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"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.

The Life

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.

Wheatley's Art

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.

Three Poems

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 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, 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,

Dartmouth , 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 train.

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).


1 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.

2 " 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 également " (trans. in Robinson, Critical Essays 33)

3 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).

4 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.

5 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, xxiv).

6 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).

7 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).

8 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.

9 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).

10 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 typography.

11 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").

12 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" 227).

Works Cited

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 Literatures . 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. Print.

---. "Phillis Wheatley and the Nature of the Negro." Robinson. 215-39. Print.

---. 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. 57-94. Print.

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. Print.

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 Women Writers.

---. 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. Print.

---. "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): 97-111. Print.

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. Print.

Phillis Wheatley
Years: 1753-1784
Birthplace: Senegal or Gambia, Western Africa
Language(s): English, Latin
Forms: strict heroic couplets; elegies; epyllia; lyric; pastoral
Subjects: death, religion, slavery, nature, occasional topics (i.e. Revolutionary War)
Firsts: The first person of African descent in America to publish a book; the first person to use the word “Columbia” in reference to the united colonies (America).
Entry By: Kathryn Voorhees
Photo Credit: Meredith Bergmann
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