Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

Born in Senegal, Africa around 1753, Phillis Wheatley was brought to America in 1761 and sold into slavery to John Wheatley. The Wheatley family took great interest in Phillis’s education. According to the letter from John Wheatley included in the preface of her book, she learned English in just sixteen months and “as to her writing, her own curiosity led her to it...”

From a young age Wheatley studied Latin and the works of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid; she greatly admired the poems of John Milton and Alexander Pope. These classical influences are present in her work in terms of both poetic form and classical allusions, though her most pervasive influences were arguably the Bible and eighteenth-century evangelical Christianity.

Wheatley published her first poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” in the Newport Mercury in 1767. It wasn’t until several years later, when her elegy, “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770,” was published that she began to garner any sort of public prominence. Three years later the Countess of Huntingdon, a friend of the late Reverend, published thirty-nine of Wheatley’s poems in England under the title Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Phillis Wheatley, at age twenty, was the first African American and, notably, only the second woman in America, to publish a book.

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral includes, besides the letter from John Wheatley, an attestation from eighteen prominent Boston citizens, including Governor Thomas Hutchinson and John Hancock, asserting their belief in Wheatley’s true authorship of the poems. Despite these endorsements, Wheatley was still forced to look beyond America’s borders for a publisher. However, the book was received well in both America and England, collecting praise from many notable figures of the time, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, and King George III. Her popularity as a writer won Wheatley her freedom that same year.

The poems are written in a formal style prevalent in Wheatley’s time. Many of them offer praise to individuals, ranging from a leading political figure to Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved African American artist who is credited with engraving the frontispiece of the book. The rest of the poems tend to ruminate on religious questions or espouse patriotic convictions. Wheatley’s poetic trademark is the elegy, and she is also well known for her use of heroic couplets.

The volume includes Wheatley’s most renowned and anthologized poem “On Being Brought From Africa.” This is often cited as Wheatley’s only reference to her own enslavement and origins. Wheatley has been critiqued for not strongly advocating the cause of freedom for slaves, but these claims habitually fail to contextualize themselves within the political and literary state of the late 1700s. Furthermore, Wheatley’s work is frequently occupied with discussions of freedom and tyranny in broader terms, as well as ideas of religious salvation for all peoples. In the 1930s, until as late as 1963, Wheatley’s work was reprinted to further the abolitionist cause and it continues to generate interest from scholars and students today.

Wheatley’s entry in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) states: “Wheatley first had to write her way into American literature before she or any other Black writer could claim a special mission and purpose for an African American literature.... No single writer has contributed more to the founding of African American literature.” Among the profusion of modern poets who have cited Wheatley as an inspiration and an influence are Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and June Jordan. In her poem, “Something Like A Sonnet For Phillis Miracle Wheatley” Jordan writes:

They taught you to read but you learned
   how to write

Begging the universe into your eyes:

They dressed you in light but you dreamed
   with the night.

From Africa singing of justice and grace,

Your early verse sweetens the fame of our Race.