Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, first African-American poet

Phillis Wheatley (ca 1753 – December 5, 1784) was born in Senegal / Gambia, Africa. She was America’s first African-American poet and one of the first women to be published in colonial America. She was also the first slave in the U.S. to have a book of poetry published.

She was kidnapped as part of the slave trade as a young child and brought to North America in 1761. John Wheatley of Boston bought her from the slave market as a personal servant to his wife, Susanna. As was customary at the time, she was given the surname of the family to whom she was in bondage.

The iconic portrait of Phillis Wheatley shown in this post is an engraving attributed to Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African-American in Boston who was a talented artist. It’s the only existent picture of her likeness.

Early promise and keen intellect

It was soon apparent that Phillis had remarkable intellectual abilities, and under Susanna’s guidance, was educated along with Wheatley’s daughters. Within a year and a half, she was able to read the Bible and wrote English fluently. This was quite a rarity at a time when slaves were actively discouraged from learning to read and write. In most cases, it was forbidden altogether.

Not only was Phillis encouraged in her literary talents, she also learned Greek, Latin, ancient history and theology. She was able to translate a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, inspiring a poem that would later be published.

First verses and a poetry collection

Phillis began writing verse as she mastered the English language, and when she was between 13 and 14 years old, her first poem was published in The Newport Mercury. Further publication of her poems spread the word of her talent in the colonies.

At age 19, she visited England with a son of the Wheatleys; while there, her poetry brought her a great deal of acclaim. A volume of her poems was published, titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, in New England (London, 1773). An edition was printed in Boston not long after.

Under the influence of the Wheatley’s Puritan household, Phillis had become a devout Christian. This, along with her education in classic languages and literature, had a profound impact on the subject matter and structure of her poetry.

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Phillis Wheatley, first African-American poet

This portrait of Phillis Wheatley was the frontispiece of
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)

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Admired by Washington and Jefferson

In late 1775 she sent verses to General George Washington. In response, he wrote:

“I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you inclosed; and, however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents …”

Here is the poem:

His Excellency General 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 the veil of night!

The Goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds 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 think 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 know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors—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.

The verses she shared with the soon-to-be first president of the U.S. were published in Pennsylvania Magazine in April 1776. Thomas Jefferson was also a reader of her poetry, writing that her verses were “beneath criticism.”

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Phillis Wheatley books

Books by or about Phillis Wheatley on*
Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings on Amazon*
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Unfortunate circumstances after freedom

When the Wheatley family was broken up by death in the 1770s, Phillis was freed from slavery. Still, she was devastated by the deaths of Susanna and John. The social structure of the time made it incredibly difficult for her to fend for herself.

In 1778 she met and married John Peters, a free black man, but the union was an unhappy one, likely exacerbated by their impoverished circumstances. During the Revolution, the couple resided in Wilmington, Delaware, then returned to Boston, where they lived in abject poverty.

Phillis was unable to secure a publisher for her second volume of poetry in her short lifetime. However, there were at least four posthumous editions of her poems, and a collection of her letters were printed in 1864, many decades after her death. Phillis died on December 5, 1784, from complications due to childbirth. She was in her early thirties.

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Colonial Boston

Colonial Boston, image courtesy of
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Contemporary view of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry

The consensus of modern and contemporary literary critics seems to be that Phillis Wheatley an important American poet, if not a great one. It also has to be taken into account that as a slave, even one that received such an exceedingly rare education there must have been significant constraints on her freedom of expression.

An essay on Phillis Wheatley’s poetry by Megan Mulder gives a balanced perspective on her work, stating that the “historical context is important to an understanding of Wheatley’s poetry. In the 18th century, the highest form of artistic expression was poetry in the classical mode. Phillis’s formal language and classical allusions may sound stilted to modern readers, but it was vital that she prove her ability to write in this style.”

Further, Mulder states, “Phillis’s religious sensibility is also an important aspect of the Poems. She was by all appearances genuinely devout in the Calvinist, evangelical Christianity of her Boston community. This too gave the lie to assertions that Africans lacked moral sensibility, and it lent support to evangelicals’ arguments that slaves should be taught to read the Bible and participate fully in religious life.”

More about Phillis Wheatley

On this site

Major Works and Best-Known Poems

  • “An Elegiac Poem on the Death of George Whitefield, Chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon” (1770)
  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston (London, 1773; Albany, 1793; republished as The Negro Equalled by Few Europeans)
  • “Elegy Sacred to the Memory of Dr. Samuel Cooper” (1784)
  • Letters of Phillis Wheatley (Boston, 1864)

More information and sources

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