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Phillis Wheatley

1753–1784

Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa in 1753. At the age of eight, she was kidnapped, enslaved in New England, and sold to John Wheatley of Boston. The first African-American and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies, Wheatley learned to read and write English by the age of nine, familiarizing herself with Latin, Greek, the Bible, and selected classics at an early age. She began writing poetry at thirteen, modeling her work on the English poets of the time, particularly John Milton, Thomas Gray, and Alexander Pope. Her poem “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” was published as a broadside in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and garnered Wheatley national acclaim. This poem was also printed in London. Over the next few years, she would print a number of broadsides elegizing prominent English and colonial leaders.

In 1771, Wheatley accompanied John Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, to London. She was well received in London and wrote to a friend of the “unexpected and unmerited civility and complaisance with which I was treated by all.” In 1773, thirty-nine of her poems were published in London as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which became the first book of poetry published by an enslaved African-American in the United States. The book includes many elegies as well as poems on Christian themes; it also includes poems dealing with race, such as the often-anthologized “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She returned to America in 1773.

After the elder Wheatleys died, Phillis was left to support herself as a seamstress and poet. It is unclear precisely when Wheatley was freed from slavery, although scholars suggest it occurred between 1774 and 1778. In 1776, Wheatley wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington, who replied with an invitation to visit him in Cambridge, stating that he would be “happy to see a person so favored by the muses.” In 1778, she married John Peters, who kept a grocery store. They had three children together, all of whom died young. Wheatley experienced difficulty publishing her poems, soliciting subscribers for a new volume that would include thirty-three new poems and thirteen letters, but unable to raise the funds. Phillis Wheatley, who had once been internationally celebrated, died alone in a boarding house on December 5, 1784. She was thirty-one years old. Many of the poems for her proposed second volume disappeared and have never been recovered.

Phillis Wheatley

By This Poet

8

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;

              V.

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.

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,
Virtue is 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 celestial Chastity along;
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, or Goodness, 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!

 

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.

    From Helicon’s refulgent 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 roving Fancy flies,
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.

    Though Winter frowns to Fancy’s raptur’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.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow'ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may 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.

    Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th’ expanse on high:
From Tithon's bed now might Aurora rise,
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,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

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