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On "A Letter from Phyllis Wheatley"

Fred M. Fetrow

Here the poet uses an epistolary technique in the creation of what he called a "psychogram," a psychological profile of this first recognized American black poet within her historical-cultural context. Ostensibly written from England to her friend Orbour Tanner in 1773, the letter derives its verisimilitude from Hayden's imitation of Wheatley's "voice" through his deft creation of vocal cadence, latinate diction, and a plausible "style."

The resultant poem abounds in irony. Its drama grows out of disparities between those ironies Wheatley notes and those that are lost on her, but not the reader. For example, she mentions the ironic contrast between her recent uneventful ocean crossing and the earlier westward crossing as a slave, but it is the reader who senses the irony in her assumption that her enslavement ("my Destined/ Voyage") was God-willed. She also sees no disparity in being received by the nobility, yet excluded from joining her hosts at supper ("I dined apart / like captive Royalty"). As a true "Patriot," she seems more concerned about the loyalty of being presented at the English court, but such a prospect is not without ironies she does perceive ("I thought of Pocahontas"). Even in "Idyllic England," she realizes, "there is / no Eden without its Serpent," yet in expectable neoclassical manner she resists "Sombreness," even in intimate correspondence. Hayden further humanizes his subject with her closing anecdote about an incident she considers "Droll." Hayden's fully dimensioned version of the "Sable Muse" displays her appreciation of life's lighter ironies also, as shown by her amusement at being asked by a blackened young British chimney sweep, "Does you, M'lady, sweep chimneys too?"

From Robert Hayden. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984. Copyright 1984 by G.K. Hall & Company. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Pontheolla T. Williams

"A Letter from Phyllis Wheatley" is notable for the fresh insight it gives on what could have been the response of the colonial poet to her visit in England. It belies the beliefs of some that she was a docile and gratified participant in her own slavery. Her voyage from America to England prompts her recollections of the "horrors" of the "middle passage," the voyage to America, and slavery. In England she was gratified when "the Countess," her patron, praised her poetry, but she resented the segregated dining area where she was seated. She learned that what seemed like "Eden" also had its "serpent" when she was called a "Cannibal Mockingbird" at the same time she was being feted at teas. Nevertheless, she kept her sense of humor when a young "Chimney Sweep" asked her if she, too, were a sweep. Her forbearance, a saving grace, came from her deeply religious faith.

From Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

John Hatcher

The poem which Hayden described as a ‘psychogram,’ is an epistolary form of a dramatic monologue in which the former slave writes to her friend Obour during a visit to London in 1773. With wry humor she relates her encounter with a young chimney-sweep who, observing her dark skin, asks, 'Does you, M’lady, sweep chimneys too?' She also notes the hissing scorn of 'would-be Wits' who 'murmur of the Yankee Pedlar/ and his Cannibal Mockingbird', a phenomenon she refers to as the 'Serpent' in idyllic England's Eden.

from From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Copyright 1984 by John Hatcher.

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