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The Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

ON one of the slave ships that came to the harbor of Boston in the year 1761 was a little Negro girl of very delicate figure. The vessel on which she arrived came from Senegal. With her dirty face and unkempt hair she must indeed have been a pitiable object in the eyes of would-be purchasers. The hardships of the voyage, however, had given an unusual brightness to the eye of the child, and at least one woman had discernment enough to appreciate her real worth. Mrs. Susannah Wheatley, wife of John Wheatley, a tailor, desired to possess a girl whom she might train to be a special servant for her declining years, as the slaves already in her home were advanced in age and growing feeble. Attracted by the gentle demeanor of the child in question, she bought her, took her home, and gave her the name of Phillis. When the young slave became known to the world it was customary for her to use also the name of the family to which she belonged. She always spelled her Christian name P-h-i-l-l-i-s.

Phillis Wheatley was born very probably in 1753. The poem on Whitefield published in 1770 said on the title-page that she was seventeen years old. When she came to Boston she was shedding her front teeth. Her memory of her childhood in Africa was always vague. She knew only that her mother poured out water before the rising sun. This was probably a rite of heathen worship.

Mrs. Wheatley was a woman of unusual refinement. Her home was well known to the people of fashion and culture in Boston, and King Street in which she lived was then as noted for its residences as it is now, under the name of State Street, famous for its commercial and banking houses. When Phillis entered the Wheatley home the family consisted of four persons, Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley, their son Nathaniel, and their daughter Mary. Nathaniel and Mary were twins, born May 4, 1743. Mrs. Wheatley was also the mother of three other children, Sarah, John, and Susannah; but all of these died in early youth. Mary Wheatley, accordingly, was the only daughter of the family that Phillis knew to any extent, and she was eighteen years old when her mother brought the child to the house, that is, just a little more than ten years older than Phillis.

In her new home the girl showed signs of remarkable talent. Her childish desire for expression found an outlet in the figures which she drew with charcoal or chalk on the walls of the house. Mrs. Wheatley and her daughter became so interested in the ease with which she assimilated knowledge that they began to teach her. Within sixteen months from the time of her arrival in Boston Phillis was able to read fluently the most difficult parts of the Bible. From the first her mistress strove to cultivate in every possible way her naturally pious disposition, and diligently gave her instruction in the Scriptures and in morals. In course of time, thanks especially to the teaching of Mary Wheatley, the learning of the young student came to consist of a little astronomy, some ancient and modern geography, a little ancient history, a fair knowledge of the Bible, and a thoroughly appreciative acquaintance with the most important Latin classics, especially the works of Virgil and Ovid. She was proud of the fact that Terence was at least of African birth. She became proficient in grammar, developing a conception of style from practice rather than from theory. Pope's translation of Homer was her favorite English classic. If in the light of twentieth century opportunity and methods these attainments seem in no wise remarkable, one must remember the disadvantages under which not only Phillis Wheatley, but all the women of her time, labored; and recall that in any case her attainments would have marked her as one of the most highly educated young women in Boston.

While Phillis was trying to make the most of her time with her studies, she was also seeking to develop herself in other ways. She had not been studying long before she began to feel that she too would like to make verses. Alexander Pope was still an important force in English literature, and the young student became his ready pupil. She was about fourteen years old when she seriously began to cultivate her poetic talent; and one of the very earliest, and from every standpoint one of the most interesting of her efforts is the pathetic little juvenile poem, "On Being Brought from Africa to America:"

'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,Taught my benighted soul to understandThat there's a God—that there's a Saviour too:Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.Some view our sable race with scornful eye—"Their colour is a diabolic dye."Remember, Christians, Negroes black as CainMay be refined, and join th' angelic train.

Meanwhile, the life of Phillis was altogether different from that of the other slaves of the household. No hard labor was required of her, though she did the lighter work, such as dusting a room or polishing a table. Gradually she came to be regarded as a daughter and companion rather than as a slave. As she wrote poetry, more and more she proved to have a talent for writing occasional verse. Whenever any unusual event, such as a death, occurred in any family of the circle of Mrs. Wheatley's acquaintance, she would write lines on the same. She thus came to be regarded as "a kind of poet-laureate in the domestic circles of Boston." She was frequently invited to the homes of people to whom Mrs. Wheatley had introduced her, and was regarded with peculiar interest and esteem, on account both of her singular position and her lovable nature. In her own room at home Phillis was specially permitted to have heat and a light, because her constitution was delicate, and in order that she might write down her thoughts as they came to her, rather than trust them to her fickle memory.

Such for some years was the course of the life of Phillis Wheatley. The year 1770 saw the earliest publication of one of her poems. On the first printed page of this edition one might read the following announcement: "A Poem, By Phillis, a Negro Girl, in Boston, On the Death of the Reverend George Whitefield." In the middle of the page is a quaint representation of the dead man in his coffin, on the top of which one might with difficulty decipher, "G. W. Ob. 30 Sept. 1770, Aet. 56." The poem is addressed to the Countess of Huntingdon, whom Whitefield had served as chaplain, and to the orphan children of Georgia whom he had befriended. It takes up in the original less than four pages of large print. It was revised for the 1773 edition of the poems.

In 1771 the first real sorrow of Phillis Wheatley came to her. On January 31st Mary Wheatley left the old home to become the wife of Rev. John Lathrop, pastor of the Second Church in Boston. This year is important for another event. On August 18th "Phillis, the servant of Mr. Wheatley," became a communicant of the Old South Meeting House in Boston. We are informed that "her membership in Old South was an exception to the rule that slaves were not baptized into the church." At that time the church was without a regular minister, though it had lately received the excellent teaching of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Sewell.

This was a troublous time in the history of Boston. Already the storm of the Revolution was gathering. The period was one of vexation on the part of the slaves and their masters as well as on that of the colonies and England. The argument on the side of the slaves was that, as the colonies were still English territory, they were technically free, Lord Mansfield having handed down the decision in 1772 that as soon as a slave touched the soil of England he became free. Certainly Phillis must have been a girl of unusual tact to be able under such conditions to hold so securely the esteem and affection of her many friends.

About this time, as we learn from her correspondence, her health began to fail. Almost all of her letters that are preserved were written to Obour Tanner, a friend living in Newport, R. I. Just when the two young women became acquainted is not known. Obour Tanner survived until the fourth decade of the next century. It was to her, then, still a young woman, that on July 19, 1772, Phillis wrote from Boston as follows:

My Dear Friend,—I received your kind epistle a few days ago; much disappointed to hear that you had not received my answer to your first letter. I have been in a very poor state of health all the past winter and spring, and now reside in the country for the benefit of its more wholesome air. I came to town this morning to spend the Sabbath with my master and mistress. Let me be interested in your prayers that God will bless to me the means used for my recovery, if agreeable to his holy will.

By the spring of 1773 the condition of the health of Phillis was such as to give her friends much concern. The family physician advised that she try the air of the sea. As Nathaniel Wheatley was just then going to England, it was decided that she should accompany him. The two sailed in May. The poem, "A Farewell to America," is dated May 7, 1773. It was addressed to "S. W.," that is, Mrs. Wheatley. Before she left America, Phillis was formally manumitted.

The poem on Whitefield served well as an introduction to the Countess of Huntingdon. Through the influence of this noblewoman Phillis met other ladies, and for the summer the child of the wilderness was the pet of the society people of England. Now it was that a peculiar gift of Phillis Wheatley shone to advantage. To the recommendations of a strange history, ability to write verses, and the influence of kind friends, she added the accomplishment of brilliant conversation. Presents were showered upon her. One that has been preserved is a copy of the magnificent 1770 Glasgow folio edition of "Paradise Lost," given to her by Brook Watson, Lord Mayor of London. This book is now in the library of Harvard University. At the top of one of the first pages, in the handwriting of Phillis Wheatley, are these words: "Mr. Brook Watson to Phillis Wheatley, London, July, 1773." At the bottom of the same page, in the handwriting of another, are these words: "This book was given by Brook Watson formerly Lord Mayor of London to Phillis Wheatley & after her death was sold in payment of her husband's debts. It is now presented to the Library of Harvard University at Cambridge, by Dudley L. Pickman of Salem. March, 1824."

Phillis had not arrived in England at the most fashionable season, however. The ladies of the circle of the Countess of Huntingdon desired that she remain long enough to be presented at the court of George III. An accident—the illness of Mrs. Wheatley—prevented the introduction. This lady longed for the presence of her old companion, and Phillis could not be persuaded to delay her return. Before she went back to Boston, however, arrangements were made for the publication of her volume, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," of which more must be said. While the book does not of course contain the later scattered poems, it is the only collection ever brought together by Phillis Wheatley, and the book by which she is known.

The visit to England marked the highest point in the career of the young author. Her piety and faith were now to be put to their severest test, and her noble bearing under hardship and disaster must forever speak to her credit. In much of the sorrow that came to her she was not alone, for the period of the Revolution was one of general distress.

Phillis remained in England barely four months. In October she was back in Boston. That she was little improved may be seen from the letter to Obour Tanner, bearing date the 30th of this month:

I hear of your welfare with pleasure; but this acquaints you that I am at present indisposed by a cold, and since my arrival have been visited by the asthma.

A postscript to this letter reads:

The young man by whom this is handed to you seems to be a very clever man, knows you very well, and is very complaisant and agreeable.

The "young man" was John Peters, afterwards to be her husband.

A great sorrow came to Phillis in the death on March 3, 1774, of her best friend, Mrs. Wheatley, then in her sixty-fifth year. How she felt about this event is best set forth in her own words in a letter addressed to Obour Tanner at Newport under date March 21, 1774:

Dear Obour,—I received your obliging letter enclosed in your Reverend Pastor's and handed me by his son. I have lately met with a great trial in the death of my mistress; let us imagine the loss of a parent, sister or brother, the tenderness of all were united in her. I was a poor little outcast and a stranger when she took me in; not only into her house, but I presently became a sharer in her most tender affections. I was treated by her more like her child than her servant; no opportunity was left unimproved of giving me the best of advice; but in terms how tender! how engaging! This I hope ever to keep in remembrance. Her exemplary life was a greater monitor than all her precepts and instructions; thus we may observe of how much greater force example is than instruction. To alleviate our sorrows we had the satisfaction to see her depart in inexpressible raptures, earnest longings, and impatient thirstings for the upper courts of the Lord. Do, my dear friend, remember me and this family in your closet, that this afflicting dispensation may be sanctified to us. I am very sorry to hear that you are indisposed, but hope this will find you in better health. I have been unwell the greater part of the winter, but am much better as the spring approaches. Pray excuse my not writing you so long before, for I have been so busy lately that I could not find leisure. I shall send the 5 books you wrote for, the first convenient opportunity; if you want more they shall be ready for you. I am very affectionately your friend,

Phillis Wheatley.

After the death of Mrs. Wheatley Phillis seems not to have lived regularly at the old home; at least one of her letters written in 1775 was sent from Providence. For Mr. Wheatley the house must have been a sad one; his daughter was married and living in her own home, his son was living abroad, and his wife was dead. It was in this darkening period of her life, however, that a very pleasant experience came to Phillis Wheatley. This was her reception at the hands of George Washington. In 1775, while the siege of Boston was in progress, she wrote a letter to the distinguished soldier, enclosing a complimentary poem. Washington later replied as follows:

Cambridge, Feb. 2, 1776.

Miss Phillis,—Your favor of the 26th of October did not reach my hand till the middle of December. Time enough, you say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences continually interposing to distract the mind and to 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 panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents, in honor 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 headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.

I am, with great respect,
Your obedient humble servant,
George Washington.

Not long afterwards Phillis accepted the invitation of the General and was received in Cambridge with marked courtesy by Washington and his officers.

The Wheatley home was finally broken up by the death of Mr. John Wheatley, March 12, 1778, at the age of seventy-two. After this event Phillis lived for a short time with a friend of Mrs. Wheatley, and then took an apartment and lived by herself. By April she had yielded to the blandishments of John Peters sufficiently to be persuaded to become his wife. This man is variously reported to have been a baker, a barber, a grocer, a doctor, and a lawyer. With all of these professions and occupations, however, he seems not to have possessed the ability to make a living. He wore a wig, sported a cane, and generally felt himself superior to labor. Bereft of old friends as she was, however, sick and lonely, it is not surprising that when love and care seemed thus to present themselves the heart of the woman yielded. It was not long before she realized that she was married to a ne'er-do-well at a time when even an industrious man found it hard to make a living. The course of the Revolutionary War made it more and more difficult for people to secure the bare necessaries of life, and the horrors of Valley Forge were but an aggravation of the general distress. The year was further made memorable by the death of Mary Wheatley, Mrs. Lathrop, on the 24th of September.

When Boston fell into the hands of the British, the inhabitants fled in all directions. Mrs. Peters accompanied her husband to Wilmington, Mass., where she suffered much from poverty. After the evacuation of Boston by the British troops, she returned thither. A niece of Mrs. Wheatley, whose son had been slain in battle, received her under her own roof. This woman was a widow, was not wealthy, and kept a little school in order to support herself. Mrs. Peters and the two children whose mother she had become remained with her for six weeks. Then Peters came for his wife, having provided an apartment for her. Just before her departure for Wilmington, Mrs. Peters entrusted her papers to a daughter of the lady who received her on her return from that place. After her death these were demanded by Peters as the property of his wife. They were of course promptly given to him. Some years afterwards he returned to the South, and nothing is known of what became of the manuscripts.

The conduct of her husband estranged Mrs. Peters from her old acquaintances, and her pride kept her from informing them of her distress. After the war, however, one of Mrs. Wheatley's relatives hunted her out and found that her two children were dead, and that a third that had been born was sick. This seems to have been in the winter of 1783-84. Nathaniel Wheatley, who had been living in London, died in the summer of 1783. In 1784 John Peters suffered imprisonment in jail. After his liberation he worked as a journeyman baker, later attempted to practice law, and finally pretended to be a physician. His wife, meanwhile, earned her board by drudgery in a cheap lodging-house on the west side of the town. Her disease made rapid progress, and she died December 5, 1784. Her last baby died and was buried with her. No one of her old acquaintances seems to have known of her death. On the Thursday after this event, however, the following notice appeared in the Independent Chronicle:

Last Lord's Day, died Mrs. Phillis Peters (formerly Phillis Wheatley), aged thirty-one, known to the world by her celebrated miscellaneous poems. Her funeral is to be this afternoon, at four o'clock, from the house lately improved by Mr. Todd, nearly opposite Dr. Bulfinch's at West Boston, where her friends and acquaintances are desired to attend.

The house referred to was situated on or near the present site of the Revere House in Bowdoin Square. The exact site of the grave of Phillis Wheatley is not known.

At the time when she was most talked about, Phillis Wheatley was regarded as a prodigy, appearing as she did at a time when the achievement of the Negro in literature and art was still negligible. Her vogue, however, was more than temporary, and the 1793, 1802, and 1816 editions of her poems found ready sale. In the early years of the last century her verses were frequently to be found in school readers. From the first, however, there were those who discounted her poetry. Thomas Jefferson, for instance, said that it was beneath the dignity of criticism. If after 1816 interest in her work declined, it was greatly revived at the time of the anti-slavery agitation, when anything indicating unusual capacity on the part of the Negro was received with eagerness. When Margaretta Matilda Odell of Jamaica Plain, a descendant of the Wheatley family, republished the poems with a memoir in 1834, there was such a demand for the book that two more editions were called for within the next three years. For a variety of reasons, especially an increasing race-consciousness on the part of the Negro, interest in her work has greatly increased within the last decade, and as copies of early editions had within recent years become so rare as to be practically inaccessible, the reprint in 1909 of the volume of 1773 by the A. M. E. Book Concern in Philadelphia was especially welcome.

Only two poems written by Phillis Wheatley after her marriage are in existence. These are "Liberty and Peace," and "An Elegy Sacred to the Memory of Dr. Samuel Cooper." Both were published in 1784. Of "Poems on Various Subjects," the following advertisement appeared in the Boston Gazette for January 24, 1774:

This Day Published
Adorn'd with an Elegant Engraving of the Author,
(Price 3s. 4d. L. M. Bound,)


on various subjects,—Religious and Moral,
By Phillis Wheatley, a Negro Girl.
Sold by Mess's Cox & Berry,
at their Store, in King-Street, Boston.

N. B.—The subscribers are requested to apply for their

The little octavo volume of 124 pages contains 39 poems. One of these, however, must be excluded from the enumeration, as it is simply "A Rebus by I. B.," which serves as the occasion of Phillis Wheatley's poem, the answer to it. Fourteen of the poems are elegiac, and at least six others are occasional. Two are paraphrases from the Bible. We are thus left with sixteen poems to represent the best that Phillis Wheatley had produced by the time she was twenty years old. One of the longest of these is "Niobe in Distress for Her Children Slain by Apollo, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VI, and from a View of the Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson." This poem contains two interesting examples of personification (neither of which seems to be drawn from Ovid), "fate portentous whistling in the air," and "the feather'd vengeance quiv'ring in his hands," though the point might easily be made that these are little more than a part of the pseudo-classic tradition. The poem, "To S. M., a Young African Painter, on seeing his works," was addressed to Scipio Moorhead, a young man who exhibited some talent for drawing and who was a servant of the Rev. John Moorhead of Boston. From the poem we should infer that one of his subjects was the story of Damon and Pythias. Of prime importance are the two or three poems of autobiographical interest. We have already remarked "On Being Brought from Africa to America." In the lines addressed to William, Earl of Dartmouth, the young woman spoke again from her personal experience. Important also in this connection is the poem "On Virtue," with its plea:

Attend me, Virtue, thro' my youthful years!O leave me not to the false joys of time!But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.

One would suppose that Phillis Wheatley would make of "An Hymn to Humanity" a fairly strong piece of work. It is typical of the restraint under which she labored that this is one of the most conventional things in the volume. All critics agree, however, that the strongest lines in the book are those entitled "On Imagination." This effort is more sustained than the others, and it is the leading poem that Edmund Clarence Stedman chose to represent Phillis Wheatley in his "Library of American Literature." The following lines are representative of its quality:

Imagination! Who can sing thy force?Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?Soaring through air to find the bright abode,Th' empyreal palace of the thundering God,We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,And leave the rolling universe behind:From star to star the mental optics rove,Measure the skies, and range the realms above;There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,Or with new worlds amaze th' unbounded soul.

Hardly beyond this is "Liberty and Peace," the best example of the later verse. The poem is too long for inclusion here, but may be found in Duyckinck's "Cyclopedia of American Literature," and Heartman and Schomburg's collected edition of the Poems and Letters.

It is unfortunate that, imitating Pope, Phillis Wheatley more than once fell into his pitfalls. Her diction—"fleecy care," "vital breath," "feather'd race"—is distinctly pseudo-classic. The construction is not always clear; for instance, in the poem, "To Mæcenas," there are three distinct references to Virgil, when grammatically the poetess seems to be speaking of three different men. Then, of course, any young writer working under the influence of Pope and his school would feel a sense of repression. If Phillis Wheatley had come on the scene forty years later, when the romantic writers had given a new tone to English poetry, she would undoubtedly have been much greater. Even as it was, however, she made her mark, and her place in the history of American literature, though not a large one, is secure.

Hers was a great soul. Her ambition knew no bounds, her thirst for knowledge was insatiable, and she triumphed over the most adverse circumstances. A child of the wilderness and a slave, by her grace and culture she satisfied the conventionalities of Boston and of England. Her brilliant conversation was equaled only by her modest demeanor. Everything about her was refined. More and more as one studies her life he becomes aware of her sterling Christian character. In a dark day she caught a glimpse of the eternal light, and it was meet that the first Negro woman in American literature should be one of unerring piety and the highest of literary ideals.