On Being Brought from Africa to America
by Phillis Wheatley
Analysis: Sound Check
Remember playing on monkey bars during recess? Swinging back and forth while using your hands to grab hold of the next metal bar to keep you from falling? How each of the bars was evenly spaced apart, and sometimes you'd skip one or two to make it across faster? This poem is sort of like that, but with sound. What are we talking about? Hang on and read the next paragraph.
Imagine the evenly spaced bars as metrical lines of this poem. That's the form and meter, but you and your hand are like the sound swinging through the poem. And what helps you hang on? The answer is rhyme, but we're not talking end rhyme; we've already gone over that. We're talking about internal rhyme that the reader's ear will catch and can keep the poem together like a sturdy set of playground equipment.
For example! Hear "brought" in the first line? Well, it rhymes with "taught" and "sought" right? Those are the sound bars the reader is holding onto as he/she crosses the poem (much like Wheatley's ship crossed the lapping waves of the ocean). But what's cool is that, not only do the words rhyme, they're connected contextually as well. Con-what? What we mean is that they play off of each other in meaning.
Check it out: Wheatley's poem is all about transition, conversion, and change. So it makes sense that she wants words to rhyme with "brought," right? Her experience of being "brought" was significant to her and the poem. And why? Because that experience "taught" her something spiritually. It also sparked a desire to search for something in her life: redemption. So those three words—brought, taught, and sought—rhyme, but they're also linked together by the idea of the speaker's conversion and change. Pretty cool, huh?
And don't miss consonance! That's right, there's rhyming in these lines, but there's also some sound play with fun things like the letter S. Check it out:
Some view our sable race with scornful eye. (5)
Hear the S in sable and the S-sound at the end of "race"? Now swing ahead to the S in scornful. Oh yeah, there's the S in "Some" too. But why? Is it just poetic luck that Wheatley ended up with so many S sounds in one line? Probably not. Look at the meaning of those words: some, sable, race, scornful. It's like an abridged version of the line. She's talking about how some people think of her black race with scorn. So all of those words are linked sonically, but they're also tied together in the message of the line. Sa-weet!
Poetic monkey bars can be fun for hours. Look through the rest of the poem and find some other sonic "bars" that your ear can catch and that hold the poem together as you read through.