Monday, April 18, 2016

The Poems of Phillis Wheatley

Source of book: I own this.

I started reading this during Black History Month, but worked my way through it slowly. Poetry is generally meant to be savored, rather than gulped.

Wheatley is historically important, and interesting as much for her biography as for her poetry itself. She was born in Africa, probably around 1753, kidnapped as a seven year old child, and sold into slavery. She was purchased by the wealthy merchant, John Wheatley, as a servant for his wife. They named her Phillis after the slave ship that brought her.

From a young age, she showed a great deal of intelligence, and was raised with an education that few females of any race received at the time. She studied the classics, learning both Greek and Latin. Never a healthy child, her owners raised her more as a companion than as a laborer.

Eventually, young Phillis showed a knack for poetry. Her poems became the first printed work by an African-American woman, and won her a degree of renown. In order to further her career and possibly improve her health, the family sent her to England with one of the young adult Wheatley children. She was there also introduced to abolitionist ideas, and corresponded with the Reverend Samson Occom on the subject.

In 1778, John Wheatley died (his wife having died previously), and in his will, he freed Phillis. Alas, there weren’t a whole lot of good options for a young African-American woman in those days. Her patrons dried up now that they would have to pay a black woman rather than a white master. She took the logical choice and married a freeman. The Revolutionary War took its toll on the economy, and he never really recovered, ending up in debtors’ prison by 1784. Phillis had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Without her husband, she had to fend for herself, and ended up in about the only place open to her, a scullery maid in a boarding house. Her body broke down under the strain, and she died penniless at age 31. Kind of a sad story, unfortunately. Also, a bit too typical for the impoverished - and those of the “wrong” race - back in those days.

Wheatley was also placed in a bit of a bind. She couldn’t exactly write political poems, as she depended on those with a vested interest in slavery for her audience. Still, some things bleed through. In her most famous poem (the one I read as part of my high school education), she states thus:

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

Some interesting bits in there. On the one hand, she was quite devout, and speaks of virtue and heaven a rather lot throughout her poetry. On the other, there are some word choices that can hardly be accidental. Sable was both a heraldry color and an expensive fur. This thus contrasts her own high view of her race with that of others, who consider black to be evil and diabolic. Likewise, her reference to the theological idea of refining makes it clear that she considers her detractors to be equally in need of the process.

She is more explicit in a poem to William, Earl of Dartmouth. England was further along the road to abolition than the colonies, and he was a sympathetic ear. The poem, in part:

No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land.

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Wheatley’s poems are mostly written in couplets of iambic pentameter. This was very much the style of the time, with many trying to sound like Milton and Pope. I found it a bit wearing. While pentameter tends to duplicate the cadence of English speech, couplet rhyme does not. If anything, it tends to break up ideas into two-line pieces rather than allowing a flow. At least in my opinion, and I am sure I am a product of my own times and personal preferences.

The other thing that I wasn’t thrilled about was the fact that a large percentage of the poems are elegies written to and for specific people. Death was everywhere in Colonial New England, and people were dying young or in childhood, leading to a demand. “Hey, let’s see of old Wheatley’s slave girl can write a poem for my dead kid.” Okay, that’s probably not exactly how it went down, but sometimes it feels like it. These poems generally fit a pattern, dealing first with the grief, the inevitablilty of death, touching on the virtue of the deceased, and resolving at the end in a view of the departed as rejoicing in the heavenly realms. Likewise, a lot of the language and images are recycled from poem to poem. There are only so many ways to say the same thing, I would suppose.

One will suffice:

To a Lady on the Death of her Husband  

GRIM monarch! see, depriv’d of vital breath,
A young physician in the dust of death:
Dost thou go on incessant to destroy,
Our griefs to double, and lay waste our joy?
Enough thou never yet wast known to say,        
Though millions die, the vassals of thy sway:
Nor youth, nor science, not the ties of love,
Nor ought on earth thy flinty heart can move.
The friend, the spouse from his dire dart to save,
In vain we ask the sovereign of the grave.
Fair mourner, there see thy lov’d Leonard laid,
And o’er him spread the deep impervious shade;
Clos’d are his eyes, and heavy fetters keep
His senses bound in never-waking sleep,
Till time shall cease, till many a starry world
Shall fall from heav’n, in dire confusion hurl’d,
Till nature in her final wreck shall lie,
And her last groan shall rend the azure sky:
Not, not till then his active soul shall claim
His body, a divine immortal frame.

But see the softly-stealing tears apace
Pursue each other down the mourner’s face;
But cease thy tears, bid ev’ry sigh depart,
And cast the load of anguish from thine heart:
From the cold shell of his great soul arise,
And look beyond, thou native of the skies;
There fix thy view, where fleeter than the wind
Thy Leonard mounts, and leaves the earth behind.
Thyself prepare to pass the vale of night
To join for ever on the hills of light:
To thine embrace this joyful spirit moves
To thee, the partner of his earthly loves;
He welcomes thee to pleasures more refin’d,
And better suited to th’ immortal mind.

One of these elegies, though, did stand out to me for another reason. “On the Death of Dr. Samuel Marshall, 1773,” Wheatley seems to make a more personal and less generic statement about him:

And Boston for her dear physician mourns.     

When sickness call’d for Marshall’s healing hand,       
With what compassion did his soul expand?
In him we found the father and the friend:
In life how lov’d! how honour’d in his end!

And at the end, she refers to him in the last words as “the universal friend.”

This isn’t just “he was loved by his wife and kids” or “he was a man of virtue.” This is a man who poured himself into true compassion. Wheatley forsakes her favorite classical allusions and metaphors for more simple language - and it shows. This was a man loved by all.

Another interesting theme in her works is that of the sun. While the usual classical allusions a la Milton are everywhere, she returns again and again to the picture of the sun, as Apollo, as Phoebus, as Aurora, as the grand unifying idea. Some have pointed out that this may well be a subtle reference to her African roots, as a subtle owning of the solar worship her ancestors followed. If so, this was perhaps her way of placing her racial identity within the context of the acceptable expression of her Christian faith, not unlike the influence of African rhythms and phrases within the Gospel tradition.

In line with this theme, two of my favorites of her poems in this collection are her Hymns to Morning and Evening:

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 thousands 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.  

Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display
To shield your poet from the burning day:
Calliope awake the sacred lyre,
While thy fair sisters fan the pleasing fire:
The bow’rs, the gales, the variegated skies  
In all their pleasures in my bosom rise.     

See in the east th’ illustrious king of day!
His rising radiance drives the shades away—
But Oh! I feel his fervid beams too strong,
And scarce begun, concludes th’ abortive song.

Hymn to the Evening

Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main,
The pealing thunder shook the heav'nly plain:
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr's wing
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams; the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.

Through all the heav'ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev'ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below.

Fill'd with the praise of him who gives the light
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind
At morn to wake more heav'nly, more refin'd;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night's leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes;
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.

Thus far, these are all in iambic pentameter with rhymed couplets. There are a few exceptions, though. Wheatley uses ballad stanza for “A Farewell To America,” written on her own departure to England, and dedicated to her mistress.

A Farewell To America (To Mrs. S.W.)

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.

Celestial maid of rosy hue,
Oh let me feel thy reign!
I languish till thy face I view,
Thy vanish'd joys regain.

Susannah mourns, nor can I bear
To see the crystal shower
Or mark the tender falling tear
At sad departure's hour;

Not regarding can I see
Her soul with grief opprest
But let no sighs, no groans for me
Steal from her pensive breast.

In vain the feather'd warblers sing
In vain the garden blooms
And on the bosom of the spring
Breathes out her sweet perfumes.

While for Britannia's distant shore
We weep the liquid plain,
And with astonish'd eyes explore
The wide-extended main.

Lo! Health appears! celestial dame!
Complacent and serene,
With Hebe's mantle oe'r her frame,
With soul-delighting mien.

To mark the vale where London lies
With misty vapors crown'd
Which cloud Aurora's thousand dyes,
And veil her charms around.

Why, Phoebus, moves thy car so slow?
So slow thy rising ray?
Give us the famous town to view,
Thou glorious King of day!

For thee, Britannia, I resign
New-England's smiling fields;
To view again her charms divine,
What joy the prospect yields!

But thou! Temptation hence away,
With all thy fatal train,
Nor once seduce my soul away,
By thine enchanting strain.

Thrice happy they, whose heavenly shield
Secures their souls from harm,
And fell Temptation on the field
Of all its pow'r disarms.

One final poem I want to quote is a good bit less serious than her others. Most children are familiar with the Rebus, a use of pictures to make words. [link] This device was common in heraldry, where names would be depicted by visual puns. (A historical example is that of the Lyhart family, depicted by a reclining deer.) Wheatley takes the idea, and writes a set of puzzles:

A Rebus


A bird delicious to the taste,
On which an army once did feast,
Sent by an hand unseen;
A creature of the horned race,
Which Britain's royal standards grace;
A gem of vivid green;


A town of gaiety and sport,
Where beaux and beauteous nymphs resort,
And gallantry doth reign;
A Dardan hero fam'd of old
For youth and beauty, as we're told,
And by a monarch slain;


A peer of popular applause,
Who doth our violated laws,
And grievances proclaim.
Th' initials show a vanquish'd town,
That adds fresh glory and renown
To old Britannia's fame.

Try your hand, Bilbo Baggins style, and see if you can solve them. (Hint: each stanza contains more than one puzzle.) If you want to check your guesses, Wheatley wrote an answer in poetic form

Wheatley’s life and poems continue to fascinate. Clearly a woman of wit and skill, one cannot help but wonder what she would have been in a time and place where she could have written less for the pleasure of readers that thought her a novelty, and more from her own heart.


  1. Digression: Samson Occom is from one of the tribes (Mohegan) whose reservation is basically nextdoor to my hometown in CT. Though we usually spell it Occum around here.

    1. Quite an interesting character. Which makes two with that (approximate) name. The other being William of Ockham, and his heuristic device that we refer to as "Occam's Razor." Spelling was, shall we say, rather approximate once upon a time...

  2. A tragic story of an amazing woman. She really deserved better.

    1. Indeed. A hard time to be poor, female, or African-American. And a worse time to be all three.