When reading Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, it is fairly simple to differentiate the person, “Anne,” from the persona, “Mistress Bradstreet.” This is not the case in Phillis Wheatley’s.
We know that to be both a female and a black poet at the time must have presented tremendous obstacles, and in light of this, it is tempting to be suspicious of the too-perfect calm, civility, and deference in Wheatley’s poetic voice. (For example, see On Being Brought from Africa to America: “’Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land / Taught my benighted soul to understand / ….Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refined, and join the angelic train.”) It seems difficult to believe that Wheatley is not using some sort of persona, as Bradstreet did, to defend herself and her work from society’s dismissive opinion of both her race and gender.
However, in Bradstreet’s poetry the persona split was made evident by some inconsistency in the way she referred to herself as a woman and a poet (see The Prologue), in the way she talked about God (compare Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House and To My Dear Children), and possibly even in the way that she seemed to use far fewer classical allusions and a simpler vocabulary when writing poetry that was a little more personal (compare The Prologue to lines 21-32 of Here Follows Some Verses upon the Burning of Our House). In Wheatley’s poetry, any such inconsistencies are hard to spot. Wheatley, for instance, seems extremely comfortable using a consistently excellent vocabulary and a plethora of classical and Biblical allusions, as in lines 27-32 of To S.M.:
“…There shall thy tongue in heavenly murmurs flow,
And there my muse with heavenly transport flow:
No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,
Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes,
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,
And purer language on the ethereal plain.”
Wheatley also seems consistently pious, referencing God and the Bible often and without any apparent irony (see lines 10-20 of To the University of Cambridge), and as far as how she views herself personally, there seems to be little or none of the self-deprecating language we sometimes see in Bradstreet’s poetry. As far as I can tell, Wheatley never mentions her gender at all in this selection of poems, and it is certainly never brought to attention as a weakness. She mentions her race far more frequently, but she only seems to do so to point out how undervalued blacks are; we see this when she pointedly dedicates her work to an African painter in To S.M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works, or when she seems to somewhat archly remind Christians that “Negroes, black as Cain, / May be refined” in On Being Brought from Africa to America. If anything, and especially looking at the artist-to-artist poem To S.M., Wheatley seems to mostly just see herself as a poet.
In short, then, Wheatley seems overall to simply be an intelligent woman writing in the way most natural to her. Bradstreet’s persona often seemed forced and burdensome, but Wheatley’s poetic voice seems to one in which she’s completely at home; it seems no more of a persona than any other poet would use. Does this mean that Wheatley simply did not buy into either the racism or the sexism of her day, and was writing in defiance of both? Or is there some way in which she is accepting her society-given racial or gender role? Is there any instance in which we see her constructing some sort of persona to meet expectations?