A Tribute to Phillis Wheatley
This guest post from Revolutionary Spaces Board member Charles Coe was originally presented during an Attucks Collective event on April 7, 2022 at Old South Meeting House. We’re thankful to Charles for sharing his research and thoughts about Phillis Wheatley as a powerful poet and change maker in her time.
Thank you all for joining us this evening to show appreciation and respect for a singular individual, Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American woman, and only the third woman, to publish a volume of poetry in America.
I’m happy to be part of this event, both as a poet who respects and admires the work and legacy of Phillis Wheatley, and as a board member of Revolutionary Spaces, Incorporated. I’d like to thank Lo Sottile, Associate Director of Development for putting this event together. By sponsoring programs like this, and by its celebrating of the legacy and meaning of Crispus Attucks, Revolutionary Spaces is showing a commitment to encouraging a new and more open conversation about the history of the city of Boston. A conversation that honors and acknowledges the roles people of color have played in shaping that history.
And so in that spirit, we’re here this evening to consider the remarkable life of Phillis Wheatley.
Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in Gambia. Around the age of seven or eight, she was kidnapped and brought across the Atlantic. John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor, purchased the child to be a servant for his wife, Susanna. The couple named her Phillis, after the ship that carried her across, and gave her the family last name, as was the custom. She never spoke her African name.
The couple quickly discovered that Phillis was a prodigy. Her intelligence was so apparent that they taught her to read and write. They encouraged her to write poetry, which she often scribbled on her bedroom walls. John Wheatley recalled later, “Phillis could read the most difficult parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great astonishment of all who heard her.” By the age of 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics in the original, as well as difficult passages from the Bible.
In December of 1767, Phillis’s first published poem “On Messrs.Hussey and Coffin,” a poem about two sailors who drowned somewhere between Boston and Nantucket, appeared in Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury newspaper.
Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,
As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?
Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow
Against you? or did Consideration bow?
To lend you Aid, did not his Winds combine?
To stop your passage with a churlish Line,
Did haughty Eolus with Contempt look down
With Aspect windy, and a study’d Frown?
Regard them not; — the Great Supreme, the Wise,
Intends for something hidden from our Eyes.
Suppose the groundless Gulph had snatch’d away
Hussey and Coffin to the raging Sea;
Where wou’d they go? where wou’d be their Abode?
With the supreme and independent God,
Or made their Beds down in the Shades below,
Where neither Pleasure nor Content can flow.
To Heaven their Souls with eager Raptures soar,
Enjoy the Bliss of him they wou’d adore.
Had the soft gliding Streams of Grace been near,
Some favourite Hope their fainting hearts to cheer,
Doubtless the Fear of Danger far had fled:
No more repeated Victory crown their Heads.
When Phillis wrote this poem she was thirteen years old. She’d never heard a word of English until she was seven or eight.
She continued to develop as a poet and gained international fame in 1770 with an elegy written for George Whitefield, a revivalist Baptist preacher known for leading the “First Great Awakening,” the religious revival of the 1730s and 1740s which made salvation personal by focusing on emotional conversion and encouraging individual Bible reading.
In her elegy, the pious Wheatley praised Whitefield’s care and concern for African-American enslaved people:
“Take him my dear Americans, he said/ Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid: Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you/ Impartial Saviour is his title due: Wash’d in the fountain of redeeming blood/You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.”
Americans and Europeans were impressed by both the power of Wheatley’s poetry and the inspiration of her personal biography. Yet her success also caused skepticism among colonial printers who doubted whether a precocious enslaved young woman could produce poetry of such power and complexity .
On October 8, 1772, a panel of 18 of the “most respectable characters in Boston” was assembled to verify the authorship of Wheatley’s poems. All men, of course, most of them slaveowners. The group included prominent independence leaders, religious scholars, and poets. The panel was assembled by John Wheatley himself after Phillis struggled to get a printer to publish her manuscript.
Samuel Johnson, that great English man of letters was once taken by a friend to hear a woman preach a sermon and asked afterwards what he thought. He replied, “It is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Were any of these august men, in this resolutely patriarchal society, thinking the same as Johnson as they discussed this enslaved black girl who wrote poetry?
No records were kept of the meeting, so it’s not known whether Phillis appeared before the panel in person. But it’s intriguing to consider what tests did might have thrown her way. Would they have asked her to interpret Biblical passages? Compare the philosophies of Plato and Socrates? Explain the meaning and significance of Greek and Roman gods? Describe the influence of Alexander Pope, whom she admired greatly, on her own work? Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall at a gathering like that. Can you imagine this black teenaged girl, a servant, calm under the gaze of these curious, skeptical men?
We do know, however, that she passed their tests, and the panel signed a letter publicly testifying to her authorship. With the panel’s endorsement, she travelled with her master’s son to London in 1773 and with the help of prominent people she met there who became patrons, published her collected works of poetry, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” The Attestation of the panel was included in the preface and in advertisements as proof of authorship. The book brought her fame both in England and the American colonies.
Shortly after she returned to the Colonies, the Wheatley family freed her, partially due to pressure from her new English friends. But she stayed with the family and took care of John and Susanna, both in poor health, until they died.
So much of the conversation about Phillis Wheatley focuses on her as a figure of historical and cultural importance, as a woman who confronted and overcame extraordinary obstacles. But I’d like to take a look at her legacy as a poet.
Here’s her poem “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.
Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev’ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.
Phillis Wheatley had become a sensation. In 1775 she sent a letter to George Washington and included a poem she wrote for him titled, “His Excellency General Washington.” (Phillis refers to “Columbia in this poem, Columbia is the female national personification of the United States. It was also a historical name applied to the Americas and to the New World.)
In this poem she proclaimed:
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.
It was Wheatley’s hope that George Washington and other like-minded people would eventually seek freedom for enslaved black people as they did for whites.
Washington responded on February 28, 1776, writing that he thought the “elegant lines” of Wheatley’s poem were “striking proof of your poetical Talents.” Washington suggested he would have published “this new instance of your genius” himself and invited Wheatley to visit him at the Longfellow House in Cambridge, his headquarters during the siege of Boston.
She was twenty-two at the time. Like many prominent people of the day, George Washington became a big admirer of Phillis Wheatley. Also like many prominent people at the time, he was an owner of enslaved people. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, he stated privately that he no longer wanted to be a slaveowner, that he no longer wanted to buy and sell slaves or separate enslaved families, and that he supported a plan for the gradual abolition of slavery in the United States. His will provided for their freedom after his death.
Another owner of enslaved people, Thomas Jefferson, shared neither Washington’s opinion of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry or his ambivalence about slavery. In his book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson wrote, “Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” In that same book he also declared that white people were intellectually and biologically superior to blacks.
As we all know, Thomas Jefferson’s relation to slavery was to put it mildly, extremely complicated. Like most of the Founding Fathers there was a profound disconnect between his rhetoric of freedom and liberty and the fact that during the course of his life he enslaved more than six hundred black people. So it makes one wonder if his blanket, back-of-the hand dismissal of Wheately’s work wasn’t in one sense a dismissal of her humanity, of the humanity of all black people, and a self-serving way to rationalize the fact that he fathered six children by Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman. But that’s a conversation for another day…
After her meeting with Washington, Phillis Wheatley’s work slowed down. She shared one of her last great poems on the Revolution in 1778, “On the Death of General Wooster,” in which she directly addressed the conflict between the Revolutionary ideals of freedom and the evils of slavery.
“With thine own hand conduct them and defend/
And bring the dreadful contest to an end/
Forever grateful let them live to thee/
And keep them ever Virtuous, brave, and free/
But how, presumptuous shall we hope to find/
Divine acceptance with th’ Almighty mind/
While yet (O deed ungenerous!) they disgrace/
And hold in bondage Africa’s blameless race;
Let virtue reign – And those accord our prayers/
Be victory our’s and generous freedom theirs.”
In 1778, she married John Peters, a free black lawyer and grocer. She had intended to publish a second collection of poems in 1779, but failed to get enough subscribers despite putting out six advertisements. Life was extremely difficult for Phillis and John. She was often in poor health, and two of her children died. John, not a good businessman was in an out of debtor’s prison for the next few years. With a sickly infant son to provide for, Phillis became a scullery maid at a boarding house, work she had never done before. John was probably in prison when she died on December 5, 1784, at the age of 31, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her infant son died soon after.
Contemporary opinions about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry are mixed. Some readers and critics are put off by a style that seems stilted, with constant references to her religious beliefs and filled with frequent classical references that often seem obscure and distracting. Tastes and styles change, and for many modern readers poets like Wheatley, or Alexander Pope, or William Blake hold little appeal. Granted, her poetry isn’t an easy read, but the reader who takes a bit of time and effort to understand the meaning and context of her references will be richly rewarded. But again, not everyone shares that opinion. One time I assigned a writing student an essay about Wheatley’s work who wrote, “I admire her role as a historically significant trail blazer, but I don’t really care for her poetry.” Fair enough.
Another criticism comes from those who believe that as a person who lived part of her life as the property of other people, she should have been a more strident critic of America’s “Peculiar Institution”. Some feel strongly that as an artist she should have been more overtly political.
However, others argue that her seemingly low-key approach was both ingrained in her by her masters and necessary for survival, that her assimilation into white society was a requirement and not a wish. She was often used as a showpiece at white events. Always on the arm of her mistress, she performed readings of her poems for wealthy guests. While Susannah was harsh with the family’s other servants, she loved the ornamentation provided her by Phillis, and in fact as Phillis grew more prominent relieved her of household duties and didn’t allow her to interact with the family’s other enslaved people.
The idea that Phillis Wheatley lacked political “street cred” as we might put it, is the same one some people have expressed about Marian Anderson, the first African-American woman to perform at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In both cases I disagree with that assessment. Anderson served as America’s representative to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and sang at numerous civil rights events, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
And a close reading of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry will show that she was deeply involved in abolitionist activities. In 1774, she continued to increase her public presence as an anti-slavery voice. She corresponded with key abolitionist figures: Reverend Samuel Hopkins, a theologian and leader of the emerging American abolitionist movement; British abolitionist leader Granville Sharp; and British merchant and philanthropist John Thorton, the sponsor of abolitionist preacher John Newton.
That year, in a published letter to her acquaintance Mohegan Indian Presbyterian minister Samson Occom, Wheatley wrote:
“In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; It is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our Modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us.”
As author and historian Vincent Caretta points out, by “Modern Egyptian” Wheatley equated owners of enslaved people with the Pharaohs, the Old Testament villains, while presenting people of African descent as God’s chosen people to be saved by liberty and freedom.
In her most famous poem, On Being Brought from Africa to America, she offers a direct, pointed comment on the reality of slavery and her own situation:
Another thing to note about both Marian Anderson and Phillis Wheatley is that the former, by singing opera, and the latter by writing poetry grounded in the classics, was each making a transformative, revolutionary statement about what an African-American could be or do. They were practicing the art of the possible.
Sadly, between 1776 and 1784, Phillis Wheatley published just four poems. Yet, in her short life, her work left an impression on both sides of the Atlantic as a global poet of the American Revolution and one of the first prominent African-American abolitionist voices. To her, an evening like this would been a glad occasion, she would have been proud and happy to be honored in this room, her own home church, which for some many years has been a place for people or all creeds and colors to gather as free and equal citizens.
Thank you again for joining us. And thank you for listening.