Poet & Hero
I am not a poet but I am an author who knows the value of being published. I am also intimately acquainted with the long and painful process of getting anything written – prose, poetry, fiction, non-fiction – to a publisher and into print.
So, when I discovered Phillis Wheatley in the Wikipedia List of Historical Firsts, I was immediately intrigued and went looking for more about this woman who was listed as the first notable African poet in America and the first African-American woman to have her writings published. (1) (They were published in England but published is published!)
Here’s what I found – Phillis was a slave from the age of eight, born in Senegal and purchased by the John Wheatley family of Boston(2) after she was kidnapped at the age of ten and transported on a slave ship – The Phillis – from which she got her name. Unlike many African slaves brought to America in the 18th Century, Phillis was blessed with an owner who knew the value of knowledge and education and who also saw value in every human being, regardless of the color of skin or country of origin.
The Making of a Poet
John Wheatley and his wife Susanna encouraged Phillis to improve herself and actually allowed her to be tutored by their daughter, Mary. When Phillis was finished with her housework, she studied science, history, geography, English, and even Greek and Latin classics, including Bible passages. Impressed by her intelligence and hard work, the Wheatley’s continued to encourage Phillis and allowed her to express herself in writing; they even provided her with her own pen and paper that she could keep in her room, in case she was inspired during the night.
When Phillis was 20 years old, she went to London with Nathaniel Wheatley for an audience with the Lord Mayor of London. The Wheatley’s had arranged for her to recite a poem to King George III, but she had to return to Boston before the scheduled appearance, but a collection of her poetry was published in London before she left for home. On October 18, 1773, Phillis was granted total freedom in England – free of slavery and bestowed with the full rights of a free woman – because of her popularity and influence as a poet. (Source: Wikipedia)
Back in Boston, Phillis continued to write her inspired poetry, including a poem entitled “To His Excellency General Washington.” She was invited to his home but with the onset of the Revolutionary War, publication of poetry took a back seat to war issues and it was almost three years before she had her poetry published. By this time, Phillis had been legally freed when John Wheatley died. In 1778 she married a free man named John Peters and Phillis’ poetry was back in print.
The Making of a Hero
This “charmed” life came to a crashing end when her husband was sent to debtor’s prison, leaving her penniless and alone with a sickly infant to raise. She was forced into the life of a scullery maid in a boarding house, working harder than she ever had as a slave. She died on December 5, 1784 at the age of 31.
She is memorialized in this stunning bronze statue rendered by Meredith Bergmann and placed on the corner of Commonwealth & Fairfield Streets in Boston as part of the 2003 Boston Women's Memorial. Phillis Wheatley is a hero of the 1st order, rising well above her forced station in life to achieve a personal and professional best – her 1774 “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.”
Her other poems include:
"An Address to the Atheist," 1767
- "An Address to the Deist." 1767
- "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty," 1768
- "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
- "A Poem of the Death of Charlres Eliot...," 1 September 1772
- "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," 1773 and 1802 editions
- "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 Reverent and the Learned Dr. Samuel Cooper," 1784
- "Liberty and Peace, A Poem," 1784
- "To the Right and Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth...," 1802
A book was written on her life, "Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave," (Boston, Published by George E. Light, 1834), also by Margaretta Matilda Odell.
Here are some excerpts of Ms. Phillis Wheatley's Poetry:
To the Rt. Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth
No more, America, in mournful strain Of wrongs,
and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t'enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway."
"To The Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth," stanza 2-3,
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)
But how is Mneme dreaded by the race,
Who scorn her warnings and despise her grace?
By her unveil'd each horrid crime appears,
Her awful hand a cup of wormwood bears.
Days, years misspent, O what a hell of woe!
Hers the worst tortures that our souls can know.
"On Recollection," stanza 2, lines 7-12, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)
On Being Brought From Africa to America
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
“On Being Brought from Africa to America,” lines 5-8, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).
To a Gentleman and A Lady on the Death
of the Lady's Brother and Sister...
But, Madam, let your grief be laid aside,
And let the fountain of your tears be dry'd,
In vain they flow to wet the dusty plain,
Your sighs are wafted to the skies in vain,
Your pains they witness, but they can no more,
While Death reigns tyrant o'er this mortal shore.
"To a Gentleman and Lady on the Death of the Lady's Brother and Sister, and a Child of the Name of Avis, aged one Year." stanza 2, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)