The poetry of Phillis Wheatley is crafted in such a manner that she is able to create a specific aim for each poem, and achieve that aim by manipulating her position as the speaker. As a slave, she was cautious to cross any lines with her proclamations, but was able to get her point across by humbling her own position. In religious or elegiac matters, however, she seemed to consider herself to be an authority. Two of her poems, the panegyric “To MAECENAS” and the elegy “On the Death of a young Lady of Five Years of Age,” display Wheatley’s general consistency in form, but also her intelligence, versatility, and ability to adapt her position in order to achieve her goals.
The main difference between these types of poems is that a panegyric is used to praise and flatter a living person, and an elegy is mournful regarding the death of someone. This is not to say that an elegy cannot fall under the classification of a panegyric, however one does not imply the other.
According to www.Brittanica.com, panegyrics were originally speeches delivered in ancient Greece at a gathering in order to praise the former glory of Greek cities but later became used to praise and flatter eminent persons such as emperors. It seems fitting, therefore, that Wheatley’s panegyric, “To MAECENAS” contains so many classical allusions. In this poem she thanks and praises her unnamed patron, comparing him to Maecenas, the famed Roman patron of Virgil and Horace. It is widely believed that even though Maecenas is referred to as a male in her poem, in actuality it refers to the Countess of Huntingdon, Phillis Wheatley’s actual British patron. This is supported by the fact that her book is dedicated to the Countess, and also by her reference to the Thames river in the poem (l. 48), which implies that the patron is British. According to the Introduction of Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings, (ed. Vincent Carretta), Wheatley’s decision to refer to the Countess as a male could be due to her lack of a classical female model, and the fact that the Countess, as an aristocratic widow, held as much power and authority as a male did at that time. (p. xx).
The many classical allusions of “To MAECENAS” are not mimicked in “On the Death…” Rather than classical references, this poem contains many references to more Christian ideals, such as angels, heaven, and God. Since this elegy is directed towards the parents of the young girl who died, the Christian references seem much more appropriate for the subject matter, since the family of the deceased girl is most likely Christian, and a reference to Homer would probably not help their grieving.
These poems also differ in how Wheatley takes her stance toward the subjects of each poem. In “On the Death…” Wheatley takes the superior position of a spiritual sage, assuring the parents that their young daughter, Nancy, is smiling in heaven, instructing them on how to cope with Nancy’s death, and how...