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 fable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train."
NAME: Phillis Wheatley
DATE OF BIRTH: c. 1753-5
PLACE OF BIRTH: Gambia, Africa
DATE OF DEATH: December, 1784
PLACE OF DEATH: Boston,Massachusetts as a result of childbirth
Phillis Wheatley was a slave child of seven or eight and sold to John and Susanna Wheatley in Boston on July 11, 1761. Her first name was apparently derived from the ship that carried her to America, The Phillis.
During her life, while it was not common for American women to be published, it was especially uncommon for children of slaves to be educated at all. Her gift of writing poetry was encouraged by her owners and their daughter, Mary; they taught Phillis to read and write, with her first poem being published at the age of twelve, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin." The countess of Huntingdon, Selina Hastings, was a friend of the Wheatley's who greatly encouraged and financed the publication of her book of poetry, Poems. Obour Tanner, a former slave who made the journey through the middle passage with Phillis also was one of the chief influences and supporters of Phillis' craft.
She was especially fond of writing in the elegiac poetry style, perhaps mirroring the genre of oration taught to her through the women in her African American tribal group. Her elegy on a popular evangelical Methodist minister, George Whitefield, brought her instant success upon his death. She also was well versed in Latin which allowed her to write in the epyllion (short epic) style with the publication of "Niobe in Distress."
Phillis' popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. She even appeared before General Washington in March, 1776 for her poetry and was a strong supporter of independence during the Revolutionary War. She felt slavery to be the issue which separated whites from true heroism: whites can not "hope to find/Deivine acceptance with th' Almighty mind" when "they disgrace/And hold in bondage Afric's blameless race."
Many white colonists found it difficult to believe that an African slave was writing excellent poetry. Wheatley had to defend her authorship of her poetry 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 included in the preface of her book of collected works: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in London in 1773. Publishers in Boston had declined to publish it, but her work was of great interest in London. There Selina, Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth acted as patrons to help Wheatley gain publication.
When a London bookseller presented the manuscript of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects to the Countess of Huntingdon, the anti-slavery English noblewoman was reportedly "fond of having the book dedicated to her; but one thing she desir'd [was]...to have Phillis' picture in the frontispiece."
The man commissioned to draw the likeness of Wheatley was Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African in service to Reverend John Moorhead, a neighbor and friend of the Wheatley family and pastor of the Church of the Presbyterian Strangers. Reverend Moorhead, along with fifteen other prominent Massachusetts citizens, had signed a testimonial that prefaced the manuscript.
Scipio Moorhead not only painted portraits, but wrote verse as well. His artistic talents had been nurtured by the Reverend's wife, Sarah Moorhead, a teacher of art and drawing. His drawing of Phillis, said to be a fine likeness, was shipped to England to be engraved. When the book was published, it contained a poem, "To S.M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works," in which Wheatley praised the artist and voiced her hopes that their collaboration would lead to his "immortal fame":
Still may the painter's and the poet's fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
Phillis Wheatley and the Countess of Huntingdon
Great Countess, *
We Americans revere
Thy name, and mingle in thy grief sincere;
New England deeply feels, the Orphans mourn,
Their more than father will no more return.
But, though arrested by the hand of death,
Whitefield no more exerts his lab'ring breath,
Yet let us view him in th'eternal skies,
Let ev'ry heart to this bright vision rise;
While the tomb safe retains its sacred trust,
Till life divine re-animates his dust.
(*) The Countess of Huntingdon, to whom
Mr.Whitefield was Chaplain.
Phillis Wheatley and George Washington
Phillis Wheatley’s Letter and Poem to General Washington
To His Excellency
I have taken the freedom to address your Excellency in the enclosed poem, and
entreat your acceptance, though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies. Your being appointed by the Grand Continental Congress to be Generalissimo of the armies of North America, together with the fame of your virtues, excite sensations not easy to suppress. Your generosity, therefore, I presume, will pardon the attempt.
Wishing your Excellency all possible success in the great cause you are so generously engaged in. I am,
Your Excellency's most obedient humble servant,
George Washington’s Reply
Cambridge, February 28, 1776.
Your favour of the 26th of October did not reach my hands 'till the middle of
December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted.
But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind
and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my
excuse for the seeming, but not real neglect.
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.
If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to
see a person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal
and beneficent in her dispensations.
I am, with great Respect, etc.
General George Washington
Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and veil of night!
The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel bind her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven's fair face deforms,
Enwrapp'd in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish'd ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or thick as leaves in Autumn's golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior's train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl'd the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou knw'st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honours,—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam'd for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found:
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
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.
Phillis Wheatley, 1776
What is an original manuscript worth today?
by Phillis Wheatley
Now muse divine, thy heav'nly aid impart,
The feast of Genius, and the play of Art.
From high Parnassus' radiant top repair,
Celestial Nine! propitious to my pray'r.
In vain my Eyes explore the wat'ry reign,
By you unaided with the flowing strain.
When first old Chaos of tyrannic soul
Wav'd his dread Sceptre o'er the boundless whole,
Confusion reign'd till the divine Command
On floating azure fix'd the Solid Land, 10
Till first he call'd the latent seeds of light,
And gave dominion o'er eternal Night.
From deepest glooms he rais'd this ample Ball,
And round its walls he bade the surges roll;
With instant haste the new made seas complyd,
And the globe rolls impervious to the Tide;
Yet when the mighty Sire of Ocean frownd
"His awful trident shook the solid Ground."
The King of Tempest thunders o'er the plain,
And scorns the azure monarch of the main,
He sweeps thy surface, makes thy billows rore,
And furious, lash the loud resounding shore.
His pinion'd race his dread commands obey,
Syb's, Eurus, Boreas, drive the foaming sea!
See the whole stormy progeny descend!
And waves on waves devolving without End,
But cease Eolus, all thy winds restrain,
And let us view the wonders of the main
Where the proud Courser paws the blue abode,
Impetuous bounds, and mocks the driver's rod.
There, too, the Heifer fair as that which bore
Divine Europa to the Cretan shore.
With guileless mein thy gentle Creature strays
Quaffs the pure stream, and crops ambrosial
GrassAgain with recent wonder I survey
The finny sov'reign bask in hideous play
(So fancy sees) he makes a tempest rise
And intercept the azure vaulted skies
Such is his sport: ; but if his anger glow
What kindling vengeance boils the deep below!
Twas but e'er now an Eagle young and gay
Pursu'd his passage thro' the aierial way
He aim'd his piece, would hand do more
Yes, him he brought to pluto's dreary shore
Slow breathed his last, the painful minutes move
With lingring pace his rashness to reprove;
Perhaps his father's Just commands he bore
To fix dominion on some distant shore
Ah! me unblest he cries Oh! Had I staid
Or swift my Father's mandate had obey
But ah! too late. ; Old Ocean heard his cries
He stroakes his hoary tresses and replies
What mean these plaints so near our wat'ry throne,
And what the Cause of this distressful moan!
Confess Iscarius, let thy words be true
Nor let me find a faithless Bird in you
His voice struck terror thro' the whole domain
Aw'd by his frowns the royal youth began,
Saw you not Sire, a tall and Gallant ship
Which proudly scims the surface of the deep
With pompous form from Boston's port she came
She flies, and London her resounding name
O'er the rough surge the dauntless Chief prevails
For partial Aura fills his swelling sails
His fatal musket shortens thus my day
And thus the victor takes my life away
Faint with his wound Iscarius said no more
His Spirit sought Oblivion's sable shore.
This Neptune saw, and with a hollow groan
Resum'd the azure honours of his Throne.
(from Ocean by Phillis Wheatley)
Manuscript by first black American woman poet brings $68,500
NEW YORK (May 30, 1998 01:50 a.m. ED (http://www.nando.net)
A manuscript by the United States' first black woman poet -- a former Senegalese slave named Phillis Wheatley -- was sold for $68,500 at a Christie's auction Friday.
"Ocean," an ode to the sea, was written in 1773 in Boston, where Wheatley served from childhood as the personal servant of the wife of a wealthy tailor. The only known copy of the 70-line poem -- a creased and yellowing three-page manuscript -- fetched significantly more than its estimate of $18,000 to $25,000, Christie's spokeswoman Vredy Lytsman said. She said a local book dealer had bought it.
Wheatley, known as the first black woman poet in the United States, began writing poetry at the age of 14 under the tutelage of her owners, who broke with convention by educating her in literature, Latin and philosophy. She was freed in 1773 and later married a failed black businessman, dying destitute in 1784. "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," Wheatley's sole collection, was published in England in 1773. It did not contain "Ocean."
No manuscript or letter by her has appeared on the market for 30 years, Lytsman said.
Sale of Wheatley poem
article in Jet magazine June 22, 1998
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
by Phillis Wheatley
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
(1773) LitoGo has poems with audio on same page!
For Younger Crowd
at Garden of Praise
online and print activities like
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Hunter, Jane Edna, 1882-1950. Phillis Wheatley : Life and Works. Cleveland: National Phillis Wheatley Foundation, 1948.
Renfro, G. Herbert. Life and Works of Phillis Wheatley. Salem: Ayer Company, Publishers, Inc., 1993.
Robinson, William H.,Phillis Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings (1975), Black New England Letters: The Uses of Writing in Black New England (1977) and Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley (1982).
Shields, John C., The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (1988)
written by Phillis in 1765