Phillis Wheatley

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Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects - 1773

Frontispiece to Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects – 1773

by Gina Luria Walker 

Phillis Wheatley (1753 –1784) A slave girl of about seven or eight years old arrived in Boston in 1761, aboard a slaver, The Phillis.[1] She was a captive from somewhere along the Senegambian Coast in , and her native language was Wolof.[2]  Based on the approximated location of her birth along with an account of her own memory of her mother, some scholars theorize that she may have been born in a Muslim community.[3] Named “Phillis,” she was purchased at the Boston slave market by Quakers John and Susannah Wheatley as a house slave and maid for their daughter Mary.[4] The Wheatleys were a preeminent family in New England and the surrounding Colonies.  They resided in a stately home which was a center for their friends who were influential figures in politics and religion, and even English aristocracy.  Quickly, the family recognized Phillis’ curiosity and aptitude; they were willing to defy convention by cultivating her natural intelligence.[5] The Wheatleys prescribed a course of action for her early educational development by delegating their daughter to tutor Phillis.[6] Mary Wheatley had some level of formal education; Mary’s twin brother, Nathaniel, was given a formal education at one of the city’s two grammar or Latin schools.[7]   Within sixteen months, Phillis was able to understand and speak English, and also displayed an aptitude for mastering its written form.[8] Phillis was given a room of her own, complete with a bed, table, chair, a lamp, and writing instruments and paper.[9]

Such special treatment, however, did not preclude her from performing domestic chores.  She was within earshot of conversations among various guests in the Wheatley household as she served dinner.  And at age 14, in 1767, a resourceful Phillis learned enough from her tutor to compose her first poem from one of the stories she overheard:

Suppose the groundless Gulph had snatch’d way

Hussey and Coffin to the raging Sea;

Where wou’d they go? Where wou’d be their abode?

With the supreme and independent God,

Or made their beds down in the Shades below,

Where neither Pleasure nor Content can stow.

To Heaven their Souls with eager Raptures soar,

Enjoy the Bliss of him they wou’d adore.[10]

 

Phillis developed her own style: a combination of Biblical principles, which she processed through Puritanical sensibilities, and keen observations of the world around her. This informed the basis of her contemplation and infused her literary work through the remainder of her life. The theme of “salvation,” which she used as a metaphor for “freedom” – whether spiritual or temporal – was already discernable.  She used dramatic visual imagery, and the verse exhibits maturity.  Phillis had ample opportunities to access “received knowledge” within the elite and progressive household of the Wheatleys. Phillis didn’t merely write a narrative of what she overheard, she exploited the acceptable form of the time and “her obvious emulation of the Neo-Classical literary school – that 18th century English revival of what was believed to have been the ancient Greek philosophical mode of reasoned, moderated expression – require that she reflect a settled world of generalized, not particularized, humanity.”[11]   Phillis refrained from adding, what one critic referred to as an “African voice” to her poetry. However, in many instances, she let the reader know that she was an African with phrases such as of “Afric’s muse” and “Must Ethopians be imploy’d for you.”[12]

Although John Milton was her favorite English poet, Phillis modeled her heroic couplets on the poetry of Alexander Pope.[13]  The locus of her work was typical of literature at the time and focused on elegies and panegyrics, mostly for famous people and friends of the Wheatleys. She also exhibited her talent for epistolary writing – notes to her friend and fellow slave, Obur Tanner, and letters to distinguished members of society in America and England.[14] With a subtlety that escapes many scholars who are looking for overt militancy, Phillis used her writings to draw attention to issues of slavery and to reproach whites about the unnaturalness of slavery and oppression that conflict Christian Puritanical beliefs.[15]  Phillis’ affinity for the poems of Pope and Milton also confirms her access to and knowledge of books at an early stage. The Wheatleys’ home was bound to contain a library of religious, moral, philosophical and other current topics.[16]  We can assume that Nathaniel Wheatley’s frequent trips to London for the family’s merchant business provided a constant flow of goods, including books, broadsides, and pamphlets from England and Western Europe.  Her desire to learn was demonstrated through the improvements of her verse over time. Her first published poem, “On Messers. Hussey and Coffin,” reveals not only her familiarity with poetic meter and rhyme, but also her skillful command of the English language and knowledge of English literature.[17] The publication of her poem in the Newport Mercury in Rhode Island in 1767 became the catalyst for her entry to the salons of Boston’s elite, and thus, into the “public sphere” and cultural capital of male dominance.[18]

Phillis became a magnet for Boston society; she received frequent invitations to the salons and drawing rooms of the wealthy and educated.  These experiences had a life changing effect on her. With access to the “public sphere” of influential men, she was frequently within an atmosphere of constant intellectual discussions on religious, moral, philosophical, and political and the social issues of the day. She understood the value of men’s contribution to her intellectual development.[19] Her exchanges with the influential Boston elite, resulted in gifts, which didn’t only validate her literary achievements, but also acknowledged her intellectual capability as an equal and a genuine poet.

Her celebrity stature was more evident when she visited England in 1773 under the patronage of the Countess of Huntingdon to publish her first, and only, volume of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral.[20]  Phillis traveled in the most illustrious circles of British society. The Earl of Darthmouth gave her five guineas (one guinea is equivalent to 21 shillings) to purchase a copy of Pope’s poetry and she received a book of John Milton’s poetry and a copy of Paradise Lost from the Lord Mayor of London. Grenville Sharp, who accompanied her to the Tower of London, gave her a copy of one of his texts, Remarks on Several Important Prophecies in Five Parts (London 1768).[21]

Sharp, a prominent barrister and avid anti-slavery campaigner, was well known for his legal work in the African-British community. He was also responsible for an opinion repealing a legal ruling in the case of Somerset, a Boston slave, who escaped from his owner while in England.[22] The 1772 ruling rendered slavery illegal in England – every black person on English soil was free.[23] We can speculate that Phillis was aware of the Somerset case since related articles were featuring in the same newspaper where Phillis’ poems were published. She was mindful of the discourses around the topics of slavery in relation to freedom, emancipation, and the abolitionist movement. By virtue of her meeting with Sharp, Phillis was aware of the Somerset ruling when she arrived in England in 1773.  The Countess of Huntingdon arranged Phillis’ accommodation and itinerary for her stay in England, but she was abroad when Phillis, in a foreign country and no longer under the watchful supervision of her owners, toured the City of London on her own, reading poetry and exchanging ideas with dignitaries.[24] An audience with the King of England was arranged, but her hasty return to America prevented this meeting.[25] In this environment, new ideas and possibilities emerged for Phillis.  From her humble beginnings, this slave girl was now firmly situated in the “public sphere” of discourse with its most brilliant minds as she discussed some of the overarching issues of the day. A quick study, a great listener, and formidable speaker, she was both operating as and being treated as a bona fide intellectual.

Given the possibility of freedom in London, Phillis chose to return with Nathaniel Wheatley to America.[26] Given the Somerset ruling, any slave who landed in England was not bound legally to return to a slaveholding country with his or her owner.  This was no less the case for Phillis and it was a reasonable assumption that Sharp made the case to her.  Whether it was her sense of moral obligation to her owners or the fear of another rebirth in a new country, Phillis did not grasp the opportunity for freedom.  She returned to care for the ailing Susannah Wheatley. It was possible, too, that she anticipated her own emancipation when she returned to America.[27] Phillis’ travels abroad signaled a new transition in her own self-consciousness and emboldened her desire to make a stronger case for her enslaved people. She recognized her celebrity status and the effect of her poetry in England and the American colonies. She expressed definitively overt, but not extremely radical, anti-slavery sentiments in a covering letter to the widow of General Wooster for whom she wrote an elegy in 1778, as well as a letter to Samson Occom, an indigenous Mohegan minister, who was also a friend of the Wheatleys.[28]  In her letter to Mary Wooster, Phillis wrote “but how, presumptuous shall we hope to find/Divine acceptance with the’ Almighty mind -/While yet (O deed ungenerous) they disgrace/and hold in bondage ’s blameless race?”[29] In her letter to Occom, Phillis denounced slavery and empathized with Occum regarding the oppressive state of his people.[30] Occom used his speaking engagements to raise funds to create a school for the education of indigenous Americans which became Dartmouth College.[31] Her letter was a testament to her intellectual scope and comprehension of subjugated people and she ably drew the parallels between blacks and others non-whites. The letter appeared in the The Connecticut Gazette on March 11, 1774, several months after Phillis’ manumission and reads in part:

In every human Breast, 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 Principle, lives in us.  God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and grant honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help the Calamities of their fellow Creatures.  This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and actions are so diametrically opposite.  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.[32]

A single poem, in particular, from among her earlier writings was at the center of the African American literary tradition. “On Being Brought from to America” consists of eight lines, and perhaps more than any other poem, illustrates the totality of Phillis’ spiritual transformation above everything else, including racial and cultural identity:

‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

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.[33]

 

This verse, written after her return from England reflects her sense of authorial agency:

 

And pleasing Gambia n my soul returns,

With native grace in spring’s luxuriant reign,

Smiles the gad mead, and Eden blooms again.[34]

 

Even by today’s standards, she boasted an extraordinary education with proficiency in the English language, religious principles and study of the Bible, Classical literature, modern and ancient geography, history, Latin and a basic knowledge of Greek Mythology. She traveled in the elite circles of New England and London. She was the author of her own volume of poetry.

Prior to her untimely death in 1784, Phillis had every intention of publishing a second volume. She had composed “33 titles of poems and 13 titles of letters” and was planning to dedicate the book to Benjamin Franklin, but without the assistance of the Wheatleys to enlist subscribers, New England publishers rejected her work.[35] Phillis was responsible for composing over 100 poems and 22 letters and notes in the seventeen-year period of literature.[36]

 

[1]  Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2011), 1

[2] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 9

[3] Merle Richmond, American Women of Achievement: Phillis Wheatley (New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 24

[4] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 13-14

[5] Richmond, American Women, 33

[6] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 37

[7] Thelma Armstrong, “Phillis Wheatley: Beyond the Boundaries of Slavery” (paper presented at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Annual Meeting, Richmond, VA, March 26th-29th, 2009),  4

[8] Richmond, American Women, 34

[9] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 22

[10] Phillis Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings (New York, NY: The Penguin Group, 2001), 73-74

[11] William Robinson, Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley (Boston, MA: G.K. Hall & Company, 1982), 54

[12] Armstrong, “Phillis Wheatley,” 5

[13] Richmond, American Women, 41 & 63

[14] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 43

[15] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 61

[16] Armstrong, “Phillis Wheatley,” 5

[17] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 65

[18] Ibid.

[19] Amstrong, “Phillis Wheatley,” 6

[20] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 96

[21] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 118

[22] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 120

[23] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 121

[24] Richmond, American Women, 65

[25] Ibid.

[26] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 137

[27] Ibid.

[28] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 174

[29] Wheatley, Complete Writings, 93

[30] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 159

[31] Carretta, Phillis Wheatley, 46

[32] Wheatley, Complete Writings, 152-153

[33] Wheatley, Complete Writings, 13

[34] Wheatley, Complete Writings, 87

[35] William Robinson, Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings (Detroit, MI: Broadside Press, 1975), 48

[36] Ibid.

Bibliography

Armstrong, Thelma. “Phillis Wheatley: Beyond the Boundaries of Slavery.” Paper presented at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Annual Meeting, Richmond, Virginia, March 26-29, 2009.

Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2011.

Richmond, Merle. American Women of Achievement: Phillis Wheatley New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Robinson, William. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1982.

Robinson, William. Wheatley in the Black American Beginnings. Detroit: Broadside, 1975.

Wheatley, Phillis. Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings. Edited by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.


Resources:

Brooklyn Museum
Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: The Dinner Party: Heritage Floor: Phillis Wheatley
http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/heritage_floor/phillis_wheatley.php


Page Citation:

Gina Luria Walker. “Phillis Wheatley.” Project Continua (September 20, 2015): Ver. 2, [date accessed],
http://www.projectcontinua.org/phillis-wheatley/

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