'To the University of Cambridge, in New-England' is an early poem by Phyllis Whitley, the first black woman to publish poetry in English. In this poem, Whitley pleads with a group of new Harvard students to be good Christians and never forget the magnitude of Jesus' sacrifice for humanity. The poem is a kind of imaginary sermon or opening speech in which Wheatley demonstrates his authority and precocious understanding of poetry. In this Phillis Wheatley essay, I will delve into the intricate layers of her poem, uncovering the nuances that unveil her remarkable authority and remarkably astute comprehension of poetry.
The humble tone which the speaker adopts while presenting herself in the position of inferiority to the addressees of the poem might also be purposeful. Regardless of the apparent differences between the poet and her audience, her choice of religious ideology of modesty allows her to effectively transmit the central and the undercover messages of the poem. The fact that everyone is equal in the eyes of God grants her with advocacy to speak to people who otherwise would appear to be out of her reach due to her status of a female Afro-American slave.
In the second stanza of the verse, the poet introduces vivid Christian imagery. While reminding the readers of God’s sacrifice, she uses explicit descriptions, “How Jesus' blood for your redemption flows. /See him with hands out-stretcht upon the cross” (12-13). They serve as tools for transmitting the theme of merciful liberation through sacrifice which is available to anybody who rejects the sin.
The last stanza of the poem contains another juxtaposition of the poet’s seemingly inferior status of an “Etioph,” with a glorification of student’s position of “blooming plants of human race divine” (27). Such formulation may serve as proof that anyone, even someone claimed to be inferior, can be converted and lead a life freed from sin. In this part of the poem, the lyrical subject encourages her audience to improve themselves upon the uncommon privileges granted to them by God and to reflect upon their morality. She warns the readers that “transient sweetness turns to endless pain” (29). In other words, about the temporality of benefits derived from sin.
Considering such reading of the poem 'To the University of Cambridge, in New-England', it should not be regarded as a peaceful expression of submission to the Western social arrangement. Although the composition might not be a pronounced criticism of it either. It serves as a starting point for a necessary discussion on issues such as the justness of forced labor or racism. In challenging times Phillis Wheatley happens to live, she adopts the only position which enables her to be heard by her audience which is her equal status according to Christian faith. Wheatley cannot escape the prejudices of the discourse of the 18th century, but she can use the language of the Bible to establish a possible way for other women, especially of color, to view literature as an opportunity to express themselves creatively and intellectually.