Phillis Wheatley

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Most likely seized from the Gambia region of Africa, a seven or eight year old girl was kidnapped from her home and sold to John and Susanna Wheatley in Boston Massachusetts. John and Susana named their slave Phillis Wheatley—'The Phillis' being the name of the ship that brought the young girl to the shores of New England.

Little is known about how Phillis Wheatley acquired her great learning, but it is very possible that Mary and Nathaniel Wheatley, daughter and son of John and Susana, taught her to read the bible in English. No one in the Wheatley family is believed to have known Latin, so Phillis presumably sought a tutor who had a classical education outside of the Wheatley home. While undoubtedly still a slave, Phillis being given access to materials used for educational purposed shows that she was allowed civil and social opportunities not typical of most African slaves.

Phillis published her first poem at age thirteen. By the time she was eighteen, Wheatley had gathered a collection of twenty-eight poems for which she, with the help of Mrs. Wheatley, attempted to publish in Boston in February of 1772. When the colonists were apparently unwilling to support literature by an African, she and the Wheatleys turned to London to find a publisher. A wealthy supporter of evangelical and abolitionist causes, The Countess of Huntington instructed Phillis to travel to London and meet Archibald Bell, a London printer and acquaintance of the Countess. In London for only six weeks from 17 June to 26 July, where she met was met with great esteem. Wheatley returned from London a slave, but she was manumitted by the Wheatley family in December of 1773.

Phillis remained with the Wheatley family until April 1, 1778, when she married John Peters, a free black. Peters was described as good looking and a friend to Phillis, but ultimately he did not find monetary stability in Massachusetts. Wheatley died in poverty on 5 December 1784 in Boston from complications of childbirth; all three of her children had died in infancy.

Literary Contributions

Although "An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield" (1770) was "generally believed" to be "Wheatley's first published poem," according to Sondra O'Neale, Carl Bridenbaugh proclaimed in 1969 that Wheatley's first poem was actually published on December 21, 1767, when the authoress was only thirteen years of age. This poem, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," appeared in Newport, Rhode Island's Mercury and was - according to Bridenbaugh - written "after hearing a miraculous saga of survival at sea." Regardless of whether this is the case, Wheatley's prolific (yet relatively short) poetic career began - in terms of national recognition - with her publishing of "An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield" (1770). [1]

Phillis and the Wheatleys had attempted to publish her work in America, but "the colonists were unwilling to support literature by an African," so they sent Whitefield's elegy to the woman to whom he served as chaplain, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. The Countess forwarded Wheatley's poem to English publisher Archibald Bell, who "beg[an] correspondence with Wheatley in preparation for the book" which was first circulated as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. Many poems in her book "hailed the ideals of liberty that British North Americans were adopting as a philosophical basis for organizing government and society" (location 758) which caused her work to be well-received among her American audience.

Although "Contemporary scholars and critics have rediscovered the significance" of her work, sadly, Wheatley's star burned out before her death. Facing abject poverty, she tried to publish a second volume of poems, but could not drum up enough interest from subscribers to do so. Nevertheless, just as she was announced in the newspapers in 1773, she is recognized today as an " 'extraordinary' poet of 'ingenious' capacity".

Historical Significance



Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious, and Moral begins with three authentications before her poetry begins. The three authentications, written by Wheatley, her master, and the governor of Massachusetts, all authenticating that Wheatley was indeed the author. Such emphasis on authentication suggests that the editors and publishers of the work were highly invested into Wheatley’s reputation as a writer. Wheatley’s subject matter, politics and religion, was marketable at the time. Her pietistic poetry had the opportunity to fuel religious movements, and Wheatley writes with an understanding of her marketability. [2] The authentications, which were not included in the British edition of her poetry, have been described by scholars as “absolutely essential to the publication of Wheatley's book.” [3]

The second authentication is a preface. The preface to ‘’Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral’’ is unsigned. The first half of the preface emphasizes that Wheatley’s poems were “Products of her leisure Moments,” suggesting that her writing did not interfere with her duties as a slave. The author of the preface, aware of Wheatley’s status as a woman and a slave, is careful to stress her humility, underscoring her reluctance to publish and therefore to enter the public sphere — a space where slaves and women did not often belong. The second half of the preface serves to acknowledge, in advance, the “Defects” of Wheatley’s poetry; it addresses critics directly, asking them not to dismiss her work due to those “Imperfections.” According to the preface, Wheatley’s poems contain “Merit” beyond technical proficiency.  Finally, the preface acknowledges Wheatley’s educational challenges, referring to John Wheatley’s letter, which was also included in the front matter of the text’s American edition.

John Wheatley, Phillis’ master, offered the second authentication for her writing. In his letter to the publisher, John Wheatley listed the many astounding traits that Phillis exhibited upon acceptance into his household when she was around eight years of age. Phillis was able to master the English language in sixteenth months time. Phillis Wheatley further astonished those around her when she learned the Latin language and began to read sacred writings. As a final note, John Wheatley reports that Phillis learned and began writing on her own volition.

The third and final authentication is addressed “To The Publick,” and assures the public that “the Poems specified in the following Page were (as we verily believe) were written by Phillis, a young Negro girl.” The document is signed by Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson, along with nineteen other men, including Wheatley’s owner, the Lieutenant-Governor, and an assortment of lawyers, reverends, and judges.

"To the University of CAMBRIDGE, In NEW-ENGLAND"

 "To the University of Cambridge, in New-England"
 WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
 The muses promise to assist my pen;
 'Twas not long since I left my native shore
 The land of errors, and Egyptain gloom:
 Father of mercy, 'twas thy gracious hand                5
 Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.
 Students, to you 'tis giv'n to scan the heights
 Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
 And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
 Still more, ye sons of science ye receive               10
 The blissful news by messengers from heav'n,
 How Jesus' blood for your redemption flows.
 See him with hands out-stretcht upon the cross;
 Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
 He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:             15
 What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
 When the whole human race by sin had fall'n,
 He deign'd to die that they might rise again,
 And share with him in the sublimest skies,
 Life without death, and glory without end.              20
 Improve your privileges while they stay,
 Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears
 Or good or bad report of you to heav'n.
 Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
 By you be shun'd, nor once remit your guard;            25
 Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
 Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
 An Ethiop tells you 'tis your greatest foe;
 Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
 And in immense perdition sinks the soul.                30

Overview of Poem

In this poem, Wheatley, at the age of fifteen, addresses the young male students at what would eventually become Harvard University. In doing so, her message transcends race, age, and gender boundaries. According to Evangelism and the Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835, "Commentators rarely mention that this poem urges educated students to remember their duty to God" (May, Chapter 2).[4] What is more, Wheatley presents the compatibility of religion and science. In the poem, "she requested that the students take advantage of all opportunities and guard against sin" (Jamison 411). [5]

Rhetorical Strategies

Wheatley positions herself as a Christian and an African authority. She uses the familiar trope of the Ethiop and states, "An Ethiop tells you 'tis your greates foe; / Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain, / And in immense perdition sinks sinks the soul" (27-30). Wheatley uses this trop in other works, including "To the KING's Most Excellent Majesty. 1768." She recognizes herself as humble and subservient in order to maintain a certain tone of respect toward her audience, yet she still generates authority on the issues she presents. Angeline Jamison suggests that Wheatley guilts her audience into accepting her message by essentially informing them, if slave can embrace this thinking, then it should come as a reiteration to her more educated audience (412).

Furthermore, she integrates scientific terminology and Enlightenment perspectives to convey her message to a group of scholars. Thereby, Wheatley makes her relevant to her audience. As Mary McAleer Balkun finds, Wheatley's audience was "familiar with particular language and rhetorical devices-the jeremiad, the plea to the rising generation, the rhetoric of Revlolution, to name a few" (122).

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.             5
   "Their colour is a diabolic die."
   Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
   May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Phillis Wheatley’s On Being Brought from Africa to America is widely regarded to be her most popular and reprinted poem; on Amazon alone there are 235 hits when the poem is searched, the majority of which are different anthologies her poem has been reprinted in. The poem was written in 1768, when Wheatley was only fifteen-years-old, and it stands out compared to her other poems as it explicitly discusses race, slavery, and equality [6].



In the first line of this poem Wheatley introduces the idea of being brought from her “Pagan” land by God’s mercy. This line could be read as Wheatley celebrating her new found Christian religion, but as many of her other poems reference Pagan myths there is evidence that she does not renounce her Pagan beliefs in favor of Christianity completely. This poem, like many of Wheatley’s poems calls upon both Pagan and Christian symbols (lines 7 and 8 of On Being Brought reference both Cain and the angelic train). This may reflect Wheatley’s own spiritual negotiations between her past and present.


Wheatley addresses race more explicitly in this particular poem than in many others. She directly acknowledges and condemns racist views in America when she writes, “Some view our sable race with scornful eye.” In the last two lines of the poem, Wheatley takes on an authoritative voice and writes as an imperative, ordering her readers to “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,/ May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.” Wheatley is asserting that other Christians should recognize that even African descendants can be saved by God. This would have been controversial at the time due to the implications that blacks could be on the same level as whites in the eyes of God. This is important not only in a religious context, but also because race theories at the time were torn between those who maintained races were static in hierarchy and that the “lower” races were unable to change or grow and those who believed that race was something that was constructed by environment and more fluid. [7]

Rhetorical Strategies


Several lines of this poem can be read in multiple ways—as either sincere or sarcastic, or somewhere in between. For example, line 6 of this poem is put in quotation marks, as Wheatley is drawing on the voices of certain racist others. A black woman quoting someone as saying “Their color is a diabolic die” gives the quote an air of sarcasm, but this could also be read as a genuinely sad observation that Wheatley is making. Her feelings on being brought from Africa as expressed in this poem thus could be interpreted as genuinely grateful, or sarcastically scornful. This is perhaps one of Wheatley’s greatest poetic skills, as it may have allowed her to say things that she could not have said in a more straightforward manner.


In this poem Phillis Wheatley takes on more agency than a slave girl normally had when she uses the imperative in the last two lines of the poem. She speaks directly to "Christians" here, reminding them that all Christians, even slaves, have a place in the "angelic train". By employing this commanding voice, Wheatley exerts power here despite her social subservience.


This poem has rhyming couplets in the scheme AABBCCDD. She uses biblical references and metaphors to make her points about slavery and religion.



  2. Young, Jennifer Rene. "Marketing a Sable Muse: The Cultural Circulation of Phillis Wheatley, 1767--1865." Howard University, 2004. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 22 Sep. 2014.
  3. Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Mister Jefferson and the Trials of Phillis Wheatley.” ‘’The 43rd Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.’’ National Endowment for the Humanities, n.d. Web. 22 September 2014.
  4. May, Cedrick. "Phillis Wheatley." Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835. Kindle. Chapter 2.
  5. Jamison, Angeline. "Analysis of Selected Poetry of Phillis Wheatley." The Journal of Negro Education. 44.3: (1974). 408-16. JSTOR.22 Sept. 2014.
  6. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Phillis Wheatley (American Poet)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 22 Sept. 2014.
  7. Weignman, Robyn. American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender. London: Duke UP, 1995. Print.