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Phillis Wheatley's To MAECENAS and On the Death of a young Lady of Five Years of Age

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The poetry of Phillis Wheatley is crafted in such a manner that she is able to create a specific aim for each poem, and achieve that aim by manipulating her position as the speaker. As a slave, she was cautious to cross any lines with her proclamations, but was able to get her point across by humbling her own position. In religious or elegiac matters, however, she seemed to consider herself to be an authority. Two of her poems, the panegyric “To MAECENAS” and the elegy “On the Death of a young Lady of Five Years of Age,” display Wheatley’s general consistency in form, but also her intelligence, versatility, and ability to adapt her position in order to achieve her goals.

The main difference between these types of poems is that a panegyric is used to praise and flatter a living person, and an elegy is mournful regarding the death of someone. This is not to say that an elegy cannot fall under the classification of a panegyric, however one does not imply the other.

According to www.Brittanica.com, panegyrics were originally speeches delivered in ancient Greece at a gathering in order to praise the former glory of Greek cities but later became used to praise and flatter eminent persons such as emperors. It seems fitting, therefore, that Wheatley’s panegyric, “To MAECENAS” contains so many classical allusions. In this poem she thanks and praises her unnamed patron, comparing him to Maecenas, the famed Roman patron of Virgil and Horace. It is widely believed that even though Maecenas is referred to as a male in her poem, in actuality it refers to the Countess of Huntingdon, Phillis Wheatley’s actual British patron. This is supported by the fact that her book is dedicated to the Countess, and also by her refere...


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...rtially due to the slight change in rhyme scheme. Perhaps she does want to emphasize the first line in the last stanza, which contains the reference to the Thames River mentioned earlier, so that Wheatley can imply that Maecenas is in fact the Countess of Huntingdon.

Each of Phillis Wheatley’s poems is crafted with a specific purpose in mind. Although her use of heroic couplets stays mostly standard, she does leave room for adaptations that offer some insight into her ultimate purpose. While many of her poems humble her own position, often it is indeed for a specific cause, usually to convey a point she could not have otherwise communicated without fear of chastisement. On the other hand, speaking on religious matters she seems to feel bold enough to elevate her own position to that of an authority figure, giving guidance and hope to those in need of it.


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