Phillis Wheatley, First African American Poet

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784) was the first published African American poet and first African-American woman whose writings were published. Born in Gambia, Senegal, she was made a slave at age seven. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write, and helped encourage her poetry.

The 1773 publication of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral brought her fame, with figures such as George Washington praising her work. Wheatley also visited England for five weeks accompanying her master’s son and was praised in a poem by fellow African American poet Jupiter Hammon. Wheatley was emancipated by her owners after both her poetic success and the death of her master, and she soon married. However, when her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Wheatley fell into poverty and died of illness.

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Phillis Wheatley, as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the Frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects

Early life

Although the date and location of her birthplace is not perfectly documented, it is believed that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753, somewhere in West Africa, most likely somewhere in present-day Gambia. Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761, on a slave ship called The Phillis, which was owned by Timothy Finch and captained by Peter Gwinn.

At the age of eight, she was sold to wealthy Bostonian merchant and tailor John Wheatley, who bought the young girl as a servant for his wife, Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named the young girl Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America.

Phillis began her education being tutored by the Wheatley’s eighteen-year-old daughter, Mary. John Wheatley, known as a progressive throughout New England, and the rest of the Wheatley family’s open-mindedness allowed Phillis to receive an unprecedented education for not only an enslaved person, but for a female of any race. By the age of twelve, Phillis was already reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. Amazed by her literary ability, the Wheatley family made Phillis’ education an important concern, and left the household labor to the other enslaved persons that the family owned. Influenced heavily by the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, Phillis Wheatley’s studies began to gravitate toward the realm of poetry.

Later life

In 1773, Wheatley was sent to London with Nathaniel Wheatley to recover her health . However, Wheatley’s visit did not go unnoticed. She held an audience with the Lord Mayor of London (a further audience with George III was arranged but Phillis returned home beforehand) as well as with other significant members of British society. A collection of her poetry was also published in London during this visit. Wheatley was emancipated from slavery, but not given the full rights of a free woman, on October 18, 1773.

In 1775, she published a poem celebrating George Washington entitled, “To His Excellency George Washington.” In 1776, Washington invited Wheatley to his home as thanks for the poem and Thomas Paine republished the poem in the Pennsylvania Gazette as a result of Wheatley’s audience with Washington. Whilst Wheatley was a supporter of the American Revolution, the war proved to be detrimental to the publication of her poetry because readers were swept up in the frenzy of the war and seemingly disinterested in poetry.

In 1778, Wheatley was legally freed from the bonds of slavery when her master John Wheatley died. Three months later, Wheatley married John Peters, a free black grocer. Her marriage was shaky as a result of poor living conditions and the death of two infant children. Wheatley was unable to publish another volume of her poetry because of her financial circumstances, the loss of patrons after her emancipation and the impact of the Revolutionary War.

Wheatley’s husband, John Peters, was imprisoned for debt in 1784, leaving an impoverished Wheatley behind with a sickly infant son. Wheatley became a scullery maid at a boarding house, forced into domestic labor that she had avoided earlier in life while enslaved. Wheatley died alone on December 5, 1784, at age 31. Her infant son died three and a half hours after her death.

Poetry

In 1768, Wheatley wrote “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” in which she praised George III for repealing the Stamp Act. However, as the American Revolution gained strength, Wheatley’s writing turned to themes from the point of view of the colonists.

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In 1770 Wheatley wrote a poetic tribute to George Whitefield that received widespread acclaim. Wheatley’s poetry overwhelmingly revolves around Christian themes, with many poems dedicated to famous personalities. Over one-third consist of elegies, the remainder being on religious, classical, and abstract themes. She rarely mentions her own situation in her poems. One of the few which refers to slavery is “On being brought from Africa to America”:

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

“Their colour is a diabolic dye.”

Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.´

Many white Americans of the time found it hard to believe that an African woman could write poetry, and Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court in 1772. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries, including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. Wheatley and her master’s son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth helped with the publication.

In 1778, African American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley. Hammon never mentions himself in the poem, but it appears that in choosing Wheatley as a subject, he was acknowledging their common bond.

Style, Structure, and Influences on Poetry

Wheatley, like most authors, wrote about what she knew or experienced. She believed that the power of poetry is immeasurable. John C. Shields notes that the poetry formed from her knowledge is not just a literature review of the novels she’s read but has significance to Wheatley’s personal ideas and beliefs. Shields’ writes, ” Wheatley had more in mind than simple conformity. It will be shown later that her allusions to the sun god and to the goddess of the morn, always appearing as they do here in close association with her quest for poetic inspiration, are of central importance to her.” For example, her poem “Ode to Neptune” signifies her life in many ways. The language of the poem starts out shaky and chaotic but the mood is adventurous yet scary (reflecting much of her life experiences). By the end of the poem the language and attitude seems to generate an emotion of a calm peaceful journey that served of great importance. This poem is arranged into three stanzas of four lines in iambic tetrameter followed by a concluding couplet in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is ababcc. Her structure or form of the poetry depicts the tone of the writing and what the reader show gain from the poem in both a literary sense and a historical analysis.

She is known to use three different elements to create make her poetry meaningful: Christianity, classicism, and hierophantic solar worship. The use of classicism and Christianity do not only combine to make the structure of Wheatley’s work completely pagan or Christian due to a third element used in her poetry, hierophantic solar worship.[11] The hierophantic solar worship is what she brought with her from Africa; this is the worship of sun gods (depicting her African culure). This idea of the sun worship is significant due to the fact that her parents were sun worshipers. This is also why she refers to the different words for sun so many times. The word “Aurora appears eight times, Apollo seven, Phoebus twelve, and Sol twice.”[11] The word light is of high importance to her, because it marks her history. Therefore the significance of her writing about it alludes to the past which she has left behind. But creating these experiences for the reader gives her work an emotional appeal that captures her readers.

But remembering that the word Sun can also be written as Son is important, inflicting a pun on the son of Christ which alludes to her biblical ideas of writing. Other biblical references include the references to muses. While other writers throw the word heavenly around, Wheatley only uses the phrase “heav’nly muse” in two of her poems: “To a Clergy Man on the Death of his Lady” and “Isaiah LXIII” signifying her idea of the Christian deity and the biblical effects that inspire her work. This shows how important the biblical aspects of her work really are. But her use of classicism is what sets her work apart from others. Shield writes that, “Wheatley’s use of classicism distinguishes her work as original and unique and deserves extended treatment.” Classicism is the use of language that maintains the formal aspects of language but refuses the norm. Therefore, Phillis Wheatley being the first African American poet is not only an accomplishment in itself but for her to set outside the norms and find a writing style that works for her is courageous. Shield’s sums up Wheatley’s writing by saying, most of Wheatley’s poems are “contemplative and reflective rather than brilliant and shimmering.” Her contemplative and reflective aspects as well as her race are what set her apart.

Recognition and legacy

With the 1774 publication of Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, she “became the most famous African on the face of the earth.” Voltaire stated in a letter to a friend that Wheatley had proved that black people could write poetry. John Paul Jones asked a fellow officer to deliver some of his personal writings to “Phillis the African favorite of the Nine (muses) and Apollo.” She was also honored by many of America’s founding fathers, including George Washington.

Wheatley’s book is today seen as helping create the genre of African American literature.

She is honored as the first African American woman to publish a book and the first to make a living from her writing.

Poems by Phillis Wheatley

Poems by Phillis Wheatley, An Address to the Atheist and An Address to the Deist, 1767

To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1768

Poem by Phillis Wheatley, Atheism, July 1769

An Elegaic Poem On the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned Mr. George Whitefield, 1771

Poem by Phillis Wheatley, A Poem of the Death of Charles Eliot, 1 September 1772

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (title page and frontispiece of 1773 edition)

Poem by Phillis Wheatley, To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor on the death of his Lady, 24 March 1773

An Elegy, To Miss Mary Moorhead, On the Death of her Father, The Rev. Mr. John Moorhead, 1773

An Elegy, Sacred to the Memory of the Great Divine, the Reverend and the Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper, 1784

Liberty and Peace, A Poem, 1784

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (title page and front matter of 1802 edition)

To the Right and Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” from Poems of Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1802 edition)

Books

Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave(Boston: Published by Geo. W. Light, 1834), also by Margaretta Matilda Odell

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One Response to Phillis Wheatley, First African American Poet

  1. mistymtns says:

    Thank you, haven’t read all of her writings. Was very impressed with her Elegy of Rev. John Moorhead. Time to dust off some books.

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