Phillis Wheatley

American poet

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753December 5, 1784) was a slave in Boston, Massachusetts, where her master's family taught her to read and write, and encouraged her poetry. Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was the first published book by an African American. It was published in London because Bostonian publishers refused. In London she met the Countess of Huntington.

A person so favoured by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. ~ George Washington


  • When first thy pencil did these beaties give
    And breathing figures learnt from thee to live
    • To A young African painter from Poems on Various Subjects kindle ebook ASIN B0083ZJ7SU
  • Creation smiles in various beauty gay
    While day to night, and night succeeds day
    • Works of Providence from Poems on Various Subjects kindle ebook ASIN B0083ZJ7SU
  • Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
    "Their colour is a diabolic die."
    Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
    May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
    • "On Being Brought from Africa to America" lines 5-8, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)
  • But how is Mneme dreaded by the race,
    Who scorn her warnings and despise her grace?
    By her unveil'd each horrid crime appears,
    Her awful hand a cup of wormwood bears.
    Days, years mispent, O what a hell of woe!
    Hers the worst tortures that our souls can know.
    • "On Recollection" st. 2 lines 7-12, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)
  •    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?
    • "To The Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth" st. 2-3, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)
  • But, Madam, let your grief be laid aside,
    And let the fountain of your tears be dry'd,
    In vain they flow to wet the dusty plain,
    Your sighs are wafted to the skies in vain,
    Your pains they witness, but they can no more,
    While Death reigns tyrant o'er this mortal shore.
    • "To a Gentleman and Lady on the Death of the Lady's Brother and Sister, and a Child of the Name of Avis, aged one Year." st. 2, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)



To His Excellency, George Washington (1775)

To His Excellency, George Washington (1775).
  • Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light, Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write. While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms, She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
  • See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan, And nations gaze at scenes before unknown! See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light Involved in sorrows and the veil of night! The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
  • Olive and laurel binds her golden hair: Wherever shines this native of the skies, Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise. Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
  • As when Eolus heaven's fair face deforms, Enwrapp'd in tempest and a night of storms; Astonish'd ocean feels the wild uproar, The refluent surges beat the sounding shore; Or thick as leaves in Autumn's golden reign,
  • Such, and so many, moves the warrior's train. In bright array they seek the work of war, Where high unfurl'd the ensign waves in air. Shall I to Washington their praise recite? Enough thou know'st them in the fields of fight.
  • Thee, first in peace and honor - we demand The grace and glory of thy martial band. Fam'd for thy valor, for thy virtues more, Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore! One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
  • When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found; And so may you, whoever dares disgrace The land of freedom's heaven-defended race! Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales, For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
  • Anon Britannia droops the pensive head, While round increase the rising hills of dead. Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia's state! Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late. Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
  • Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.

Quotes about Wheatley

  • "No more snickering," Alice Walker counseled, at "the stiff, struggling, ambivalent lines," of the first published African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley. This kidnapped and enslaved Black woman wrote in the only materials available to her, in the only language in which she could write, and in the only cadence she knew as song. Of Wheatley, Walker also wrote: "It is not so much what she sang, as that she kept alive... the notion of song."
    • Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)
  • A great deal of this new freedom rests upon the type of education which the Negro woman will receive. Early emancipation did not concern itself with giving advantages to Negro girls. The domestic realm was her field and no one sought to remove her. Even here, she was not given special training for her tasks. Only those with extraordinary talents were able to break the shackles of bondage. Phyllis Wheatley is to be remembered as an outstanding example of this ability — for through her talents one was able to free herself from house hold cares that devolved upon Negro women and make a contribution in literary art which is never to be forgotten. The years still re-echo her words. “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain/May be refined, and join the Angelic train”
  • At the library I would go the shelves alphabetically. I was drawn to anyone with a female name, with a Latino or Spanish name. There were very, very few. But as a teenager I discovered African American poetry. Gwendolyn Brooks was the first. Then Phillis Wheatley. I really identified with this slave woman writing poetry to assert and affirm her humanity. Suddenly my eyes were open to history. There was a whole explosion of African-American women poets-Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan. I have a poem in my head that's going to take me years to write down. Its working title is "On Thanking Black Muses." I owe them, because poetry really changed my life, saved it.
  • Here among the rarities of early Negro Americana was...Phyllis Wheatley's Mss. poem of 1767 addressed to the students of Harvard, her spirited encomiums upon George Washington and the Revolutionary Cause...Such things and many others are more than mere items of curiosity: they educate any receptive mind.
  • When I read Jefferson's disparagement of Wheatley, it felt like he had been disparaging the entire lineage of Black poets who would follow her, myself included, and I saw a man who had not had a clear understanding of what love is. When Robert Hayden gave us the ballads to remember how captured Africans survived the Middle Passage and arrived on these shores, it was an act of love. When Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about the children on the South Side of Chicago playing with one another in neighborhoods left neglected by the city, it was an act of love. When Audre Lorde fractured this language and then built us a new one, giving us a fresh way to make sense of who we are in the world, it was an act of love. When Sonia Sanchez makes lightning of her tongue, moving from Southern colloquialisms to stanzas shaped by Swahili, traversing an ocean in one breath, it is an act of love. Jefferson's conceptions of love seem to have been so distorted by his own prejudices that he was unable to recognize the endless examples of love that pervaded plantations across the country: mothers who huddled over their children and took the lash so their little ones wouldn't have to; surrogate mothers, fathers, and grandparents who took in children and raised them as their own when their biological parents were disappeared in the middle of the night; the people who loved and married and committed to one another despite the omnipresent threat that they might be separated at any moment. What is love if not this?
  • Mrs. Phillis: Your favour of the 26th of October did not reach my hands 'till the middle of December. Time enough, you will say, to have given an answer ere this. Granted. But a variety of important occurrences, continually interposing to distract the mind and withdraw the attention, I hope will apologize for the delay, and plead my excuse for the seeming, but not real neglect. I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me in the elegant lines you inclosed; and, however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your poetical talents; in honor of which, and as a tribute justly due to you, I would have published the poem had I not been apprehensive that, while I only meant to give the world this new instance of your genius, I might have incurred the imputation of vanity. This, and nothing else, determined me not to give it place in the public prints. If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near headquarters. I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations. I am, with great Respect, etc.
  • Unfavorable as were these conditions in the latter part of 1761, just before the birth of American freedom, arose our first contribution to literature. So strange were the conditions under which this race flower throve, we were not surprised at the doubt of her contemporaries as to whether she wrote the poems credited to her.
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