3Background on Phillis Wheatley Phillis Wheatley Phillis Wheatley was the author of the first book of poetry by an African American, published in London in Prior to the book's debut, her first published poem, "On Messrs Hussey and Coffin," appeared in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. In 1770, her elegy on the death of George Whitefield, a celebrated evangelical Methodist minister who had traveled through the American colonies, drew international attention and the particular interest of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. Whitefield had been the Countess's personal chaplain. Wheatley published numerous individual poems in addition to her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, but a proposed second volume of poetry never appeared, and the manuscript was lost after her death in 1784.Her Early LifeBorn in West Africa about 1753, Wheatley was named for the slave ship, the Phillis, that brought her to Boston on 11 July 1761, and the Wheatley family who purchased her from the slave trader John Avery. John Wheatley was a prominent Boston merchant with a wholesale business, real estate, warehouses, wharfage, and the schooner London Packet. Susannah Wheatley was an ardent Christian and admirer of George Whitefield. A frail child between seven and eight years old, Phillis was chosen to be a domestic servant and companion to Mrs. Wheatley in her later years. Although she spoke no English upon her arrival in this country, she soon proved to be a precocious learner, and was tutored by the Wheatley's daughter Mary in English, Latin, history, geography, religion, and the Bible in particular. She was treated more as a member of the family than a servant or slave, and her education was that of a young woman in an elite Boston family. She was particularly well-acquainted with the classics, the Bible, and contemporary works, especially those of Alexander Pope, and these influences are readily apparent in her writing.
4Background on Phillis wheatley Fame and MisfortunePhillis's debut volume of poetry was first proposed in 1772, but this early venture was unsuccessful, and eventually she turned to an English publisher for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. In May of 1773 she accompanied the Wheatley's son Nathaniel to England, where plans for the publication had begun, but she was called home by the illness of Mrs. Wheatley, and departed before the book appeared in September. While she met many notables in London, she was unable to see the Countess of Huntingdon, who was away in Wales for the summer. Shortly after her return to Boston, Phillis was freed by her master, possibly under pressure from her English admirers. Mrs. Wheatley died in March of 1774, and Phillis's life from that point was plagued by ill health and an unhappy marriage. She drew up proposals for a second volume of poetry which was never published, probably due to wartime shortages in Boston. Her marriage in 1778 to John Peters, a free African American living in Boston, produced three children, two of whom soon died. By 1784 she was living in a boardinghouse, and, in December of that year, she and her remaining child died and were buried in an unmarked grave.Massachusetts Historical Society
5On 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, Negro's, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.Phillis Wheatley
6Ode To NeptuneOn Mrs. W-----'s Voyage to England. I. WHILE raging tempests shake the shore, While AElus' thunders round us roar, And sweep impetuous o'er the plain Be still, O tyrant of the main; Nor let thy brow contracted frowns betray, While my Susanna skims the wat'ry way. II. The Pow'r propitious hears the lay, The blue-ey'd daughters of the sea With sweeter cadence glide along, And Thames responsive joins the song. Pleas'd with their notes Sol sheds benign his ray, And double radiance decks the face of day. III. To court thee to Britannia's arms Serene the climes and mild the sky, Her region boasts unnumber'd charms, Thy welcome smiles in ev'ry eye. Thy promise, Neptune keep, record my pray'r, Not give my wishes to the empty air.Phillis Wheatley
7An Answer To The Rebus, By The Author Of These Poems THE poet asks, and Phillis can't refuse To show th' obedience of the Infant muse. She knows the Quail of most inviting taste Fed Israel's army in the dreary waste; And what's on Britain's royal standard borne, But the tall, graceful, rampant Unicorn? The Emerald with a vivid verdure glows Among the gems which regal crowns compose; Boston's a town, polite and debonair, To which the beaux and beauteous nymphs repair, Each Helen strikes the mind with sweet surprise, While living lightning flashes from her eyes, See young Euphorbus of the Dardan line By Manelaus' hand to death resign: The well known peer of popular applause Is C----m zealous to support our laws. Quebec now vanquish'd must obey, She too much annual tribute pay To Britain of immortal fame. And add new glory to her name.Phillis Wheatley
8Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Mary Wooster“A Poem of the Death of Charles Eliot…”“To His Honor the Lieutenant Governor on the death of his Lady”“To the Right and Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth…”
10Reflect on one poem that you read today that left an impression on you Reflect on one poem that you read today that left an impression on you. Tell why you chose the poem and explain how you feel about its message.