter and tone appropriate for its subject?

Concluding question: What seem to be Wheatley's favorite themes and preoccupations? What are some recurrent stylistic and tonal features of her poetry?

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