Confronting the Agamemnon Problem: Phillis Wheatley’s Utilization of the Trojan War in “To His Excellency General Washington"

Paqui Toscano

"The object of my writings would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites—for I consider the unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to pervade a whole nation, and so powerful as to subject a whole race and all connected with it to scorn and social ostracism—I consider this a barrier to the moral progress of the American people."

—Charles Chesnutt, journal entry

"O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams / That bring to my rememberance from what state / I fell, how glorious once above thy sphere / Till pride and worse ambition threw me down."

—John Milton, Paradise Lost, Satan

"But I think his death was not chattel. / Who but the man himself / traded his house into ruin? / But my sprout risen up of him there, / the sorely wept Iphigeneia … / as he did he is done; and in Hades / let him bellow and boast in his pride / he began all he paid on the sword."

—Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra

Despite having been seized from her home in West Africa and brought to America as a slave at the age of seven, Phillis Wheatley miraculously became the first African American to publish a book of literature—a volume of poetry entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. She transcended the seemingly insurmountable barriers standing in her path as a writer by utilizing traditionally Western literary forms and motifs that not only resonated with white audiences but also enabled her to grapple with the concerns of oppressed African American slaves.[2] Although critics have disagreed regarding the merits of her verse, by the standards of the day, Wheatley should not have been able to read or write at all.[3] And yet, after purchasing her, the Wheatley family, including Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley and their two children, soon realized what a keen intellect Phillis Wheatley possessed and began to teach her to read Greek and Latin in addition to English. From the first printing of her poetry to the present day, the literary community has been amazed by the agility with which Wheatley, an African slave, incorporates elements of Homeric and Virgilian verse into her own poetry.[4]

Nevertheless, I believe that scholars have done the work of Phillis Wheatley a grave disservice by neglecting her capitalization upon one monumental event frequently depicted in ancient literature—the Trojan War—in “To His Excellency General Washington.” Eric D. Lamore, for instance, notes the heavy influence of Virgil’s pro-Empire, pro-Augustus Georgics on poems such as “Liberty and Peace” and “To His Excellency,” and, admittedly, his arguments concerning Wheatley’s establishment of America as a “new-born Rome” and Washington as an imperial Emperor are astute (139-143). However, Lamore’s contention that she continues to rely on … Virgil’s Georgics in her representation of George Washington as an ‘American Augustus’ in ‘To His Excellency’” ignores the myriad ways in which the poet also situates the fight for independence within the framework of the Trojan War (141). Wheatley compares the Trojans with the British and the Greeks with the Americans in order to forge a parallel between Agamemnon and Washington, which affords the poem an admonitory tone hitherto not fully recognized in its standard scholarly interpretation. Thereby, the African American poet proactively reminds this white general that he must not succumb to prideful myopia as did Agamemnon,[5] urging Washington to instead be ever mindful of what she construes to be the American Revolution’s true objective: liberty for all people, including the enslaved.[6]


The most pressing challenges facing my interpretation of “To His Excellency” are determining that Wheatley clearly associates the Americans with the Greeks and grappling with the sympathies she conveys for the British-Trojan opponent. Although an advocate of the Revolutionary cause, Wheatley was living in a household of Loyalists, who supported an empire that, in many ways, was more accepting of the young slave than were its revolutionaries across the Atlantic (“Wheatley”). After American colonists refused to publish her first poetry collection, Wheatley, and the Wheatley family, sent a manuscript to the Countess of Huntington Selina Hastings, who arranged for Archibald Bell to begin work on the book’s publication. In 1771, Wheatley actually travelled to England, where she was received by dignitaries exhibiting interest in the young African-American writer and the merits of her work.

From the very inception of “To His Excellency,” the poet establishes war as the central focus of her poem as she describes how “mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan, / And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!” (5-6). Wheatley emphasizes that the Heavens, as well as the rest of the world, take interest in the details of the Revolution just as the Olympians involved themselves in the happenings of the Trojan War. The periodic sentence structure in the first of these two lines hearkens back to the composition styles of Homer and Vergil, who frequently defer the main verb of any given clause to the end of its respective line, as Wheatley does with “bemoan.” The placement of the accented direct object “fate,” immediately preceding the main verb, underscores what exactly mother earth bemoans, the intensity of her concern further captured by the forcefulness of the imperative at the commencement of the line. Here, Wheatley highlights a key aspect of the epic genre which is almost always concerned with the fatum of its characters. Her reference to destiny at the start of the poem reflects Vergil’s description of Aeneas as a hero “exiled by fate” in line 2 of the Aeneid (fato profugato). While the Battle of Philippi certainly did contribute to determining the fate of Augustus, who would eventually be named the first Emperor of Rome, it by no means involved “scenes before unknown” (6).[7] The conflict between then-Octavian and Julius Caesar’s assassins, Cassius and Brutus, was only the culmination of an ongoing period of civil war that had plagued Rome for several decades.[8] Wheatley’s positioning of the exclamation point at the conclusion of this line signals that the novelty of the Revolution, and its largely unprecedented advocation of government for the people and by the people, is critical. The American fight for independence parallels in gravity human civilization’s first world war.

Wheatley’s invocation of the Muse, which begins in line 13 with her request for the goddesses to “bow propitious while [her] pen relates / How pour [Columbia’s] armies through a thousand gates” such “[a]s when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms, / Enwrapp’d in tempest and night of storms,” further calls to mind epic tradition (13-16). The rare instance of enjambment at the close of line 13 delays, and therefore directs attention to, what Wheatley is asking the Muse to help her relate: a tale of armies “pour[ing] through a thousand gates,” with the accentuation of words such as “pour” and “gates,” as well as the first syllable of “armies” and “thousand,” cultivating a devastating scene of war. The tumult of the conflict is further reflected by the havoc Eurus wreaks in the following lines. Line 14’s spondaic substitution of “How pour” likewise emphasizes Wheatley’s concern with arms and devastation, which tellingly resembles Homer’s focus on rage in the first several lines of the Iliad.[9] Similarly, Wheatley’s reference to “a thousand gates” alludes to the Trojan War, conflating two images that have come to define the conflict: Christopher Marlowe’s description of Helen as the face which “launch’d a thousand ships” and Troy’s magnificent gates, which the Greeks are only able to traverse via the infamous Trojan Horse.[10] The rhyming of “relate” and “gate” especially stresses the poet’s intent to retell a version of this epic story.

But, then again, Wheatley’s imagery broaches a conundrum: how do we know which side is which? In order for the comparison between Agamemnon and Washington to be defensible, there must be some way that the American cause is identified with that of the Greeks. Although the Achaeans are the ones who travel to Troy just as the British travel to America, the revolutionaries are, of course, fighting for something which has been wrested away from them—liberty and freedom—just as the Greek forces strive to reclaim Helen. And yet, Wheatley’s portrayal of the Revolution is far from a story-book battle between good and evil. In the midst of the war, Brittania lowers her “pensive” head, diction which is devoid of any negative connotation and, in fact, reflects the level-headedness of the Iliad’s most likable characters, Hector and Priam (35). By calling to mind the nobility of these Dardanian heroes, Wheatley brings into relief the ethical concerns that the Revolution poses. America is seeking to divorce itself from the embrace of Mother Country just as the Greeks are similarly attempting to dismantle an empire, though for less noble reasons. The sympathy which the poet fosters for Britannia as she “[l]ament[s] [her] thirst of boundless power too late”—paralleling the Trojans’ horror as they wake to find their city in flames—suggests that America must reflect upon the reasons why splitting from England, and forcing a rift within the Empire, is essential (38). Freedom from tyranny is certainly worth bringing about such a divide, the poet indicates, but not liberty for some and oppression for others.

The strongest evidence for linking the Americans with the Greeks is that Wheatley depicts Columbia as the Revolutionary counterpart of Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom and one of the most ardent supporters of the Greek forces. The patron goddess of the new Republic, for instance, “flashes dreadful in refulgent arms” and has “golden hair,” which brings the definitively end-stopped line 10 to a close (4). The poet’s placement of the period forces a pause to consider the image of “[o]live” wreathing the goddess’ head—vegetation frequently associated with the yellow-haired Athena.[11] Likewise, Columbia radiates “bright beams of heaven’s revolving light” just as Athena herself “dart[s] down from the peaks of Olympus,” like “a star, a sign to sailors or to the broad host of an army, a shining thing from which many sparks fly,” to intervene in the war in Book IV of the Iliad (Wheatley 7, Homer 76-79). Despite minor inconsistencies between the Greek and Trojan portrayals in the Iliad and the American and British depictions in “To His Excellency,” given the comparison of Columbia with Athena, the Greek-American likening seems an apt one.


The association of the American cause with that of the Greek enables Wheatley to parallel Washington to Agamemnon in the third stanza of the poem as she describes the Continental troops. The poet paints a picture of “[s]uch, and so many” soldiers “mov[ing] the warrior’s train” (20). “In bright array,” she exclaims,” do they “seek the work of war, / Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air” (20-21). Hitherto, Washington has not made so much as an appearance in the poem; any sense of nobility has been conferred upon Columbia, the personification of the American Republic, and the men who strive to make that republic a reality. The rhyming of “train” and the final word of the previous line, “reign,” indicates that the true glory belongs to the common man who is faring the harsh elements for a cause that has no assurance of prevailing. The soldiers are dressed in “bright” clothing as they “seek the work of war,” their figurative luminosity reflecting the splendor of the cause for which they are zealously “seek[ing]” opportunities to make struggling Columbia proud (21). Washington himself, however, does not actively participate in the workings of the war: the only verb in the entire poem referring to action in which the Virginian engages is the word “know,” but, even then, Wheatley is referring to how Washington “know[s]” his soldiers in the field of battle, which does little to instill within us any reverence for the general. Every other main verb referring to the future president is imperative, or, at the very least, jussive in nature: “hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!” (28); “Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side” (39); “Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide” (40); and “be thine” (42). I will return to these commands, but it is crucial to first highlight the contrasting ways in which Wheatley speaks of the American soldiers and their general-in-chief (42).

Wheatley eventually brings herself to ask, “Shall I to Washington their praise recite?” As the only question in the entire poem, her query commands especial attention. Wheatley indicates that it is imperative to recognize the valor, and dedication, of the soldiery. Although she decides that “Enough [Washington] know’st them in the fields of fight,” her answer does more to complicate the enquiry than resolve it: the adverbial modifier “enough” stands squarely at the commencement of the line, which follows on the heels of Wheatley’s question (24). Any sentence beginning with this word will necessarily be far from a ringing endorsement—consider the implications of someone’s assessment that a person is “good enough,” for instance. Wheatley thereby cautions Washington against distancing himself from the needs of his men or, perhaps on a more symbolic level, the down-to-earth promise of freedom for every person which the Revolution represents. His knowledge of the soldiers’ plight cannot be confined merely to what is convenient for him—such as how the actual word “know’st” is elided to fit the parameters of iambic pentameter—nor can the general lose touch with the essence of the Revolutionary spirit. For someone in his position of authority, such an outcome could be an all-too-real possibility.

Yes, the poet describes Washington as “first in peace and honors,” but his status as a military strategist calls into question the sincerity of the prepositional phrase’s first object, and while he may be first in honors, this is the very problem from which Agamemnon suffers at the start of the Iliad (25). When the priest of Apollo comes before the Greeks to plead for his daughter, who had been seized in the course of the war, Achilles advises Agamemnon, who had claimed the girl as his own, to return her, but the chieftain balks at the idea as he asks whether Achilles “want[s] to stand there, / [himself] with a prize, while [Agamemnon] sit[s] without one? Do[es] [Achilles] order [him] / to give up this girl?” the Greek king asks (I.131-134). And if this is the case, Agamemnon continues, he will personally “take [Achilles’] own prize or [he] will go to Ajax and take his, or [he] will go to Odysseus / and take his prize” (I.135-137). Agamemnon is first in honor, but only because he gains his honors at the expense of his men. From the very commencement of Homer’s epic, the Greek monarch turns his back on the advice of the Argive soldiery, who “shout out that yes, they should respect the priest / and take the shining ransom,” but Agamemnon alone condemns any efforts to reconcile (23-24). Apollo’s ensuing rage confirms the folly of his decision. Having lost perspective in the face of prospective glory, Agamemnon refuses to bother himself with the concerns of his soldiers—and the cause for which many of them are fighting.

Although Wheatley certainly does not depict a Washington plagued with the same overwhelming hubris as Agamemnon, she does turn away from praising the honors of the General with a dash, instead redirecting focus to how the people of America “demand / The grace and glory of thy martial band”—the troops fighting under the direction of General Washington (25-26). Once more, Wheatley’s strategic utilization of enjambment—in a poem that is heavily end-stopped—results in a culmination by line 26 as she reveals the extent to which the minutemen bearing the brunt of combat deserve the true “grace and glory.” This is not a war for or in the name of the privileged few. The true spirit of the Revolution embodies the promise of liberation for all Americans, regardless of status. Assuming an authoritative tone, she begins to integrate the imperative mood into the poem as she exclaims to Washington that he must “[h]ear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!” (28). At first glance, “thy guardian aid” could refer to Washington’s guardianship of the fledgling Republic, but then again, the phrase could also refer to the Continental army in a similar way that “thy martial band” does. The soldiery is Washington’s “guardian aid.” But they are likewise fighting for the safety of the other Founders—who risk their lives to champion the cause of the Revolution—in addition to marginalized factions of society, which dream of fully realizing the Founders’ rhetoric as well.

Hereafter, however, Washington does not make another appearance in the poem until the final stanza: altogether, then, only ten lines reference the General, a mere twenty-five percent of the entire poem. Even fewer sentences can claim Washington as their subject—a measly four. In contrast, Columbia herself dominates the entire first, second, and third stanzas: she is the one whose “fury found” the invaluable Gallic forces, and it is the state of Columbia to which Britain pays no heed (30). The poet thus minimizes Washington’s role in the American-British conflict. Rather, it is Columbia, the embodiment of Revolutionary values, in whom Wheatley takes principal interest. Most telling are the two lines, “Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales, / For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails” (33-34). All across the globe, the American experiment of rebellion in the name of democracy and freedom captures the attention of nations which are focused on the “scales” of justice. The commencement of line 34 with the preposition “For” stresses immediately why such attention is being directed to these scales: the fate of the fledgling democracy, striving for autonomy, hangs in the balance—not the glory of any one individual or group of oligarchical patriarchs. It is the very ideal of liberty which matters to Wheatley and, she suggests, to the world.


And yet, Wheatley concludes “To His Excellency” with a ringing declaration that “[a] crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, with gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine” (41-42). One explanation, of course, is that the entire poem can and should be taken at face value—that Wheatley is unambiguously laudatory of the new American Augustus, who is leading his troops, and the nation, to victory. Believing this, and taking Wheatley at her word, bolsters Lamore’s argument, but there exists no logical explanation for why Wheatley would so unabashedly support a monarchical infrastructure for the new Republic when she could have easily, and perhaps more sensibly, been a Loyalist herself given the Wheatleys’ position and her poetry’s acceptance in England.

Admittedly, none of the pressures which prompted Vergil to glorify Augustus would have affected Wheatley. The political scene in America was vastly different than that in Rome at the time during which Vergil was writing the Georgics. The Roman poet could without a doubt remember when proscription lists were the status quo—when anyone challenging Augustus’ power could be killed with no questions asked, not to mention that funding for Vergil’s work was largely contributed by Maecenas, who was one of Augustus’ most trusted advisors. For Wheatley, on the other hand, “To His Excellency” could only have engendered negative consequences. In light of this revelation, then, perhaps she truly is invoking the splendor and regality of Rome to afford the fledgling colonies-turned-country a sense of auspicious grandeur. Perhaps Wheatley truly envisions Washington as an up-and-coming Augustus, who will bring about a period of Pax Americana for America resembling Augustus’ own Pax Romana.[12] Nevertheless, if we accept this premise, how could we reconcile Augustus’ sociopathic tendencies and the tight control he exerted over the empire in its fledgling years—he exiled his own daughter, for goodness’ sake—with Wheatley’s celebration of Columbia as the “land of freedom[]?” (32).

Even more pressing, why would she elevate Washington to the status of king, only to strip him of monarchical agency? Wheatley not only continues to employ the imperative mood throughout the poem’s ultimate stanza, ordering the “great chief” to “Proceed … with virtue on thy side,” but also instructs him to “[his] ev’ry action let the goddess guide” (39, 40). Although she refers to Washington as “a great chief,” this constitutes a stock phrase; and although Washington has “virtue on [thy] side,” the following line suggests that  Wheatley’s mentioning of “virtue” actually refers to Columbia, whom he must let “guide” his “ev’ry action.”

The conclusion of the end-stopped line 40 with the second installment of the compound jussive verb directs focus to the goddess’ leadership of Washington’s “ev’ry action.” Wheatley attributes these to the general via the second-person personal possessive pronoun “thy,” but the word’s unaccented nature as the first syllable of the line’s initial iamb conveys the low priority the poet places on Washington’s own judgment; instead, Wheatley exhorts the revolutionary leader to surrender to the direction of liberty personified, the goddess for whom the entire world is rooting, as opposed to the tantalizing possibilities of treasure and renown. I believe the “be” in the final line of the poem has the force of the future tense, especially when read in the context of the preceding two lines, in such a way that Wheatley is warning, “if you don’t let the goddess be thy guide, then all of those riches will be yours.” Most of the items which she catalogues are radiant, but their radiance, as the list continues into line 42, becomes increasingly stain-like rather than meritorious.

First, Wheatley mentions the crown, after which there is the mansion, and a throne that “shine[s].” So far so good, but the throne is depicted as already brighter than the crown. The end-stopping comma, however, juxtaposes the first three items on the list with the fourth and final “gold unfading,” the object of the prepositional phrase that nuances Wheatley’s portrayal of the throne upon which Washington would be sitting. The general’s prospective cathedra has become too bright as lust for wealth and power, which the gold represents, proves increasingly inescapable. At first glance, it seems that Wheatley is referring simply to the lasting renown Washington will engender should he successfully lead the Revolutionary forces to victory, which, I suspect, is Wheatley’s concern—or more specifically, whether such renown, similar to that which Agamemnon enjoyed, is a positive force in a society supposedly defined by liberty and equality.[13] The poet indicates that brightness can be splendorous only to a certain extent—and then it is blinding, a condition to which she suggests Washington might fall prey should he not bear in mind the true spirit of Columbia and fail to learn from the doomed Agamemnon.


On one hand, “To His Excellency General Washington” can be read in the way the title suggests—a celebration of George Washington’s excellency. On the other hand, however, although Wheatley was a supporter of Washington and even visited the hapless general at the start of the Revolution, the poem can be construed as encompassing the tragic story of the Trojan War in its ostensible celebration of the American fight for independence. Washington is certainly no Agamemnon, but the possibility exists, Wheatley cautions, for fundamentally human, Agamemnon-like qualities to emerge. All too often, power converges with convenient forgetfulness regarding the true purpose of any given objective. Pride is the very flaw that leads to Lucifer’s fall, as Milton—another favorite of Wheatley’s—reminds us; so too in the case of Agamemnon. Inspiringly bold considering her status as a slave, the young African American poet has set out to do her part to ensure that Washington does not follow suit, though her forewarning is obfuscated by a veil of seemingly unconditional praise for the wealthy plantation owner-turned American hero given the social realities of life in the colonies.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his introduction to The Signifying Monkey, comments on this quality of double-voicedness common to African American texts. On the surface, “To His Excellency” is an adoring tribute to a white hero, but closer analysis reveals the ways in which Wheatley advises and cautions Washington by utilizing the classical framework of the Trojan War. As Gates explains, “Black writers … learn to write by reading literature, especially the canonical texts of the Western tradition,” which results in “black texts resembl[ing] other, Western texts” (342). Many “black texts employ … the conventions of literary form that comprise the Western tradition,” but “black formal repetition always repeats with a difference, a black difference that manifests itself in specific language use,” and, in this case, an invested interest in the well-being, and liberation, of the African-American, enslaved population.

Indeed, as Lamore notes, in a 1774 letter to Samson Occom, Wheatley writes that “in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom” (144). She seeks to convince her White audience “of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite.” Building upon these concerns, “On the Death of General Wooster” (1778) involves a death scene in which the poem’s eponymous character questions how the white gentry “shall … hope to find / Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind— / While yet (O deed Ungenerous!) they disgrace / And hold in bondage Africa’s blameless race?” (145). Lamore contends that by “inserting this significant dialogue into the mouth of the white Wooster, Wheatley purposefully dismantles her previous political world comprising America as a ‘new-born Rome’ and Washington as an American Augustus” (145). Nevertheless, given her implicit criticism of Washington in “To His Excellency,” Lamore’s arguments suggesting that unqualified praise is only later followed by critique espouses a much too partitioned conception of the young African American’s poetry. It is not as though some poems are purely praiseworthy and some are sheerly condemnatory in nature, for this is a much too stark dichotomy that runs countercurrent to Wheatley’s brilliant poetic finesse.

America is too grand a venture to be marred by the senseless myopia of the privileged, she reminds us. Thankfully, however, Wheatley is no Clytemnestra. She takes her stand with words rather than violence as she creates a beautiful work of art in the face of her oppression. “To His Excellency” is not only a complex admonition but also a moving testament to freedom, which she personifies as a courageous goddess—rather than a masculine divinity—fighting the good fight. Wheatley’s poem inserts herself into the male-dominated realm of military strategy as she transcends the social and political conventions of her world. This immensely brave African-American poet thereby forges her own authoritative conception of identity not beholden to masters, Mother Country, or even the heroic General Washington himself. Personal opinion regarding the quality of Wheatley’s poetry aside, her assertive insertion alone is surely cause enough for celebration.[14]


Thanks for reading. Check out The Parlor Scene: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in Psycho 


Works Cited

Anderson, Maureen. “Phillis Wheatley’s Dido: An Analysis of ‘An Hymn to Humanity. To S.P.G. Esq.’” New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Ed. John C. Shield and Eric D. Lamore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2011. 3-18. Print.

Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Barry B. Powell. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.

Hairston, Eric Ashley. “The Trojan Horse: Classics, Memory, Transformation, and Afric Ambition in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Ed. John C. Shield and Eric D. Lamore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2011. 57-94. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Introduction to The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism.” African American Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Napier, Winston. New York: New York UP, 2000. 339-347. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Preface to Blackness: Text and Pretext.” African American Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Napier, Winston. New York: New York UP, 2000. 147-164. Print.

Lamore, Eric D. “Phillis Wheatley’s Use of the Georgic.” New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Ed. John C. Shield and Eric D. Lamore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2011. 111-115. Print.

Mallory, Devona. “I Remember Mama: Honoring the Goddess-Mother While Denouncing the Slaveowner-God in Phillis Wheatley’s Poetry.” New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Ed. John C. Shield and Eric D. Lamore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2011. 19-34. Print.

Moseley, Patrick. “Empowerment through Classicism in Phillis Wheatley’s ‘Ode to Neptune.’” New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Ed. John C. Shield and Eric D. Lamore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2011. 95-110. Print.

O’Neale, Sondra A. “Phillis Wheatley.” Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.

Ovid. Amores. The Latin Library, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2015.

Shields, John C. “Introduction.” New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Ed. John C. Shield and Eric D. Lamore. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2011. xi-xxv. Print.

Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6. Trans. H. Rushton Fairclough. Rev. G.P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.

Wheatley, Phillis. “An Hymn to the Morning.” The Vintage Book of African American Poetry. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton. New York: Vintage, 2000. 19-20. Print.

Wheatley, Phillis. “To His Excellency General George Washington.” Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.


[1] Thanks to Prof. Wheeler for all of her advice and guidance. I would also like to thank Teddy Corcoran and Nick Lehotsky for their invaluable thoughts as well. On my honor, I have neither given nor received any unacknowledged aid on this paper.

[2] See, for instance, Eric Ashley Hairston’s insightful article, “Trojan Horse,” in which he argues that Wheatley’s neoclassicism serves as a Trojan horse; her verse, “not mere pastoral, mere recusatio, nor mere mimicry[,] carried her inside the literal and intellectual walls of white, Colonial American, and British societies” (89). Wheatley’s utilization of these classical poetic precursors afforded her the ability “to achieve extraordinary access to Colonial elite, mask her ambition, acquire the power to critique Colonial civilization, and secure her freedom.”

[3] As Patrick Moseley notes, “Even the most recently initiated Phillis Wheatley scholar can pinpoint the charge most often leveled against the young African American poet: that she is, at the end of the day, at best a clever rhymester but always a derivative hack” (94). In 1808, Henri Gregoire noted that the fact that “the book went to five printings before 1800 testified far more to its acceptance as a ‘legitimate’ product of ‘the African muse’ … than to the merit of its sometimes vapid elegiac verse” (Gates, “Preface,” 148). Criticism at the time of the publication of Poems on Various Subjects was particularly harsh in some cases, with Thomas Jefferson commenting that “Never yet … could [he] find a Black that had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never seen even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” (qtd. in Gates 148).

[4] In a recent volume, John Shields writes in his introductory remarks that “[p]erhaps the most substantial measure of Wheatley’s  multilayered texts resides in her deft handling of classical materials,” commenting that one of the hallmarks of her work is the poet’s “extensive investment in classicism” (xi). When Poems on Various Subjects was published, the poems themselves were prefaced by “no fewer than eighteen ‘certificates of authenticity’” from such notables as John Handcock himself, confirming that Wheatley herself wrote the poems (Gates, “Preface,” 148).

[5] Agamemnon leads the Greek troops to Troy with the objective of retrieving Helen of Sparta, the wife of his brother, who was, by some accounts, raped, and, by all accounts, clandestinely kidnapped from the house of Menelaus despite the king’s hospitable reception of Paris. In going to war, then, the Greek kings—many of whom had taken a pledge, while standing in the blood of King Tyndareus’ horse, to protect the safety of Helen—are simply making good on their word. As the Iliad and Aeschylus’ Oresteia reminds us, however, it is all too easy to become overcome with lust for battle and glory when faced with the tantalizing prospect of sacking Troy, losing sight of the nobler aim which precipitated the conflict in the first place. Clytemnestra realizes the extent to which pride has overcome her husband only after it is too late, as Agamemnon orders his daughter Iphigeneia to be slaughtered.

[6] See conclusion for further remarks regarding Wheatley’s perspective on Caucasian treatment of slaves.

[7] Cf. Virgil’s discussion of Augustus’ victory at Philippi, Georgic I.490-514.

[8] Perhaps the most notable military conflict in this time period was the Battle of Pharsalus, fought between Julius Caesar and Pompey. Lucan would later write his epic poem about this altercation, the Pharsalia.

[9] Homer begins, “The rage sing, O goddess, of Achilles, the son of Peleus, / the destructive anger that brought ten-thousand pains to the / Achaeans and sent many brave souls of fighting men to the house / of Hades and made their bodies a feast for dogs / and all kinds of birds” (I.1-5).

[10] See Doctor Faustus, Scene XIII, 88-89.

[11] Consider, for instance, Ovid’s characterization of flava Minerva (“yellow-haired Athena”) in Amores 1.1.7-8.

[12] Of course, Augustus’ Pax Romana was far from a peaceful period of Roman history; the term was nothing more than Augustan propaganda, which calls into question the sincerity of her parallels between Washington and Augustus in other poems and, to some extent perhaps, in this one as well. Augustus’ brutality was well-noted, and so perhaps her comparisons are more critical than many scholars recognize.

[13] It is worth considering too, Wheatley’s “A Hymn to the Morning” in which she writes that she feels the sun’s “fervid beams too strong,” resulting in her “conclu[sion] [of] th’ abortive song” (Harper 20).

[14] For more regarding Wheatley’s confrontation of patriarchal hierarchy and subversion of Caucasian hegemony, see Anderson, “Phillis Wheatley’s Dido,” in which she argues that “[b]y taking on the voice of Dido, and particularly of Dido addressing Aeneas, [Wheatley] challenges not only the motives behind her contemporaries’ treatment of her as an African and a slave, but their own sense of self and their sense of nationhood; thereby she challenges her countrymen’s … concept of a true American pietas” (15). Likewise, Mallory’s “I Remember Mama” explores how “Wheatley consistently honors her African homeland while critiquing the very institution of slavery that inspired her poetic gifts” (19).