Teaching Phillis Wheatley through Anne Bradstreet

At the end of last year, we had a guest post by Caitlin Kelly that considered Early American literature relative to British literature and transatlanticism. When preparing to teach Early American literature, I like to think about what qualifies pre-United States literature as American literature. There were a range of reasons bringing our Early American writers to the colonies in America, but many of them understood themselves to be British subjects. This is an issue I raise with my students in courses that involve Early American literature and elements of a survey because it adds a different layer to discussions of canonicity.

We have also previously had a post championing the teaching of Phillis Wheatley’s Complete Works. While I am a big fan of a comprehensive teaching of Wheatley—and I would add that when I send my students to read a couple of Wheatley’s poems from project Gutenberg, they always want to talk about a poem that was not assigned—this post focuses on teaching two of her poems: “To Mæcenas” and “On the Death of a Lady of Five Years of Age.” The first shows up in many full length anthologies, but is frequently cut from the short or concise versions, while the second is not one of her anthologized elegies.

I have taught Wheatley in both American literature and African American literature courses. In the American literature classroom, I pair Wheatley with Anne Bradstreet, teaching them on consecutive days. I do teach the course thematically rather than chronologically, which makes it easy to jump a century between class periods.

In a unit that considers the questions: What qualifies as literature? Whose writing counts? And, who has control?, I begin with literature from the generation after the American Revolution and, then, move back to our writers who were British subjects in the American colonies. I teach two common Bradstreet poems, “The Prologue” and “The Author to Her Book,” and build a literary conversation between her and Wheatley. This conversation focuses largely on authorial authority—both as the writers experienced it from their social positions and how they address it in their writings—and their literary prowess.

“The Prologue” and “To Mæcenas”

I open the class periods on Bradstreet and Wheatley by presenting students with the prefaces to each woman’s book. As we read through them, I ask students to consider what their purposes are and, then, how the preface material might inform our understandings of the poems we have read by each of them. This activity helps setup our discussion on authorial authority.

For Bradstreet, we discuss the role her faith and her Puritan community play in her position as a woman, and the expectations that went along with that position. We also discuss what it means that the preface was supposedly written by her brother-in-law.

When we get to Wheatley the following day, the discussion of the preface material takes a much different form as we see the multiple layers of authentification needed, including a letter from her master and a statement signed by “respectable” men of her community. We, also, analyze the distinct difference in tone between the two sets of preface materials, which contributes to understanding the purpose of the materials and audience expectations.

My two main focuses when teaching “The Prologue” are on Bradstreet’s use of allusion and false modesty. I create two PowerPoint slides where I use different colors to draw attention to the places she employs modesty and allusion. We start by identifying the allusions—when using an anthology, that work is largely done for us—and then consider what those specific references might add to our understanding of the poem. After working through the allusions, we move onto the moments that question the abilities of women and look for other places in the poem where those statements are proven false. This is generally the most difficult part for students, but working on the allusions first, gives them a better idea of when the content might be the proof and we work through some of the more formal composition moves together.

When students return to class after reading Wheatley, our focus returns to the use of allusions, this time in “To Mæcenas.” We have seen a few of the allusions in “To Mæcenas” already in “The Prologue.” Wheatley utilizes two to three times as many allusions as Bradstreet; the majority of those references are taken from classic Greek culture, like Bradstreet. We, again, discuss the work those specific allusions are doing in the poem. We then go through the poem looking at the directness of the speaker and places where racial equality and intellectual and artistic ability are being lauded.

As we near the end of our discussion of this poem, I draw students’ attention to the final two stanzas and place Bradstreet’s final stanza next to them. Here I point out the use of a similar allusion, the laurel/bay wreath, that the two use to address artistic acknowledgement. We return to the conversation about authorial authority and the way each woman asserts hers.

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“The Author to Her Book” and “On the Death of a Lady of Five Years of Age”

As mentioned in the series on teaching a collection of poems, meter can be intimidating for some people to teach. I was/am one of those people, but it doesn’t stop me from teaching it. I understand meter. It can be difficult to teach to students, but there is something very empowering for students when they finally get it. Every time I prepare to teach Bradstreet’s “Author to Her Book,” I spend a significant amount of time reading the poem out loud to myself in an attempt to make my reading of iambic pentameter sound more natural. My strong southern California speech pattern, which comes with decades of emphasizing the wrong syllables in a variety of words, is a challenge I overcome by overemphasizing the stressing and unstressing of the syllables. This technique both helps me set the rhythm of the meter (disguising the real challenge that reading it out loud is for me) and helps my students better hear how meter works. I only take the first four lines of the poem and leave the rest for my students to read aloud. We go around the room reading the poem as many times as it takes for everyone to also read four lines. And, every semester without fail, my students become better readers of poetry written in meter than I am. I use a color coded slide of the poem’s meter to guide us through the reading aloud process.Screenshot (3)

Following the teaching of meter, we then focus on the content of the poem that makes reference to its formal composition, such as meter. I show students where she manipulates her lines with the use of trochee and anapest, and how she is being funny by playing with her mastery of meter. My students never seem to find it as humorous as I do, but they will at least agree that it is clever.

While “On the Death of a Lady of Five Years of Age” might seem like an odd pairing, I choose it for both its form and content. In terms of composition, it is written in iambic pentameter, as well. I do not create a slide for this one as I did for Bradstreet’s poem because I am pushing students to read it without the visual support of color coding. Since they just practiced iambic pentameter the class period before, the Wheatley is a refresher that they are able to read aloud at a steadier pace. Students use the word “beautiful” to describe this particular Wheatley poem, but struggle to articulate what makes it beautiful, beyond the words.

Students seem to be enamored with the content and Wheatley’s directness in its delivery. This poem’s focus on the death of a child and its clear religious fervor generates more responses from my students than other of her elegies. Considering those elements alongside Bradstreet, students often question why Wheatley addresses religion so explicitly when it appears absent from Bradstreet’s work. This leads us into a discussion of religious arguments made in support of slavery.

Reading Wheatley, as an author whose works have been embraced and devalued at different times in African American literary movements, through Bradstreet gives students a more tangible sense of how Wheatley is a part of an Early American literary tradition and how she was also distinct from it.


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