Phillis Wheatley

On September 1, 1773, Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London, England. Wheatley’s collection was the first volume of poetry by an African-American poet to be published. Regarded as a prodigy by her contemporaries, Wheatley was approximately twenty at the time of the book’s publication.

ARISE, my soul, on wings enraptur’d, rise
To praise the monarch of the earth and skies,
Whose goodness and beneficence appear
As round its centre moves the rolling year,
Or when the morning glows with rosy charms,
Or the sun slumbers in the ocean’s arms:
Of light divine be a rich portion lent
To guide my soul, and favour my intent.
Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!

Phillis Wheatley, “Thoughts on the Works of Providence.” In Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: Printed for A. Bell, bookseller, Aldgate, 1773. Rare Book & Special Collections Division.

Frontispiece and Title Page, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Engraving attributed to Scipio Moorhead, 1773. Imagination Gallery B. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Born in the Senegambia region of West Africa, she was sold into slavery and transported to Boston at age seven or eight. Purchased off the slave ship by prosperous merchant John Wheatley and his wife Susanna in 1761, the young Phillis was soon copying the English alphabet on a wall in chalk.

Rather than fearing her precociousness, the Wheatleys encouraged it, allowing their daughter Mary to tutor Phillis in reading and writing. She also studied English literature, Latin, and the Bible—a strong education for any eighteenth-century woman. Wheatley’s first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” was published in Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury newspaper on December 21, 1767.

Manumitted by the Wheatley family, the poet sailed to London in 1773. Her reputation preceded her. She met many influential people, including the Lord Mayor of London who presented her with a copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Her volume of poetry was published under the patronage of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon.

S. Huntingdon / H.B. Hall, sc. [Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791)]. [between 1830 and 1880(?)]. Prints & Photographs Division

Learning of Mrs. Wheatley’s ill health, Phillis Wheatley returned to Boston prior to the book’s appearance. Arriving in Boston in September 1773, she nursed her mistress until Susanna Wheatley died the following March. Wheatley continued to write. In 1776, she sent her poem “To his Excellency General Washington,” later published in the Pennsylvania Magazine, to the commander in chief of the Continental army. General Washington thanked her for the poem in a letter:

I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. In honour of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the Poem, had I not been apprehensive, that, while I only meant to give the World this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of Vanity. This and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public Prints.

George Washington to Phillis Wheatley, February 28, 1776. Series 3, Varick Transcripts, 1775-1785, Subseries 3H, Personal Correspondence, 1775-1783, Letterbook 1: May 31, 1775-Dec. 25, 1779. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division.

Phillis Wheatley continued to live with various members of the Wheatley family until 1778. After the death of John Wheatley and his daughter, Phillis moved to her own home. She soon married John Peters, a free black Bostonian who held a variety of jobs before falling into debt. She bore the frequently absent Peters three children. Beset with financial problems, she sold her volume of Milton to help pay his debts. To support herself and her only surviving child, Phillis Wheatley worked in a Boston boarding house. Both the poet and her child died there on December 5, 1784.

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