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About this poet

Phillis Wheatley was the first black poet in America to publish a book. She was born on May 8, 1753 in West Africa and brought to New England in 1761, where John Wheatley of Boston purchased her as a gift for his wife. Although they brought her into the household as a slave, the Wheatleys took a great interest in Phillis's education. Many biographers have pointed to her precocity; Wheatley learned to read and write English by the age of nine, and she became familiar with Latin, Greek, the Bible, and selected classics at an early age. She began writing poetry at thirteen, modeling her work on the English poets of the time, particularly John Milton, Thomas Gray, and Alexander Pope. Her poem "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield" was published as a broadside in cities such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia and garnered Wheatley national acclaim. This poem was also printed in London. Over the next few years, she would print a number of broadsides elegizing prominent English and colonial leaders.

Wheatley's doctor suggested that a sea voyage might improve her delicate health, so in 1771 she accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley on a trip to London. She was well received in London and wrote to a friend of the "unexpected and unmerited civility and complaisance with which I was treated by all." In 1773, thirty-nine of her poems were published in London as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book includes many elegies as well as poems on Christian themes; it also includes poems dealing with race, such as the often-anthologized "On Being Brought from Africa to America." She returned to America in 1773.

After Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley died, Phillis was left to support herself as a seamstress and poet. It is unclear precisely when Wheatley was freed from slavery, although scholars suggest it occurred between 1774 and 1778. In 1776, Wheatley wrote a letter and poem in support of George Washington; he replied with an invitation to visit him in Cambridge, stating that he would be "happy to see a person so favored by the muses." In 1778, she married John Peters, who kept a grocery store. They had three children together, all of whom died young. Because of the war and the poor economy, Wheatley experienced difficulty publishing her poems. She solicited subscribers for a new volume that would include thirty-three new poems and thirteen letters, but was unable to raise the funds. Phillis Wheatley, who had once been internationally celebrated, died alone in a boarding house on December 5, 1784. She was thirty-one years old. Many of the poems for her proposed second volume disappeared and have never been recovered.

To S.M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works

Phillis Wheatley, 1753 - 1784
   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, wondrous 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! 
And may the charms of each seraphic theme 
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame! 
High to the blissful wonders of the skies 
Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes. 
Thrice happy, when exalted to survey 
That splendid city, crowned with endless day, 
Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring: 
Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring. 
Calm and serene thy moments glide along, 
And may the muse inspire each future song! 
Still, with the sweets of contemplation blessed, 
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest! 
But when these shades of time are chased away, 
And darkness ends in everlasting day, 
On what seraphic pinions shall we move, 
And view the landsapes in the realms above! 
There shall thy tongue in heavenly murmurs flow, 
And there my muse with heavenly transport glow; 
No more to tell of Damon's tender sighs, 
Or rising radiance of Aurora's eyes; 
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain, 
And purer language on the ethereal plain. 
Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night 
Now seals the fair creation from my sight. 

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

Born around 1753, Phillis Wheatley was the first black poet in America to publish a book

by this poet

poem
              I.

Adieu, New-England's smiling meads,
   Adieu, th' flow'ry plain:
I leave thine op'ning charms, O spring,
   And tempt the roaring main.

              II.

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
poem
'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, Negros, black as
poem
   Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's