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Thomas Gray and Phillis Wheatley were both active poets during the 18th century, yet they came from two completely separate worlds, and had critically different poetic style. Thomas Gray was a University of Cambridge educated man whose work was only recognized after his death as essential pieces of English literature during the 18th century. He produced "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", a proto-romantic poem, and is regarded as "one of the most celebrated poems in the English language" (Black et al. 602). Phillis Wheatley was an African-American woman who was brought to America by British colonists, and was purchased to be a slave/servant by John Wheatley. Phillis was also the first African-American woman to have a book published during the 18th century, and no other black author was able to do so until the early 19th century (Salih). She taught herself to read and write the English language from studying the Bible, and by reading the works from other poets such as Thomas Gray.
Both Gray and Wheatley had to deal with the deaths of significant beings in their lives, and these are reflected in their poetry. Wheatley presents two elegiac and esoteric poems on the topic of death and spirituality: "On the Death of the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield" and "A Funeral Poem on the Death of C.E., An Infant of Twelve Months". Gray offers a differing perspective on the topic of life, death, and loss, as seen in his poems: "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" and "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes". The views on the topics of life, death, spirituality, morality, and loss are apparent in the works of both Wheatley and Gray, but it is the esoteric aspect of Wheatley and the proto-romantic/mock-epic style of Gray that truly sets these two apart.
Wheatley's upbringing and education through learning to read and write from the Bible dramatically impacts the way in which she constructed her poetry. Mostly all of her pieces are to do with religion, mortality, and attaining salvation in the afterlife. In her piece "On the Death of the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield", Wheatley honours the late reverend George Whitefield for the gracious work he had committed to preaching to not only African slaves, but also the dedication in his beliefs. Wheatley praises the reverend for his ability to "Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind" (" On the Death" 8), through his speeches and sermons about salvation in the afterlife. Whitefield would often preach to the African slaves, offering salvation in the afterlife by practicing Christianity. Wheatley recognizes that Mr. Whitefield's death is a sad occasion, but his work on earth is complete and his soul will continue on to the afterlife: "Whitefield no more exerts his lab'ring breath / yet let us view him in th'eternal skies / let ev'ry heart to this bright vision rise" ( "On the Death" 43-45).
Gray sets the scene in the beginning of the poem, "Elegy writing in a Country Churchyard", and lets the reader envision the setting of a rural necropolis: "Now fades the glimmerings landscape on the sight / beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade / where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap" ("Elegy" 5, 13-14). Gray uses personification throughout this piece, and gives words such as death, ambition, and flattery capitalization to show this: "Let not Ambition mock their useful toil / or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death" ( "Elegy" 29, 44). Life is filled with missed opportunities, and this is an apparent message put forth by Gray in considering what the cadavers surrounding him could have accomplished if they had been educated. Thomas Gray ponders: "Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid / some heart once pregnant with celestial fire / hands that the rod of empire might have swayed" (45-48). Gray doubles back in his thinking, and reminds readers that not all good people come from education: "Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest / some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood" ( "Elegy" 59-60). Gray seems focused on what these dead people could have accomplished in their lives, and not on the eternal salvation they receive in death as Wheatley would have focused on. The country churchyard is significant to Gray's relation of the country folk to simple ways, and how they remained "fair from the madding crowd's ignoble strife / their sober wishes never learned to stray / they kept the noiseless tenor of their way" ("Elegy" 73-74, 76). Gray shows the reader that these rustic people will be equally remembered, but perhaps for different reasons other than being of considerable fame. Gray reinforces that, in death, no grand gesture of tombstone marking is necessary and that in the finale of life, all that really ever matters is true friendship: "He gave to Misery all he had, a tear / he gained from Heaven ('twas all he wished) a friend" ("Elegy" 123-124).
Wheatley's second piece, "A Funeral Poem on the Death of C.E., An Infant of Twelve Months" gives a spiritual perspective into the tragedy of the death of an infant. Poets such as Thomas Gray would view the death from a mortal level, fearing the loss of material things, and the consideration of who or what the child could have become such as he does with the deceased in the unmarked graves in "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard". Wheatley reminds readers that faith should provide reassurance of lost loved ones eternal salvation, and that this is the most important thing for any spiritual individual. Wheatley criticizes the parents of the infant for mourning over their lost child, but she does so in a manner that is justified. Wheatley proclaims that the parents of the infant should not grieve in vain, but be considered lucky because their child did not have to suffer the vices of the earthly world. Wheatley implies that in dealing with death, one should not grieve to a point in which it is only to satisfy their pities in the material world, and that wishing for their child back is selfish: "Say, would you tear him from the realms above / by thoughtless wishes and prepost'rous love" (" A Funeral Poem" 29-30). It is hypocritical of the parents to wish their child back down to earth when they should believe that their lost infant is in a beautiful and wondrous place. The child is thankful that God has taken him, and that he is pure and would not succumb to sin or temptation: "Thanks to my God, who snatched me to the skies / Ere yet on sin's base actions I was bent / Ere yet I knew temptation's dire intent " ("A Funeral Poem" 14, 17-18). The soul of the infant instead is saved, and Wheatley beckons for the parents to remember their spiritual beliefs. They should feel comfort in knowing that their infant has made it to a better place without having to face the harshness of the mortal world.
Gray's poem, "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes" chronicles the death of a cat by drowning in a fishbowl. Gray introduces a mock-epic here, and uses an ode for his lost feline acquaintance. The use of the ode was typically reserved for reference to people of importance and popularity, but Gray implores it towards a cat, so the mock-epic style is to be seen as humorous. Gray portrays the heroine cat as absorbed into gazing at the fish in the bowl, and is drawn into "their scaly armour's tyrian hue / through richest purple to the view / betrayed a golden beam" ("Ode on the Death" 16-18). Gray refers to the cat as a "hapless nymph" ("Ode on the Death" 19) reaching out towards the fish, and proclaims: "What female heart can gold despise / What cat's averse to fish" ("Ode on the Death" 23-24). The cat tumbles into the water, but "no dolphin came, no Nereid stirred / nor cruel Tom nor Susan heard" ("Ode on the Death" 34-35). The poor creature inevitably drowns, and no rescuer comes to save her. In the end of this Mock-Epic ode, Gray presents a statement on morality for both felines and women alike: "not all that tempts your wondering eyes / and heedless hearts is lawful prize / nor all that glisters gold" ("Ode on the Death" 40-43).
Although both Thomas Gray and Phillis Wheatley were poetic geniuses, they had very differing opinions and views about life, death, morality, and spirituality. This may be due to Wheatley's religious upbringing, her undying faith in the belief of eternal salvation in the afterlife, and Gray's attachment to the material world. Nevertheless, both poets are considered to be quite revolutionary for their time, and have proven that excellent poetry does last forever.