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The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age$
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K. P. Van Anglen and James Engell

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781474429641

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474429641.001.0001

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Phillis Wheatley and the Political Work of Ekphrasis

Phillis Wheatley and the Political Work of Ekphrasis

(p.53) Chapter 2 Phillis Wheatley and the Political Work of Ekphrasis
The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age

Mary Louise Kete

Edinburgh University Press

Wheatley redefines herself and her prospects by choosing to open her collection of poems with the rhetorical device of ekphrasis applied to her own situation. This act of agency asserts her equality as an educated person with men and with white people in the face of society’s claims that she—as a woman, a Negro, and a slave—is inherently inferior. She rejects the ways in which her master, the eighteenth-century evangelical clergy, a noble patron, and her publisher try to control her by defining her as their creation. Instead, her use of ekphrasis to compare her situation to those of classical literary figures such as Homer, Maecenas, Virgil, and especially Terence (a freed African slave turned playwright) invokes the classical tradition in order to assert that it inspires her radical claims of gender and racial equality. In doing so, she asked many of the same questions posed by radical elements in revolutionary America, including who has the right to define what we are or will be, and what our reputation will be? She anticipates the use of ekphrasis by familiar Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Hemans as way to define and claim the ethos of the poet.

Keywords:   Wheatley, Ekphrasis, America, Terence, slavery, “To Maecenas”, romantic, classical, ethos, rhetorical

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