By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84), who was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties.
Wheatley’s poems, which bear the influence of eighteenth-century English verse – her preferred form was the heroic couplet used by Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, and others – address a range of subjects, including George Washington, child mortality, her fellow black artists, and her experiences as a slave in America. But what are Phillis Wheatley’s best poems?
Below, we select and introduce ten of her best. If this selection whets your appetite for more, we recommend the highly affordable volume The Poems of Phillis Wheatley with Letters and a Memoir.
1. ‘His Excellency General Washington’.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine …
Wheatley was freed shortly after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, a volume which bore a preface signed by a number of influential American men, including John Hancock, famous signatory of the Declaration of Independence just three years later. Indeed, she even met George Washington, and wrote him this poem, which she sent to him in 1775.
In the poem, written in heroic couplets to suit the grand and noble subject, Wheatley encourages Washington to continue fighting for American independence, arguing that ‘Columbia’ shall yet be free of ‘Britannia’ and her rule.
Although Wheatley’s poem to Washington is not an epic poem per se, it draws upon the epic tradition: for instance, when Wheatley invokes the Muses at the beginning of her poem (something Homer and Virgil had done in their classical epic poems) or when she describes the military might of Washington and his army.
2. ‘A Farewell to America’.
Adieu, New-England’s smiling meads,
Adieu, th’ flow’ry plain:
I leave thine op’ning charms, O spring,
And tempt the roaring main.
In vain for me the flow’rets rise,
And boast their gaudy pride,
While here beneath the northern skies
I mourn for health deny’d …
Written in 1773 and addressed to the poet’s master, Mrs Susanna Wheatley, ‘A Farewell to America’ was occasioned by the poet’s voyage to England with Susanna’s husband, Nathaniel, partly to assist her health (she suffered from chronic asthma) but also in the hope that Nathaniel would be able to find a publisher willing to put Phillis’ poems into print.
While in Britain, Phillis almost met King George III (she returned to America before the meeting could take place) and found a publisher in London; a volume of 39 of her poems appeared in September 1773.
3. ‘To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works’.
To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire …
In the title of this poem, ‘S. M.’ is Scipio Moorhead, the artist who drew the engraving of Wheatley featured on her volume of poetry in 1773. Wheatley praises Moorhead for painting ‘living characters’ who are living, ‘breathing figures’ on the canvas.
The latter portion of the poem then gives way to a broader meditation on Wheatley’s own art (poetry rather than painting) and her religious beliefs. This marks out Wheatley’s ode to Moorhead’s art as a Christian poem as well as a poem about art (in the broadest sense of that word). For Wheatley, the best art is inspired by divine subjects and heavenly influence.
4. ‘An Hymn to the Morning’.
Attend my lays, ye ever honour’d nine,
Assist my labours, and my strains refine;
In smoothest numbers pour the notes along,
For bright Aurora now demands my song.
Aurora hail, and all the thousand dies,
Which deck thy progress through the vaulted skies:
The morn awakes, and wide extends her rays,
On ev’ry leaf the gentle zephyr plays;
Harmonious lays the feather’d race resume,
Dart the bright eye, and shake the painted plume …
Perhaps more than any other poem on this list, ‘An Hymn to the Morning’ bears the stamp of the Augustan poets who influenced Wheatley. Drawing on the pastoral mode depicting the idyllic world of nature in idealised terms, the poem is neoclassical, seeing Wheatley calling upon the Nine Muses to help her to do justice to the beauty of the morning.
5. ‘On Virtue’.
O thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
Thine height t’explore, or fathom thy profound.
But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
Fain would the heaven-born soul with her converse,
Then seek, then court her for her promised bliss …
This poem is slightly unusual among Phillis Wheatley’s poems in that it’s written in blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. This looser form, freed from the ‘shackles’ of rhyme we find in the heroic couplet, allows Wheatley freer rein when considering the virtues of virtue: here, a quality personified as female, and with the ability to deliver ‘promised bliss’.
6. ‘To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of DARTMOUTH, his Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State of North-America, &c.’
Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom’s charms unfold …
The Earl of Dartmouth was a colonial administrator and one of Wheatley’s high-profile patrons. In this poem, Wheatley supports the colonial cause, as in her poem addressed to George Washington. Freedom is personified as a powerful force who supports the Americans in their struggle for independence.
7. ‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’.
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
The blissful news by messengers from heav’n,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows …
This is an example of a genre known as the ‘occasional poem’ or ‘poem of occasion’. It’s believed Wheatley wrote it in 1767.
The poem sees Wheatley referring to her own background, which we can probably safely assume would have been different from that of any of the students she is addressing in ‘To the University of Cambridge’. She is pointing out that she was fortunate to be brought from the ‘land of errors’ in Africa to the New World.
She is also implying that the Harvard students have been given an opportunity someone like Wheatley herself will never know: the chance to gain an advanced education and become successful off the back of it.
8. ‘To a Lady and her Children, on the Death of her Son and their Brother’.
On Death’s domain intent I fix my eyes,
Where human nature in vast ruin lies,
With pensive mind I search the drear abode,
Where the great conqu’ror has his spoils bestow’d;
There there the offspring of six thousand years
In endless numbers to my view appears:
Whole kingdoms in his gloomy den are thrust,
And nations mix with their primeval dust …
Like her fellow pioneering female poet of the Americas, the seventeenth-century Anne Bradstreet, Wheatley often wrote poems about families which bring home just how dangerous life could be in the New World colonies. Children were lucky to survive into adulthood. The title of this poem explains its tragic subject; the heroic couplets lend the dead, and their relatives who mourn them, a quiet dignity.
9. ‘On the Death of a Young Lady of Five Years of Age’.
From dark abodes to fair etherial light
Th’ enraptur’d innocent has wing’d her flight;
On the kind bosom of eternal love
She finds unknown beatitude above.
This known, ye parents, nor her loss deplore,
She feels the iron hand of pain no more;
The dispensations of unerring grace,
Should turn your sorrows into grateful praise …
As with the poem above, this lyric attests to the unforgiving environment of the American colonies. Putting her trust in God and the blessings or ‘beatitude above’ the five-year-old girl will receive in heaven, Wheatley seeks to reassure the girl’s parents that, despite their loss, their daughter is free from pain at last.
10. ‘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 …
Wheatley had been taken from Africa (probably Senegal, though we cannot be sure) to America as a young girl, and sold into slavery. A Boston tailor named John Wheatley bought her and she became his family servant.
In this short poem, her most famous lyric, Phillis Wheatley reminds her (white) readers that although she is black, everyone – regardless of skin colour – can be ‘refined’ and join the choirs of the godly. And what better note on which to conclude this pick of Wheatley’s best poems than with this sentiment?