When I first read Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” it felt like a wash of impossible ice water in a humid Midwestern summer. Its elegant formality stopped me. Yes, she wrote in the manner of her times: its classical rhythms and rhymes, its grand loftiness. But still—my mind trembles—she sang like that? Despite enslavement, despite loss, despite limits unfathomable to modern minds, she lifted her pen and mastered the meter of her day, made it ring with her voice, and believed that on pinions we can “surpass the wind.”
In seven stanzas of iambic pentameter, her poem meditates on the force of imagination, as in Dickinson’s “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”. But Wheatley’s poem does not have the spare tetrameters and clean lines of a protestant hymnal, it is self-consciously grand. The reader meets Greek gods and muses. She argues that imagination is monarch of mind, passion, and joy. Yet Wheatley’s consideration ends with these words: “Winter austere forbids me to aspire, / And northern tempests damp the rising fire; / They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea, / Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.” A poet’s ponderings ended by a chilly morning? The odd “unequal lay” at the end of the poem which clunks and fumbles after lines consistently shaped by true and off-rhyme—is this a poet’s humility or is it artful proof that she is more than up to the task? What of that winter—so carefully italicized—what is the cold, barren season that would stall a poet’s pen? Ah, she makes me sad at the end of the poem because she dares to betray her argument. I want to believe in the rising fire and that like imagination and with imagination it is never vanquished.