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Vocabulary in To His Excellency General Washington
Vocabulary Examples in To His Excellency General Washington:
Text of the Poem
"with virtue on thy side,..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
In Greek and Roman philosophy, “virtue” refers to moral excellence, or any qualities guided by a strong sense of goodness. The four classical virtues are temperance, prudence, courage, and justice, many of which Wheatley illustrates in her descriptions of the American Revolution. This line is a prime example of Wheatley’s signature blending of classical thought and tradition with contemporary American politics. Wheatley held an intellectual interest in ethics and virtue throughout her life, and she published a poem titled “On Virtue” in 1773.
"pensive..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The adjective “pensive” means “thoughtful” and carries connotations of melancholy or gloominess. The suggestion is that in the face of the surging American militants, Great Britain has retreated into a state of grief, pondering unproductively about what to do.
"droops..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The verb “to droop” means “to hang or sink down, as from weariness.” The suggestion here is that Great Britain is waning in power, exhausted by the tireless American rebels.
"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.
"high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air...." See in text (Text of the Poem)
An “ensign” is an emblem or banner, often carried by a military unit to represent its loyalties. The image of the American troops unfurling the “ensign waves in air” conveys a sense of pride while bringing back the image of the literal waves from earlier in the stanza.
"refluent..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The adjective “refluent” means “flowing back” or “flowing again.” In its literal usage, it applies to oceanic waves. In its metaphorical usage, it applies to human emotions. Wheatley draws on both usages here. The obvious image in this line is of “surges,” or waves, repeatedly striking the shore, making this is a poetic figure for the repeated efforts of the American militia.
"Muse! bow propitious..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The word “propitious” means “merciful,” “gracious,” and “favorably inclined,” specifically in the context of the divine. The phrase “Muse! bow propitious” is thus a repeated invocation to the muse, another call for inspiration.
"refulgent..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The adjective “refulgent” means gleaming, shimmering. It comes from the Latin “fulgere,” which means “to shine.” Throughout the poem, Wheatley uses such latinate diction to strike an elegant, elevated tone.
"While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
Wheatley constructs this line using an unusual syntax in order to draw a double meaning from the word “alarms.” The clause could logically be reassembled as “While freedom’s cause alarms her anxious breast.” In this case, “alarm” means to call to action, with “freedom’s cause” as the subject and “her anxious breast” as the object being roused. As it is written, however, “her anxious breast alarms” draws on another usage of “alarm,” which means to arm oneself. Thus, “her anxious breast” operates as both subject and object, arming itself. This second reading is not strictly accurate, but it is reinforced by the next line with its image of “refulgent arms.”
"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.