"A new creation rushing on my sight!": The Subversive Poetry of Phillis Wheatley
John C Shields, in the preface to the latest volume of scholarly essays on
Phillis Wheatley published in 2011, writes that Wheatley "should be
accorded the status of, not just major Early American author, but major
American author" (xxiv). Such an assessment seems self-evident for a black
female slave who became the first person of African descent in America to
publish a book.1 Wheatley's remarkable journey from a refuse
slave of seven or eight years old (a slave too young or too ill to qualify
for a reasonable market value) to an adult artist who controlled the
profits from her one published book of poetry charts her spiritual,
political, and artistic maturity as a poet and a human being. Further,
while using the neo-classic style common to her era and influenced by the
writings of Alexander Pope, Wheatley wrote a poetry of subversion that
still speaks to the twenty-first century reader.
Such artistic admiration has been long in coming. In 1849, American editor
and critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold labeled Phillis Wheatley "the sooty
prodigy" and asserted that "[t]his 'daughter of the murky Senegal,' as she
is styled by an admiring contemporary critic, we suppose may be considered
as an American, since she was but six years of age when brought to Boston
and sold in the slave-market of that city, in 1761" (30). Griswold's
supposition encapsulates the critical assessment of Wheatley's poetic
achievement in the nineteenth century. In her own century, such
contemporary eminences as diverse as Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson held
widely divergent views. Voltaire observed that "Genius, which is rare
everywhere, can be found in all parts of the earth. Fontenelle was wrong to
say that there would never be poets among Negroes; there is presently a
Negro woman who writes very good English verse. She is named Phillis
Wheatley . . . and both [The Empress of Russia and Wheatley] astonish me
equally."2 (qtd. in Robinson, Critical Essays 33). Thomas
Jefferson, on the other hand, wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, "Among the blacks is misery enough,
Gods knows [sic], but no poetry. . . . Religion, indeed, has produced a
Phillis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions
composed under her name are below the dignity of criticism" (qtd. in
Carretta, Wheatley 200). Jefferson's words still seem unnecessarily
cruel, but they suggest colonial whites' inherent fear about educated
slaves. Babacar M'Baye agrees that Jefferson's assessment of Wheatley's
work "reflects his deep-seated racism against blacks, as well as his
anxieties about a potential wave of liberation from injustice that Wheatley
and other literate blacks represented in America" (276). Jefferson,
perhaps, recognized Wheatley's subversive verses, and "was well aware of
the significance of Wheatley's work since the injustices against blacks in
America, that he represents in his writings, were central issues in
Wheatley's poetry" (M'Baye 276).
Seemingly overlooking the subversive nature of Wheatley's poetry, critical
opinion has remained mixed, and while Wheatley's poems appear regularly in
Early American literature anthologies, scholars still debate the merits of
her poetry. Wheatley received harsh treatment from writers in the Black
Arts Movement of the 1960s who were "impatient with what they regarded as
Wheatley's utter lack of relevance to the struggles of black America"
(Robinson 8), and some contemporary scholars remain guarded, John Shields
declaring that "Phillis Wheatley is not a great poet, but she is a good
one" (267), Albertha Sistrunk adding that "[s]he needs not be heaped with
golden garlands, but she deserves more credit than she has received" (187),
and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. concluding "'genius' was not her province to
occupy. The formal gap between Milton, Pope, Gray, Addision, Watts, and
Wheatley would appear to be a profound gap . . . " ("Nature of the Negro"
224). That Wheatley is not Milton obscures the "genius" of the remarkable
poetry she did write and the importance she represents historically,
culturally, and artistically.
Although Wheatley's exact birthplace remains speculation, most likely she
was born on the West Coast of Africa in approximately 1753 in what is now
Senegal and Gambia. In an extant poem not published in her lifetime,
Wheatley refers to "pleasing Gambia" as the place to where her "soul
returns" (Complete Writings 87). John Wheatley, the man who bought
her on 11 July 1761 in the South Market in Boston from slave dealer John
Avery, writes in a letter to the publisher of Wheatley's first volume of
poetry that "PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in
the Year 1761, between Seven and Eight Years of age" (Complete Works
7). John Wheatley was a wealthy tailor and merchant who purchased the
kidnapped young girl to be a domestic slave and companion for his wife,
Susanna, and their 18 year-old twins, Mary and Nathaniel. She was named, as
Paula Bennett ruefully comments, "with no little cruelty" (65), after the
schooner on which she was delivered from Africa and, by convention, her new
Master's last name.3 Wheatley was a recognizably precocious
child; Susanna Wheatley gave the responsibility for Wheatley's education to
her daughter, Mary, who, given that few eighteenth-century women could read
or write, provided Wheatley with "an extraordinary education for a woman of
the time and an unprecedented one for a female slave" (Caretta, Complete Writings xiii). Besides geography, history, politics,
English, and Latin, Wheatley also studied the Bible, Ovid, Horace, and
Virgil (in Latin and in translation), Homer (in Pope's translation),
Terence (author of sophisticated Roman comedy who was also born in Africa),
Milton, Gray, and Pope, who became her principal poetic model. Such
education was, indeed uncommon, as was Wheatley's intelligence and
precocity. Eric Ashley Hairston points out that her access to classical
education was something entirely new in the nation, "a black intervention
in Anglo-American literature and thought not again matched among African
American writers until the middle of the nineteenth century" (65). However,
the central irony-and central subversive themes to which Wheatley returns
again and again in her poetry, is that "[h]er white slaveowners protected
her physically for their benefit and supported her artistically because she
seemed to justify benevolent slavery, but they also shielded her from her
culture and from freedom" (Mallory 25). She started writing poetry as a
teenager, after only four years of education. Her first poem, "On Messrs.
Hussey and Coffin," appeared in the Newport Mercury on 21 December
1767 when Wheatley was only 13 or 14.
Due to the success of Wheatley's early poems in circulation, especially her
elegy "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD, 1770," an
internationally popular Methodist evangelist, Wheatley and her owners
announced for subscriptions a volume of her poetry in the Boston Censor on 29 February, 12 March, and 18 April 1772, a book
"handsomely bound and lettered" that would be "put to the Press as soon as
three Hundred Copies are subscribed for" (qtd. in Carretta, Wheatley
81). The proposal's authors included an Attestation that read, "The Poems
having been seen and read by the best Judges, who think them well worthy of
the Publick View; and upon critical examination, they find that the
declared Author was capable of writing them" (qtd. in Carretta, Wheatley 80). The Attestation is a remarkable document, a pledge by
18 of the most prominent and powerful citizens of Boston, including the
Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson; John Hancock, signer of the
Declaration of Independence; and Samuel Mather, Congregational minister and
son of Cotton Mather, willing to attest that Wheatley, an African enslaved
woman of the age of 20, did, indeed, write the poems.4 Several
explanations also exist as to why the Attestation was necessary. It is
possible that the proposed printer of the book, Ezekiel Russell, knew that
few potential buyers would believe without it that an African could have
written the poetry herself, while Joanna Brooks makes the provocative
statement that a letter from the Boston merchant John Andrews suggests that
"Wheatley herself, in consultation with 'friends,' made the decision based
on financial considerations" (5). Most obviously, the Attestation was
necessary to convince potential white buyers that an African could actually
have written the poems, as most people of the time considered Africans
intellectually inferior. Thus, it was in Wheatley's best interests
financially to include the Attestation, ignoring the fact that at the same
time that the Attestation marginalized her as "the Other." To her credit,
"at the very least, the poet was capable of comprehending the salient
issues involved in advancing her fortunes, and Wheatley's words suggest
that she took action to safeguard her interests" (Hairston 63).
Whatever the origins, the Attestation and the proposal failed to achieve
backing in Boston, so Robert Calef, captain of John Wheatley's ship the London Packet, took Wheatley's manuscript to London to place it with
London publisher Archibald Bell should a suitable patron be found. Bell,
who specialized in evangelical religious works, approached the Countess of
Huntingdon, Selena Hastings, a philanthropist and patron of early
African-American artists, who was also a patron of the Rev. George
Whitefield, her chaplain. For whatever reasons, the Countess agreed to be
Wheatley's patron, and the resulting book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, would be dedicated
by permission to her. In anticipation of the book's publication, Wheatley
sailed to London with Nathaniel Wheatley on 8 May 1773 both to promote the
forthcoming book and, supposedly, to improve her always fragile health. Even before the publication of the book, Wheatley commanded
substantial interest in London, feted by dignitaries such as the Lord Mayor
of London, Brooke Watson; the Earl of Dartmouth, William Legge II; Benjamin
Franklin; and abolitionist Granville Sharp. She left England 26 July 1773
at the news of Susanna Wheatley's grave illness, leaving before she met her
patron, the Countess of Huntingdon, and before the first copies of her
books left the printers in late 1773.5
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
, containing 38 poems, begins with the dedication to the Countess of
Huntingdon, followed by a preface from the publisher, a letter from John
Wheatley (quoted from above), and the Attestation. Scholars speculate that
the engraving on the front of the published volume was possibly designed by
Scipio Moorhead, an artist of African descent to whom Wheatley addresses
the poem "To S. M. a young African painter, on seeing his Works"
(Carretta, Complete Writings xviii) (quoted below). The book balances
biblical subjects with classical subjects, containing hymns, elegies,
translations, philosophical poems, and epyllia (short epics). The volume
was widely and favorably reviewed in London, probably due to Huntingdon's
patronage, but the book was "apparently" not reviewed in America (Carretta, Wheatley 146), although news of the book spread through the colonies
by word of mouth. The first American publication of the book was in
Philadelphia in 1786, and the volume eventually went through 5 more English
or American editions before 1800.
Wheatley returned from London a famous woman. In a 30 October 1773 letter
to Obour Tanner, one of her most important correspondents, a woman of
African descent and servant to the John Tanner family in Newport, Rhode
Island, Wheatley writes: "The Friends I found [in England] among the
Nobility and Gentry, Their Benevolent conduct towards me, the unexpected,
and unmerited civility and Complaisance with which I was treated by all,
fills me with astonishment" (Complete Works 148). In America, her
fame continued, not just in Boston, where she often performed her poems
before groups of white women in private homes in Boston, "many of whom
"purchased her books for themselves and commissioned original works on
personal or occasional topics" (Brooks 8), but also in other colonies.
George Washington acknowledges receipt of her letter and poem "To His
Excellency General Washington" that Wheatley sent in April of 1776, and he
subsequently invited Wheatley to visit him at his headquarters in
Cambridge, which Wheatley did the following year. By this time, however,
John Wheatley had granted Phillis Wheatley manumission (on 18 October
1773), and Wheatley was in the process of discovering the difficulty of
being a freed woman of African descent living "in a world with very limited
economic opportunities" (Carretta, Wheatley 141).6 After
securing her freedom, she remained with Susanna and John, tending them
through their final illnesses, but her freedom, which should have been a
crowning glory in her life, sadly and ironically marks, instead, her
movement into obscurity and death.
For a short while after Poems was published and Wheatley was
manumitted, she continued to receive an income for the sale of her book.
Her recognition of her precarious financial situation is evident in a
letter to Col. David Worcester on the very day she received her freedom: ".
. . the more subscribers there are, the more it will be to my advantage as
I am to have half the Sale of the Books. This I am the more Solicitous for,
as I am now upon my own footing and whatever I get by this is entirely
mine, & it is the Chief I have to depend upon" (Collected Works
147). Susanna Wheatley died on 3 March 1774, John Wheatley a few years
later on 1 April 1778, followed by Mary Wheatley Lathrop's death in 1778
and Nathaniel Wheatley's death in 1783. By 1778, almost half of the
dignitaries who signed the Attestation were dead. John Wheatley, moreover,
left nothing in his will for his former servant. Colonial Boston responded
to Phillis Wheatley, a free black woman, in a very different manner than it
had when Wheatley was sponsored and supported by wealthy white owners, and
Joanna Brooks suggests that it was a failure of "female solidarity" of the
white female Bostonians who feted Wheatley a few years earlier that
contributed to Wheatley's inability to make a living after her manumission
by publishing a second volume (18). Once again, however, the answer may lie
in the indisputable fact that Wheatley was the objectified "Other." As
post-colonial critic Gayatri Spivak writes, "Women in many societies have
been relegated to the position of 'Other', [sic] marginalized and, in a
metaphorical sense, 'colonized', [sic] forced to pursue guerrilla warfare
against imperial domination from positions deeply imbedded in, yet
fundamentally alienated from that imperium (qtd. in Ashorost, et al. 174-75). Wheatley was the objectified "Other" three times
over: as African, as poet, and as woman. Having "been forced to articulate
[her] experiences in the language of [her] oppressors" (Ashorost, et al. 175), once those oppressors were gone, she lost the benefit
of their support and approbation.
Other reasons exist for Wheatley's inability to publish a second volume of
poetry, which was to be dedicated to Benjamin Franklin and proposals for
which appeared in 1779 and once again in 1784. Wheatley had married John
Peters on 26 November 1778, a free black man about whom little is known,
except for the fact that he petitioned Boston authorities for a license to
sell liquor in 1783 and that he was most probably in debtors' prison at the
time of Wheatley's death. According to tax and court records, it is
plausible that the first year of their marriage was "prosperous and
promising" (Carretta, Wheatley 178), although the promising
beginning soon gave way to illness and poverty due to Peters' continuing
financial reversals. Another irony is that Wheatley, who was now a freed
slave, experienced a different kind of servitude now that she was married,
for "she was now legally the property of her husband, as was now property
or possessions she owned" (Carretta, Wheatley 181), a plight common
to most women of the time, black or white. Carretta suggests that Peters
"was probably responsible for the decision to use only their surname in the
advertisement" that "effectively erased the legal identity she had gained
in 1773" (Wheatley 181, 174). Sadly, most of the poems and letters
that were to be part of this second volume have not been found. While
Wheatley continued to write poetry (in the 11 months before her death she
published 3 elegies and Liberty and Peace, a tribute to the American
victory in the Revolutionary War), and while she published her last poem in
the Boston Magazine 3 months before her death, "none of her former
friends or powerful readers came to her aid" (Willard 248). Wheatley died
on 5 December 1784 at age 31, perhaps from asthma, childbirth, the ravages
of poverty, or all three.7 Carretta speculates that, under the
Mansfield ruling, "Had she remained in London in 1773, she very likely
would have found a publisher for her second volume, financial success, and
access to influential literary, political, and social circles" ( Wheatley 195). Instead, she lies in an unmarked American grave.
Recent scholarship estimates that Phillis Wheatley wrote approximately 145
poems in her short lifetime (O'Neale 157), patterning her poems after the
neoclassic verse of her contemporaries, especially Alexander Pope (Pope's
translation of Homer was Wheatley's favorite secular book).8 As
such, her verse strictly adheres to the decasyllabic line of the closed
heroic couplet, and her poetry uses many of the common elements of
neoclassic verse: invocation of the muse, inflated poetic diction,
hyperbole, and classical allusion. The common forms available to her were
the pastoral, the elegy, the lyric, and the epic, all of which she used
(Shields, "Wheatley's Subversion" n. pag.). To some readers, her poetry
seems conventional and conformist, mere imitation, while others see her
poetry as inventive, even subversive. Likewise, readers view the poet as
both "a private, classical, subversive poet, on the one hand, and a public
Christian, assimilationist writer, on the other" (Kendrick 71). Most recent
scholarship, however, sees Wheatley's use of neoclassic form as fitting for
a poet writing at her time, where imitation (and, indeed, imitation of
Pope) was "the suggested course for writers of the eighteenth century"
(Sistrunk 177). In other words, as a neoclassic poet, Wheatley accepts the
heavy formal constraints that characterize poetry of the eighteenth century
and "finds aesthetic value in her ability to create art while adhering to
'classic' conventions" (Watson 107). In the eighteenth century, a writer's
artistic success "attested to his skill in employing literary devices"
(Sistrunk 181). Moreover, neoclassic form is the spring board from which
Wheatley re-invents, re-writes, and transforms the received culture of her
time for her own purposes. Maureen Anderson claims that Wheatley's lines
are "intentionally subversive and grammatically sly. The message she
conveys is not an easy one for her audience mostly comprising white, often
slaveholding men" (8). These purposes can best be demonstrated by a
discussion of how Wheatley manipulates neoclassic literary conventions
established by the white hegemony to subvert accepted beliefs about
Americans of African descent. Jennifer Billingsley asserts that "it is
inaccurate to argue that Wheatley imitated the artificial structures of the
neoclassical tradition; rather she consciously developed a philosophical
position that helped to establish a new poetics out of the classical
tradition" (162). Wheatley's subversive agenda-spiritual, political, and
artistic-claims essential rights for herself and her African brothers and
sisters, and can be traced through three poems from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Wheatley's most famous (and infamous for those artists in the Black Arts
Movement of the 1960's) work is her 1768 poem "On being brought from AFRICA
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, 9
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
This poem, at first blush, appears to present Wheatley as the "public
Christian, assimilationist writer" who is writing to affirm the fortunate
fall that brings her from her pagan land, with her "benighted soul," into
the light of Christianity. Benighted suggests first the state of being
intellectually or morally ignorant, outside the knowledge of the Christian
savior; further, the word has the obvious connection to the darkness of
night, reinforced in lines 6 and 7 as equivalent to the color of the
African skin. Cain, once he lies to God about his brother Abel's death, is
cursed by God and marked by a visible sign, but that sign is never
explained further. Here, Wheatley appears to suggest that Cain's visible
mark is the color of darkness, the "diabolical" die that marks him as
outside human compassion or salvation: not only does Cain, and therefore
the African, carry the visible mark of darkness, but that darkness is
"diabolic," characteristic of the devil.10 The "die" (read
"dye") that has darkened Cain's skin suggests loss of a spiritual, eternal
life-to literally die, if not physically then spiritually.
Susanna Wheatley took as much care in Wheatley's religious education as her
daughter Mary took with Wheatley's intellectual education. Wheatley was
baptized by Samuel Cooper on 18 August 1771 into the Congregationalist Old
South Church, and many passages from her surviving letters, especially with
Reverend Samson Occom, a converted Christian Mohican Indian minister,
reveal her earnest belief in the Christian God, although scholars also
point out that in other poems Wheatley "mitigates" her early orthodoxy "in
favor of embracing classicism as an indication of her enlightenment
theology" (Shields, "Wheatley's Subversion" n. pag.). Wheatley's growing
enlightenment theology eventually discounts the myth held by the people of
her day that supported the perpetuation of slavery as the institution that
"saved the souls of thousands of unfortunate Africans who might otherwise
have perished in hell" (Levernier 22). Wheatley ultimately rejects slavery
and damnation in all its forms, claiming equality and enlightenment for
black and white, Christian and pagan.11
Wheatley's subversive theology is evident by the turn in the poem in line
5. First, and significantly, Wheatley's speaker, identified completely with
Wheatley herself, speaks directly to the white Christian readers, seeking
to educate and inform them by admonishing them to "remember" (line 7).
Wheatley teaches the lesson that Americans of African descent, whatever
their skin color or cultural background, may learn to read and write and
participate in polite "refined" society. More important, these Africans (to
whom she refers as "our sable race") are a part of the "angelic train,"
fully equal and heaven-bound along with their white mistresses and masters.
Wheatley claims spiritual equality for her African community.
If Wheatley is subversive in her assertion of spiritual equality, the same
is true in her call for political equality as well. Wheatley's growing
radicalism in the struggle for political equality is evident in a famous
letter of 11 February to her friend and correspondent, Rev. Occom, and in
her 1773 poem "To the Right Honorable WILLIAM, Earl of DARTMOUTH, His
Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North-America, &c."
Dartmouth was also President of the Board of Trade and Foreign Plantations
whom Wheatley had met on her trip to England:
Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear'd the Goddess long desir'd,
Sick at the view, she languish'd and expir'd;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favours to renew,
Since in thy pow'r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did'st once deplore.
May heav'nly grace the sacred sanction give
To all thy works, and thou for ever live
Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot's name,
But to conduct to heav'ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th' ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.
This poem is addressed to King George III's Principal Secretary of North
America in the immediate years leading up to the Declaration of
Independence and the American Revolutionary War, but before Dartmouth chose
loyalty to the British crown over the American colonies. Wheatley,
therefore, still confers upon the Earl the belief in his ability to change
the iron chain of tyrant (with its obvious reference to the horrors of
slavery) to the silken reins of a benevolent government committed to
freedom. Here, Wheatley, a black slave, is, without slavish humility,
directly addressing a white male in a position of authority. Wheatley
admits "For favors past, great Sir, our thanks are due," but she
nonetheless creates a radical argument that subsumes America's political
slavery under England's tyranny with the tyranny of the white slaveholders.
This poem opens with Wheatley's optimistic assertion that Freedom is the
sun that lights the morn, but Pallas Athene, goddess of war and
wisdom, courage and justice, and protector of civilized life, "sick
at the view" of the increasing tyranny of Britain's taxation, languishes
and expires, and her owl "in sadness seeks the caves of night," the result
of the loss of the enlightened "silken reins" of freedom. Wheatley calls
upon the Earl of Dartmouth to redress the wrongs of the mother country that
means "t' enslave the land." However, in stanza three, Wheatley uses
striking images from her own life, including the tyrant slave trader "by no
misery mov'd / That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd" to connect
America's struggle for freedom with a slave's very personal struggle.
George III represents to the American colonies what the slave traders and
slave owner did to the African people. As Sondra O'Neale frames her
argument, Wheatley's challenge to Dartmouth is "to stand up against the
wickedness of the slavery system, just as the Prophet Elijah [see line 43]
stood against the wickedness of Jezebel's prophets in Old Testament times"
(156-57). Wheatley holds Dartmouth accountable for "favours to renew,"
asking him to adopt Athene's discernment and courage to provide justice for
all the oppressed, all Americans, slave and free.
Wheatley's commitment to the cause of freedom for her people, for which she
found the American Revolution a fitting analogy, is reinforced further in a
personal letter dated 11 February 1774, to Samson Occom. Subversively using
the Puritan typology of the early colonists' journey to the Promised Land
from the land of their Egyptian oppressors, Wheatley writes:
. . . God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is
impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our
Modern Egyptians I will assert; that the same Principal lives in us. God
grants Deliverance in his own way and Time, and get him honor upon all
those whose Avarice impels them desire not for their Hurt, but to convince
them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct . . . . How well the Cry for
Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the Exercise of oppressive Power
over others agree, -I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a
Philosopher to Determine. (qtd. in Shields, Collected Works 177). 12
Political tyranny is personal tyranny, Wheatley claims, for a group of
Americans kidnapped from "Afric's fancy'd happy seat," and as she
bluntly puts it, "it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher" to
understand what Thomas Jefferson understood in the first draft of the
Declaration of Independence with its call for the abolition of slavery,
later removed in committee in order to get all colonies to agree to sign
the document. Wheatley hopes to awaken the consciences of "colonists who
enslaved others even as they fought for their own liberty" (Bennett 69).
Wheatley's subversive fight for freedom for all Americans of whatever
cultural descent finally culminates in her call for artistic freedom for
all people, a call that supersedes political philosophies to celebrate the
aesthetic impulse that is at the heart of the spiritual vision found in her
1773 poem, "To S.M., a young African Painter, on seeing his Works."
Her use of italics in the title is significant, as she is reminding her
readers that not only can Africans join the "angelic train" to ultimate
salvation, but that they may and do also participate in the gift of the
divine on earth: the creation of art:
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, wondrous 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, crowned 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 blessed,
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!
But when these shades of time are chased 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 heavenly murmurs flow,
And there my muse with heavenly 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 the ethereal plain.
Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night
Now seals the fair creation from my sight.
Scipio Moorhead, believed to be the artist who designed the frontispiece
portrait of Wheatley for her published volume of poems, was the slave of
the Reverend John Moorhead, and therefore parallels Wheatley's own social
situation and struggle for artistic voice. Another parallel is that the
painter, who was also a poet, was taught to paint and draw by his Master's
wife, Sarah, although the portrait of Wheatley is the only known surviving
image of his work. Wheatley celebrates Moorhead's creative images as ones
that "give my soul delight," invoking the connection of artistic creation
with the spiritual seat of all creation-her soul. Not only are the painter
and poet connected by their chosen vocations, but also by the "immortal
fame" they will both possess, a heady claim for a slave with no social or
political standing in her society. This poem integrates many of Wheatley's
common themes, especially the "fire" of imaginative creation that connects
to the sun (Aurora) and represents for Wheatley enlightenment, poetic
inspiration, and cosmic divine order while echoing her invocation of the
nine muses that appear in other poems. Further, as John Shields notes, the
allusion to Damon and Aurora from Virgil's eighth eclogue represents
Wheatley's insistence that "just as a slave can rival a white man's poetic
output, a slave can also challenge a white painter's sophistication"
("Wheatley's Subversion" n. pag.)
Yet the optimistic assertion within the poem of Moorhead's creative
ability, like the poet's own ability, is modified by "the solemn gloom of
night," a darkness that can refer to the American Revolution, the evils of
slavery, or the vale of tears through which all people-slave traders and
artists alike-must pass to reach the twelve-gated celestial city where
"darkness ends in everlasting day." Wheatley foreshadows her own
disappointed hopes as she eventually struggles to write in abject poverty
as a free black woman in a society that still did not acknowledge her
personhood, Christians who still did not understand that slaves like
Wheatley and Moorhead were, indeed, refined and worthy of the angelic
Phillis Wheatley died before her call to conscience was understood by all
people. Her death at age 31 is sad testament to the inability of Americans
who fought their own war of independence to extend the eradication of
tyranny beyond the lives of white Europeans. Wheatley was subversive by the
very fact that her commitment to equality as the end product of social
change challenged the received wisdom of the society in which she lived.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. praises Wheatley for "launch[ing] two traditions at
once-the black American literary tradition and the black woman's
literary tradition. . . .[I]t is extraordinary that not just one but both
of these traditions were founded simultaneously by a black woman-certainly
an event unique in the history of literature . . ." ("In Her Own Write" 9).
Wheatley's poetry, however, does not allow us to linger at a unique place
in history for one woman. Ultimately, she insists on the innate right for
all people to be free through her "most insistent theme": God's
impartiality . . . for all God's equal children" (Williard 242).
Vincent Carretta points out in the introduction to his edition of
Wheatley's complete works that Wheatley was not the first black woman poet
in America (Lucy Terry, whose poems were not published until the 19 th century), the first published black poet (Jupiter Hammon, who
published a poem at the end of 1760), nor the first black poet to gain
international recognition (Francis Williams). Wheatley, who, Carretta
claims, "far surpassed her black predecessors" in recognition, reputation,
and influence (xv), was the first black person of African descent in
America to publish a book.
le génie, qui est rare partout, se trouve aussi en tout climat.
Fontenelle avait tort de dire qu'il n'y aurait jamais de poëtes
chez les Nègres: il y a actuellement une Négresse qui fait de
très-bons vers anglais. Elle s'appelait Phillis Wheatley . . . et
tous deux [The Empress of Russia and Wheatley] m'éntonnent
" (trans. in Robinson, Critical Essays 33)
At this time, only 2% of the population of Massachusetts were enslaved
(Carretta, Wheatley 4). Carretta writes that the New England slave
"was in a measure a member of his master's family, and . . . was usually
referred to as 'servant,' rarely as slave" (Wheatley 15). Indeed, in
a 21 March letter to Obour Tanner, Wheatley shares that "I was treated by
her [Susanna Wheatley] more like her child than her Servant" ( Complete Works 153).
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has published in multiple sources an imaginative
retelling of the Attestation story that places Wheatley in the room with
her judges, "perhaps gathered in a semicircle" ("In Her Own Write"
vii-viii). While there is no historical evidence that this scene actually
took place as Gates envisions it, it remains true that the Attestation was
essential to the eventual publication of her book. See footnote 5 of Joanna
Brooks' article "Our Phillis, Ourselves" for a full accounting of the
re-creation of this story over several decades.
The fact that Wheatley left England to return to nurse her mistress is all
the more remarkable considering that Wheatley most probably knew of the
Mansfield decision rendered in England before she arrived in London, and
she arrived in London on the eve of the ruling's first anniversary. Lord
Mansfield was Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench. Carretta explains
that, "Although Mansfield's ruling technically established only that a
slave could not be seized by his master and forced against his will to
leave England and that a slave could get a writ of habeas corpus to prevent
his master's action, Mansfield's judgment has been widely considered as the
moment slavery was abolished in England" (Complete Writings xxiii,
There are various theories about the timing of Wheatley's manumission.
Joanna Brooks suggests that Wheatley, after developing a network of
supporters, "engineered her own manumission" (15) owing to the success of
her volume of poetry. It is true that it was only after she gained
international attention for her writing that John Wheatley freed her,
especially as "scores of reviews of Wheatley's book argued that the
publication of her poems meant that the African was indeed a human being
and should not be enslaved" (Gates, "Writing 'Race'" 8, 9). Wheatley,
herself, suggests that the idea of freeing her was at the will of a dying
Susanna Wheatley, as she writes in a 6 May 1774 letter to John Thorton: "My
old master's generous behavior in granting me my freedom, and still so kind
to me I delight to acknowledge my great obligations to him, this he did
about 3 months before the death of my dear mistress & at her desire, as
well as his own humanity" (Complete Works 159).
Margaret Matilda Odell's 1834 "Memoir," which contains many errors in fact,
claims that Wheatley had three children, two of whom died early and the
third child dying at the time of Wheatley's own death and buried with her.
This has become the received wisdom, although as Carretta points out, "no
birth, baptismal, or burial records have been found for any children of
Phillis and John Peters" (Wheatley 177).
For a detailed discussion of the ways Wheatley is influenced by and
diverges from Alexander Pope, see Albertha Sistrunck's article "The
Influence of Alexander Pope on the Writing Style of Phillis Wheatley" in Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley.
As O'Neale points out, "The Cain and Ham myths were curiously misapplied in
Western culture to explain racial differences. New World Christians
connected Cain's mark with black skin and Ham's curse with eternal
servitude for Ham and his offspring; white Westerners believed that the
offspring were Africans" (150).
John C. Shield's edition of The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley
re-creates the type-set page of the original publication, including
spelling and letter formation of the eighteenth century. For this reason, I
am using Vincent Carretta's more recent Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings that uses modern spelling and
Odell's early memoir recounts that all Wheatley
remembered about her native land was that " her mother poured out water before the sun at his rising" (emphasis
in original; qtd. in Shields "Wheatley's Struggle" 241), a ritual
suggesting that Wheatley's parents were sun worshipers (241). Wheatley
chooses the sun as symbol of enlightenment, poetic inspiration, and cosmic
divine order on the one hand (Shields, "Wheatley's Struggle" 243;
"Wheatley's Classicism" 100) and as the "most exalted symbol of God in
nature" (Shields, "Wheatley and the Sublime" 202). This solar symbol is
essential to her "meditative, religious consciousness" in which both
Christian and classical allusion "participate with unobtrusive
compatibility" (Shields, "Wheatley's Classicism" 104").
The impact of this letter on Boston's political and social environment can
be shown by the fact that it was published (whether by Wheatley or Occom is
not clear) in The Massachusetts Spy on 24 March 1774, theBoston Post Boy on 21 March 1774, TheProvidence, Rhode Island Gazette on 26 March 1774, and the Connecticut Journal on 1 April 1774 (Gates, "Nature of the Negro"
Anderson, Maureen. "Phillis Wheatley's Dido: An Analysis of 'An Hymn to
Humanity. To S.P.G. Esq." Shields and Lamore. 3-17. Print.
Ashorost, Bill, et al.
The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-colonial
. New York: Routledge, 1989. Print.
Bennett, Paula. "Phillis Wheatley's Vocation and the Paradox of the 'Afric
Muse.'" PMLA 113.1 (1998): 64-76. Print.
Brooks, Joanna. "Our Phillis, Ourselves." American Literature.
82.1(2010): 1-28. Print.
Carretta, Vincent, ed. Introduction. Complete Writings: Phillis Wheatley. New York: Penguin. Print.
---. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Athens, GA:
U of Georgia P, 2014. Print.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Forward. "In Her Own Write." Shields. vii-xxii.
---. "Phillis Wheatley and the Nature of the Negro." Robinson. 215-39.
---. Introduction. "Writing 'Race' and the Difference It Makes." Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 1-20. Print.
Griswold, Rufus W. The Female Poets of America. Philadelphia: Carey
& Hart, 1849. Print.
Hairston, Eric Ashley. "The Trojan Horse: Classics, Memory, Transformation,
and Afric Ambition in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral." Shields and Lamore.
Kendrick, Robert. "Re-membering America: Phillis Wheatley's Intertextual
Epic." African American Review 30.1 (1996): 71-88. Print.
Levernier, James A. "Phillis Wheatley and the New England Clergy." Early American Literature 26.1 (1991): 21-38. Print.
Mallory, Devona. "I Remember Mama: Honoring the Goddess Mother While
Denouncing the Slaveowner God in Phillis Wheatley's Poetry." Shields and
Lamore. 19-34. Print.
M'Baye, Babacar. "The Pan-African and Puritan Dimensions of Phillis
Wheatley's Poems and Letters. Shields and Lamore. 271-293. Print.
O'Neale, Sondra. "A Slave's Subtle War: Phillis Wheatley's Use of Biblical
Myth and Symbol." Early American Literature 21.2 (1986): 144-165.
Robinson, William H., ed. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley.
Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982. Print. Critical Essays on Amer. Lit. Ser.
Shields, John C., ed. The Collected Works of Phyllis Wheatley. New
York: Oxford UP, 1988. Print. Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Cen. Black
---. ed. "Introduction. Shields and Lamore. xi-xxv. Print.
---. "Phillis Wheatley's Struggle for Freedom in Her Poetry and Prose."
Shields and Lamore. vii-xxii. Print.
---. "Phillis Wheatley and the Sublime." Shields and Lamore. 189-205.
---. "Phillis Wheatley's Subversion of Classical Stylistics." Style
27.2(1993): n. pag. Web. 28 April 2014.
---. "Wheatley's Use of Classicism." American Literature 52.1(1980):
Sistrunk, Albertha. "The Influence of Alexander Pope on the Writing Style
of Phillis Wheatley." Robinson. 175-188. Print.
Watson, Marsha. "A Classic Case: Phillis Wheatley and Her Poetry." Early American Literature 31.2 (1996): 103-132. Print.
Wheatley, Phillis. Complete Writings. Ed. Vincent Carretta. New
York: Penguin, 2001. Print.
Willard, Carla. "Wheatley's Turns of Praise: Heroic Entrapment and the
Paradox of Revolution." American Literature 67.2 (1995): 233-256.