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Phillis Wheatley: An Early American Poetic Voice

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

Two Versions of a Publication History

Although early American poet Phillis Wheatley's talent was at first questioned, her authenticity was finally established during her lifetime. Today, she is widely recognized by all, except the most cynical, as one of America's finest poetic voices. Phillis Wheatley’s first and only collection of published poetry was titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral; it was published in England.

There are two versions of the history of this book’s publication: one is that the Countess Selina of Huntington invited Phillis to London and found a publisher for the poet; the other is that Phillis suffered from asthma, and so the Wheatley family took her to England to recuperate, and while there, they sought publication of her work. Either way, the book was published and Wheatley’s career was established. The Wheatley family’s insight played a major role in helping a slave rise above the hardships of that vile institution.

The Value of a Single Poem

In May 1968, one poem written by Phillis Wheatley brought $68,500 at Christie's auction, Rockefeller Center in New York. It had been estimated to bring between $18,000 and $25,000. The poem is titled "Ocean"; its seventy lines were written on three pages that had yellowed with time. It is thought to be the only copy.

Ocean

Now muse divine, thy heav'nly aid impart,
The feast of Genius, and the play of Art.
From high Parnassus' radiant top repair,
Celestial Nine! propitious to my pray'r.
In vain my Eyes explore the wat'ry reign,
By you unaided with the flowing strain.
When first old Chaos of tyrannic soul
Wav'd his dread Sceptre o'er the boundless whole,
Confusion reign'd till the divine Command
On floating azure fix'd the Solid Land,
Till first he call'd the latent seeds of light,
And gave dominion o'er eternal Night.
From deepest glooms he rais'd this ample Ball,
And round its walls he bade its surges roll;
With instant haste the new made seas complyd,
And the globe rolls impervious to the Tide;
Yet when the mighty Sire of Ocean frownd
“His awful trident shook the solid Ground.”
The King of Tempests thunders o'er the plain,
And scorns the azure monarch of the main,
He sweeps the surface, makes the billows rore,
And furious, lash the loud resounding shore.
His pinion'd race his dread commands obey,
Syb's, Eurus, Boreas, drive the foaming sea!
See the whole stormy progeny descend!
And waves on waves devolving without End,
But cease Eolus, all thy winds restrain,
And let us view the wonders of the main
Where the proud Courser paws the blue abode,
Impetuous bounds, and mocks the driver's rod.
There, too, the Heifer fair as that which bore
Divine Europa to the Cretan shore.
With guileless mein the gentle Creature strays.
Quaffs the pure stream, and crops ambrosial Grass.
Again with recent wonder I survey
The finny sov'reign bask in hideous play.
(So fancy sees) he makes a tempest rise
And intercept the azure vaulted skies.
Such is his sport:—but if his anger glow
What kindling vengeance boils the deep below!
Twas but e'er now an Eagle young and gay
Pursu'd his passage thro' the aierial way.
He aim'd his piece, would C[ale]f's hand do more ?
Yes, him he brought to pluto's dreary shore.
Slow breathed his last, the painful minutes move
With lingring pace his rashness to reprove;
Perhaps his father's Just commands he bore
To fix dominion on some distant shore.
Ah! me unblest he cries. Oh! had I staid
Or swift my Father's mandate had obey'd.
But ah! too late.—Old Ocean heard his cries.
He stroakes his hoary tresses and replies:
What mean these plaints so near our wat'ry throne,
And what the Cause of this distressful moan?
Confess. Iscarius, let thy words be true
Not let me find a faithless Bird in you.
His voice struck terror thro' the whole domain.
Aw'd by his frowns the royal youth began,
Saw you not. Sire, a tall and Gallant ship
Which proudly skims the surface of the deep?
With pompous form from Boston's port she came.
She flies, and London her resounding name.
O'er the rough surge the dauntless Chief prevails
For partial Aura fills his swelling sails.
His fatal musket shortens thus my day
And thus the victor takes my life away.
Faint with his wound Iscarius said no more.
His Spirit sought Oblivion's sable shore.
This Neptune saw, and with a hollow groan
Resum'd the azure honours of his Throne.

Coming to America

Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal, Africa, in 1753. At age seven, she was brought to America and sold to John and Susannah Wheatley of Boston. She soon became a family member instead of a slave.

The Wheatleys taught Phillis to read, and she was soon reading the classics and classical literature in Greek and Latin, as well as English. But her talent did not stop with reading, because she began to write poetry, influenced by the Bible and the English poets, particularly John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray.

Phillis wrote her first poem at age thirteen, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," which was published in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. But she gained wide recognition as a poet with “On the Death of the Reverand Mr. George Whitefield,” which appeared only three years later. Chiefly, because of this poem, Phillis’ first book was later published. It is thought that she had a second book of poems, but the manuscript seems to have disappeared.

In 1778, Phillis married John Peters, a failed businessman. They had three children, all of whom died in childhood. Phillis' final years were spent in extreme poverty, despite her work as a seamstress. She continued to write poetry and tried in vain to publish her second book of poetry. She died at age 31 in Boston.

Controversy Over Authenticity

As one might surmise, there was, indeed, a controversy over the authenticity of Phillis’ writing. That a young black slave girl could write like a John Milton was not a fact easily digested back in Colonial America, when slaves were mandated to remain uneducated.

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Even Thomas Jefferson showed disdain for Phillis’ writing; in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he remarked, "Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic] but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." Yet Jefferson goes ahead and offers criticism in his next remark, “The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.”

Unlike Jefferson, George Washington proved to be a fan; in 1776, she wrote a poem and a letter to Washington, who praised her efforts and invited her to visit. I wonder how seriously we can take Jefferson’s criticism, when he so badly misspelled her name; one wonders if he might be speaking of someone else.

Victory Over Suffering

Readers can sample Phillis’ poetry online; her book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is offered in its entirety, including the front material that shows how strong the controversy over her talent was.

Though suffering the ambivalence of the Colonial mind-set during her lifetime, today Phillis Wheatley is hailed as the first African-American poet and as the fourth important American poet in the progression of the history of American poetry.

Sources

Introduction to Phillis Wheatley Biography

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 15, 2016:

Thank you for your response, Venkatachari M. Many of Wheatley's detractors in the 1960s were black radicals who seemed too dense/ignorant to understand what a talent like hers meant for their own cause. They were all bluster and no substance--the very opposite of Phillis' profundity. The thought-provoking discourse that she offered uplifts all of humanity from the dregs of despair and hopelessness.

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on February 15, 2016:

A good review of her biography and poetic talents. People become prejudiced to accept such facts which is mostly natural.

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