Phillis Wheatley: A First for Verse in America

The following post is reprinted from the January–February issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The issue is available in its entirety online.

Thoughts on the Works of Providence

ARISE, my soul, on wings enraptur’d, rise
To praise the monarch of the earth and skies,
Whose goodness and beneficence appear
As round its centre moves the rolling year,
Or when the morning glows with rosy charms,
Or the sun slumbers in the ocean’s arms:
Of light divine be a rich portion lent
To guide my soul, and favour my intent.
Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!

—Phillis Wheatley, from Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

Frontispiece and Title Page, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Engraving attributed to Scipio Moorhead, 1773. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—one of the signal moments in American letters—was originally published overseas, in London, in 1773. Contemporaries considered Wheatley a prodigy, and the collection, published when she was about 20, marked a milestone: the first volume of poetry by an African-American ever published.

Born in the Senegambia of West Africa, Wheatley was sold into slavery and transported to Boston at age 7 or 8. Prosperous merchant John Wheatley purchased her for his wife Susanna in 1761, and she was soon copying the English alphabet on a wall in chalk. Rather than fearing her precociousness, the Wheatleys encouraged it, allowing daughter Mary to tutor Phillis in reading and writing. She also studied English literature, Latin and the Bible—a strong education for any 18th-century woman. Wheatley’s first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” appeared in Rhode Island’s Newport Mercury newspaper in 1767, when she was about 14.

Freed by the Wheatley family, Wheatley sailed to London in 1773. Despite unsuccessful efforts to print Poems on Various Subjects in America, Wheatley found patronage to publish her work in Selina Hastings, countess of Huntingdon. She returned to Boston triumphant, only to be forced to defend the authorship of her poetry in court, under the examination of such Boston luminaries as John Hancock and Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. The committee’s acknowledgement of her authorship, with a signed testimonial, was included in the 1787 Philadelphia-printed edition.

In 1776, she sent her poem “To his Excellency General Washington,” later published in the Pennsylvania Magazine, to Washington, then commander in chief of the Continental Army. Washington thanked her for the poem in a letter:

“I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed; and however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents. … 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.”

_________

More information on Phillis Wheatley can be found in the Library’s Today in History Archive.

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