Historical Context in To His Excellency General Washington
Historical Context Examples in To His Excellency General Washington:
Text of the Poem
"Britannia..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Wheatley refers to Great Britain as “Britannia,” the Latin name the Romans gave to Britain when they annexed the island in 43 CE. Wheatley’s use of the name maintains the poem’s fabric of classical allusion. The reference also undermines Great Britain, America’s colonial superordinate, by recalling the historical period in which Britain was itself a colony under Roman control.
"When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The “Gallic powers” refers to France, specifically the French forces sent to the New World to colonize it. The moment “when Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found” Wheatley means is the French and Indian War, a series of conflicts between the French and British colonies in which several North American Indian tribes participated. The wars began in 1688, which explains the “one century [which] scarce perform’d its destined round”; Wheatley wrote the poem in 1776, nearly a century after the wars erupted and just 13 years after France officially lost and withdrew from the Americas.
"Olive and laurel bind her golden hair:..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The “olive and laurel” which bind Columbia’s hair are references to the ceremonial wreaths used in classical Greek and Roman culture. The olive wreath, the kotinos, was used to celebrate winners of the Olympic games in ancient Greece. The laurel wreath, sported by the god Apollo, was used in both Greece and Rome to denote victories in numerous spheres: poetry, athletics, and military conquests. In this line, Wheatley draws heavily on the traditions of the classical world while symbolizing the complete excellence that characterizes Columbia.
"scenes before unknown!..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Wheatley frames the American Revolution as something novel in world history, which is accurate in many ways. In a historical era defined by colonization, the American Revolution was unprecedented. To the European kingdoms, the notion that a colony could revolt and build itself into a rival power was new and unsettling.
"Columbia’s..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The word “Columbia” is Wheatley’s name for America. The term “Columbia” became popular in the 1730s as a place-name to encompass the thirteen colonies. The name’s origin derives from Christopher Columbus. Wheatley’s innovation was to personify Columbia as a goddess-like character, the powerful and fiercely defiant symbol of American nationalism. This poem became so influential that Wheatley’s character of Columbia entered the mythology of the United States and was used in the works of other writers and artists.
"Celestial choir!..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The poem opens with an invocation to the muses, a call for inspiration from a “celestial choir.” This device was typical of the poets of the neoclassical movement in which Wheatley wrote. The neoclassical poets drew themes and ideas from Greek and Roman antiquity, including the opening invocation favored by the ancient poets, from Homer to Virgil. Wheatley was familiar with the classics and read in both Greek and Latin.