10 Poems by Phillis Wheatley from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)

When Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley was published in 1773, it marked several significant accomplishments. It was the first book by a slave to be published in the Colonies, and only the third book by a woman in the American colonies to be published.

Phillis (not her original name) was brought to the North America in 1761 as part of the slave trade. She was bought from the slave market by John Wheatley of Boston, who gave her as a personal servant to his wife, Susanna. She was given the surname of the family, as was customary at the time.

A house slave as a child

Still just a child when she was made a house slave to the Wheatleys, Phillis displayed impressive intellectual ability. Susanna had her educated along with their daughters, and within a short time, Phillis she was able to read the Bible and write English fluently. This was all the more remarkable at a time when slaves were discouraged from learning to read and write, if not altogether forbidden.

In 1773 Phillis traveled to London with her master’s son, Nathaniel. There, she was admired for her literary talent and poise. Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, a friend of Susanna Wheatley family, funded the publication of Phillis’s book.

Prior to this journey, Boston publishers had refused to consider the collection for publication, so Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in late 1773. Phillis was about twenty years old at the time. Here’s a selection of 10 poems from this volume, her only published collection.

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Phillis Wheatley, first African-American poet

Learn more about Phillis Wheatley, first African-American Poet

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The author’s Preface

THE following POEMS were written originally for the Amusement of the Author, as they were the Products of her leisure Moments. She had no Intention ever to have published them; nor would they now have made their Appearance, but at the Importunity of many of her best, and most generous Friends; to whom she considers herself, as under the greatest Obligations.

As her Attempts in Poetry are now sent into the World, it is hoped the Critic will not severely censure their Defects; and we presume they have too much Merit to be cast aside with Contempt, as worthless and trifling Effusions.

As to the Disadvantages she has laboured under, with Regard to Learning, nothing needs to be offered, as her Master’s Letter in the following Page will sufficiently show the Difficulties in this Respect she had to encounter.

With all their Imperfections, the Poems are now humbly submitted to the Perusal of the Public.

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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 sable 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.

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On Virtue.

O Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare

Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.

I cease to wonder, and no more attempt

Thine height t’explore, or fathom thy profound.

But, O my soul, sink not into despair,

Virtueis near thee, and with gentle hand

Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.

Fain would the heav’n-born soul with her converse,

Then seek, then court her for her promis’d bliss.

Auspicious queen, thine heav’nly pinions spread,
And lead celestialChastityalong;

Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,

Array’d in glory from the orbs above.

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.

Greatness, orGoodness, say what I shall call thee,

To give an higher appellation still,

Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay,

O thou, enthron’d with Cherubs in the realms of day!

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A Farewell to America.

I.

Adieu, New-England’s smiling meads,
Adieu, th’ flow’ry plain:
I leave thine op’ning charms, O spring,
And tempt the roaring main.

II.

In vain for me the flow’rets rise,
And boast their gaudy pride,
While here beneath the northern skies
I mourn for health deny’d.

III.

Celestial maid of rosy hue,
Oh let me feel thy reign!
I languish till thy face I view,
Thy vanish’d joys regain.

IV.

Susannah mourns, nor can I bear
To see the crystal shower
Or mark the tender falling tear
At sad departure’s hour;

Not regarding can I see
Her soul with grief opprest
But let no sighs, no groans for me
Steal from her pensive breast.

VI.

In vain the feather’d warblers sing
In vain the garden blooms
And on the bosom of the spring
Breathes out her sweet perfumes.

VII.

While for Britannia’s distant shore
We weep the liquid plain,
And with astonish’d eyes explore
The wide-extended main.

VIII.

Lo! Health appears! celestial dame!
Complacent and serene,
With Hebe’s mantle oe’r her frame,
With soul-delighting mien.

IX.

To mark the vale where London lies
With misty vapors crown’d
Which cloud Aurora’s thousand dyes,
And veil her charms around.

X.

Why, Phoebus, moves thy car so slow?
So slow thy rising ray?
Give us the famous town to view,
Thou glorious King of day!

XI.

For thee, Britannia, I resign
New-England’s smiling fields;
To view again her charms divine,
What joy the prospect yields!

XII.

But thou! Temptation hence away,
With all thy fatal train,
Nor once seduce my soul away,
By thine enchanting strain.

XIII.

Thrice happy they, whose heavenly shield
Secures their souls from harm,
And fell Temptation on the field
Of all its pow’r disarms.

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Phillis Wheatley - complete writings

Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings on Amazon

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On Imagination.

Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck’d with pomp by thee!

Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand,

And all attest how potent is thine hand.

FromHelicon’srefulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:

To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,

Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.

Now here, now there, the rovingFancyflies,
Till some lov’d object strikes her wand’ring eyes,

Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,

And soft captivity involves the mind.

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 thund’ring 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.

ThoughWinterfrowns toFancy’sraptur’d eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;

The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,

And bid their waters murmur o’er the sands.

FairFloramay resume her fragrant reign,

And with her flow’ry riches deck the plain;

Sylvanusmay diffuse his honours round,

And all the forest may with leaves be crown’d:

Show’rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose,

And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.

Such is thy pow’r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:

In full perfection all thy works are wrought,

And thine the sceptre o’er the realms of thought.

Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,

Of subject-passions sov’reign ruler thou;

At thy command joy rushes on the heart,

And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.

Fancymight now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th’ expanse on high:

FromTithon’sbed now mightAurorarise,

Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,

While a pure stream of light o’erflows the skies.

The monarch of the day I might behold,

And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,

But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,

WhichFancydresses to delight theMuse;

Winter austere forbids me to aspire,

And northern tempests damp the rising fire;

They chill the tides ofFancy’sflowing sea,

Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

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To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works.

To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,

When first thy pencil did those beauties give,

And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,

How did those prospects give my soul delight,

A new creation rushing on my sight?

Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue;

On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:

Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire,

To aid thy pencil and thy verse conspire!

And may the charms of each seraphic theme

Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!

High to the blissful wonders of the skies

Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.

Thrice happy, when exalted to survey

That splendid city, crown’d with endless day,

Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:

Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.

Calm and serene thy moments glide along,

And may the muse inspire each future song!

Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless’d,

May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!

But when these shades of time are chas’d away,

And darkness ends in everlasting day,

On what seraphic pinions shall we move,

And view the landscapes in the realms above?

There shall thy tongue in heav’nly murmurs flow,

And there my muse with heav’nly transport glow;

No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,

Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes;

For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,

And purer language on th’ ethereal plain.

Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night

Now seals the fair creation from my sight.

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To the University of Cambridge, in New England.

WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
‘Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.
Students, to you ’tis giv’n to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heav’n,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands out-stretcht upon the cross;
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
When the whole human race by sin had fall’n,
He deign’d to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.
Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heav’n.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shun’d, nor once remit your guard;
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you ’tis your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.

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On the Death of a young Lady of Five Years of Age.

FROM dark abodes to fair etherial light
Th’ enraptur’d innocent has wing’d her flight;
On the kind bosom of eternal love
She finds unknown beatitude above.
This known, ye parents, nor her loss deplore,
She feels the iron hand of pain no more;
The dispensations of unerring grace,
Should turn your sorrows into grateful praise;
Let then no tears for her henceforward flow,
No more distress’d in our dark vale below,
Her morning sun, which rose divinely bright,
Was quickly mantled with the gloom of night;
But hear in heav’n’s blest bow’rs your Nancy fair,
And learn to imitate her language there.
“Thou, Lord, whom I behold with glory crown’d,
“By what sweet name, and in what tuneful sound
“Wilt thou be prais’d? Seraphic pow’rs are faint
“Infinite love and majesty to paint.
“To thee let all their graceful voices raise,
“And saints and angels join their songs of praise.”
Perfect in bliss she from her heav’nly home
Looks down, and smiling beckons you to come;
Why then, fond parents, why these fruitless groans?
Restrain your tears, and cease your plaintive moans.
Freed from a world of sin, and snares, and pain,
Why would you wish your daughter back again?
No—bow resign’d. Let hope your grief control,
And check the rising tumult of the soul.
Calm in the prosperous, and adverse day,
Adore the God who gives and takes away;
Eye him in all, his holy name revere,
Upright your actions, and your hearts sincere,
Till having sail’d through life’s tempestuous sea,
And from its rocks, and boist’rous billows free,
Yourselves, safe landed on the blissful shore,
Shall join your happy babe to part no more.

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To a LADY and her Children, on the Death
of her Son and their Brother.

O’ERWHELMING sorrow now demands my song:
From death the overwhelming sorrow sprung.
What flowing tears? What hearts with grief opprest?
What sighs on sighs heave the fond parent’s breast?
The brother weeps, the hapless sisters join
Th’ increasing woe, and swell the crystal brine;
The poor, who once his gen’rous bounty fed,
Droop, and bewail their benefactor dead.
In death the friend, the kind companion lies,
And in one death what various comfort dies!
Th’ unhappy mother sees the sanguine rill
Forget to flow, and nature’s wheels stand still,
But see from earth his spirit far remov’d,
And know no grief recals your best-belov’d:
He, upon pinions swifter than the wind,
Has left mortality’s sad scenes behind
For joys to this terrestial state unknown,
And glories richer than the monarch’s crown.
Of virtue’s steady course the prize behold!
What blissful wonders to his mind unfold!
But of celestial joys I sing in vain:
Attempt not, muse, the too advent’rous strain.
No more in briny show’rs, ye friends around,
Or bathe his clay, or waste them on the ground:
Still do you weep, still wish for his return?
How cruel thus to wish, and thus to mourn?
No more for him the streams of sorrow pour,
But haste to join him on the heav’nly shore,
On harps of gold to tune immortal lays,
And to your God immortal anthems raise.

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An Hymn to the Morning

ATTEND my lays, ye ever honour’d nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest numbers pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.
Aurora hail, and all the thousand dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume.
Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While thy fair sisters fan the pleasing fire:
The bow’rs, the gales, the variegated skies
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.
See in the east th’ illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away—
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th’ abortive song.

 

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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.

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