September 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 5
The Slave Poet
In September 11 Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral went on sale in London, England. Even before its publication the book had attracted great attention, less for the poems themselves than for their author, a twenty-year-old slave from Massachusetts. During her month-long stay in England, Wheatley had been enthusiastically received and had met with numerous dignitaries, including the earl of Dartmouth, the antislavery crusader Granville Sharp, and Benjamin Franklin.
While no threat to Milton or Pope, Wheatley did show a flair for lyrical imagery, as in “An Hymn to the Evening“:
Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain; Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing, Exhales the incense of the blooming spring. Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes, And through the air their mingled music floats.
Other works were strongly devotional, reflecting the poet’s fervent embrace of Christianity. The London Magazine commented, “These poems display no astonishing power of genius; but when we consider them as the production of a young untutored African . . . we cannot suppress our admiration of talents so vigorous and lively.”
Wheatley’s trip to London was her second Atlantic crossing, and distinctly more pleasant than the first one. In 1761 she had been taken in a slave ship from her African homeland to Boston, where she was bought by the wife of John Wheatley, a wealthy tailor and merchant. The Wheatleys called her Phillis (which was the name of the ship she had arrived in) and estimated her age as seven or eight.
After family members noticed their new servant scratching letters on the wall, they taught her to I read and write. She took f to literature with a passion, mastering Latin as well as English and devouring the works of religious and classical authors. In 1767 her first published poem appeared in a Rhode Island newspaper, and by the early 1770s, still in her teens, she was well known in New England.
In 1772 Wheatley assembled a collection of her work but could not find enough subscribers to publish it in Boston. With encouragement and financial assistance from both sides of the Atlantic, she went to London instead. By the time her book appeared, however, Wheatley was back in Boston, summoned home to care for her sick mistress. Shortly after her return John Wheatley freed her. (He may have had no choice; according to a 1772 British court decision, slaves from the colonies automatically became free when they set foot on the British Isles.)
Three years later Wheatley wrote an acclaimed poem in praise of George Washington, who invited her to visit his headquarters in Cambridge. From that point on her career was a disappointment. She married a ne’er-do-well named John Peters in 1778, and the pair scraped out a meager living at assorted jobs before Phillis, who had been sickly ever since leaving Africa, died from complications of childbirth in 1784. At the time of her death, she was trying unsuccessfully to finance a second volume of her work.