An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera
Arts & Humanities
Poetry: The Elegy
Phillis Wheatley was a young slave who, while educated only by her master's wife, was a prolific poet. During her teenage years, several of her poems were published in newspapers or on broadsides. In 1773, she and the couple who owned her traveled to England, where she published a book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book published by an African-American author. Wheatley was freed upon her return to America later that year. Her poetry brought her to the attention of prominent Revolutionary leaders, including General George Washington.
Many of Wheatley's poems were elegies, poems written to mourn a death. One such poem, "To the Rev. Mr. Pitkin, on the Death of His Lady," expressed grief at the loss of a loved one while recognizing the joy of celestial reward for a noble life. The following is an excerpt from that poem.
"WHERE Contemplation finds her sacred Spring;
Where heav'nly Music makes the Centre ring;
Where Virtue reigns unsulled, and divine;
Where Wisdom thron'd, and all the Graces shine;
There sits thy Spouse, amid the glitt'ring, Throng;
There central Beauty feasts the ravish'd Tongue;
With recent Powers, with recent glories crown'd,
The Choirs angelic shout her Welcome round."
Read the entire poem "To the Rev. Mr. Pitkin, on the Death of His Lady." Find at least two additional elegies in the American Time Capsule collection. Keyword Searches using the terms poem and elegy will produce numerous possibilities, including the following:
- "Death of Wm. Harrison"
- "A Poem on the Much-Lamented Death of Mr. Edmund Titcomb"
Read several of the elegiac poems, comparing the various poets' works:
- What do you notice about the language used in the poems? For example, how do the poets describe the people who have died? What metaphors do they use? Can you see similarities among the poems? Are there obvious differences?
- What kinds of references do the poets use? Why do you think they used these kinds of references?
- What do you notice about the use of rhyme in the poems? Do the poets use rhyme similarly? What do you notice about meter (rhythm)? Do the poets use meter similarly?
- When were most of these poems written? Think of at least two possible explanations for this. (For example, one possibility is that elegiac poems are no longer published in a broadside form and thus do not appear in this collection.) How might you determine which explanation is correct?
- Which poem do you like best? Why?