Phillis Wheatley, also spelled Phyllis and Wheatly (c. 1753 – December 5, 1784) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.
On a 1773 trip to London with her master’s son, seeking publication of her work, she was aided in meeting prominent people who became patrons. The publication in London of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral on September 1, 1773, brought her fame both in England and the American colonies. Figures such as George Washington praised her work. A few years later, African-American poet Jupiter Hammon praised her work in a poem of his own.
Wheatley was emancipated (set free) by the Wheatleys shortly after the publication of her book. She married in about 1778. Two of her children died as infants. After her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Wheatley fell into working poverty and died of illness. Her last infant son died soon after.
All Eyes th’ accomplish’d Prophecy behold:
Her Port describ’d, “She moves divinely fair,
“Olive and Laurel bind her golden Hair.”
She, the bright Progeny of Heaven, descends,
And every Grace her sovereign Step attends;
For now kind Heaven, indulgent to our Prayer,
In smiling Peace resolves the Din of War.
Fix’d in Columbia her illustrious Line,
And bids in thee her future Councils shine.
To every Realm her Portals open’d wide,
Receives from each the full commercial Tide.
Each Art and Science now with rising Charms
Th’ expanding Heart with Emulation warms.
E’en great Britannia sees with dread Surprize,
And from the dazzling Splendors turns her Eyes!
Britain, whose Navies swept th’ Atlantic o’er,
And Thunder sent to every distant Shore;
E’en thou, in Manners cruel as thou art,
The Sword resign’d, resume the friendly Part!
For Galia’s Power espous’d Columbia’s Cause,
And new-born Rome shall give Britannia Law,
Nor unremember’d in the grateful Strain,
Shall princely Louis’ friendly Deeds remain;
The generous Prince th’ impending Vengeance eye’s,
Sees the fierce Wrong, and to the rescue flies.
Perish that Thirst of boundless Power, that drew
On Albion’s Head the Curse to Tyrants due.
But thou appeas’d submit to Heaven’s decree,
That bids this Realm of Freedom rival thee!
Now sheathe the Sword that bade the Brave attone
With guiltless Blood for Madness not their own.
Sent from th’ Enjoyment of their native Shore
Ill-fated- never to behold her more!
From every Kingdom on Europa’s Coast
Throng’d various Troops, their Glory, Strength and Boast.
With heart-felt pity fair Hibernia saw
Columbia menac’d by the Tyrant’s Law:
On hostile Fields fraternal Arms engage,
And mutual Deaths, all dealt with mutual Rage:
The Muse’s Ear hears mother Earth deplore
Her ample Surface smoake with kindred Gore:
The hostile Field destroys the social Ties,
And every-lasting Slumber seals their Eyes.
Columbia mourns, the haughty Foes deride,
Her Treasures plunder’d, and her Towns destroy’d:
Witness how Charlestown’s curling Smoaks arise,
In sable Columns to the clouded Skies!
The ample Dome, high-wrought with curious Toil,
In one sad Hour the savage Troops despoil.
Descending Peace and Power of War confounds;
From every Tongue celestial Peace resounds:
As for the East th’ illustrious King of Day,
With rising Radiance drives the Shades away,
So Freedom comes array’d with Charms divine,
And in her Train Commerce and Plenty shine.
Britannia owns her Independent Reign,
Hibernia, Scotia, and the Realms of Spain;
And great Germania’s ample Coast admires
The generous Spirit that Columbia fires.
Auspicious Heaven shall fill with fav’ring Gales,
Where e’er Columbia spreads her swelling Sails:
To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display,
And Heavenly Freedom spread her golden Ray.
IMAGINATION! who can sing thy source,
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
The empyreal palace of the thundering God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind
And leave the rolling universe behind.
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above;
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze the unbounded soul.
On the Death of C.E., An Infant of Twelve Months
THROUGH airy roads he wings his instant flight
To purer regions of celestial light;
Enlarged he sees unnumbered system roll,
Beneath him sees the universal whole,
Planets on planets run their destined round
And circling wonders fill the vast profound.
The ethereal now, and now the empyreal skies
With growing splendors strike his wondering eyes:
The angels view him with delight unknown,
Press his soft hand, and seat him on his throne;
Then smiling thus: ‘To this divine abode,
The seat of saints, of seraphs, and of God,
Thrice welcome thou.’ The raptured babe replies,
‘Thanks to my God, who snatched me to the skies,
E’er vice triumphant had possessed my heart,
E’er yet the tempter had beguiled my heart,
E’er yet on sin’s base actions I was bent.
E’er yet I knew temptation’s dire intent;
E’er yet the lash for horrid crimes I felt,
E’er vanity had led my way to guilt,
But, soon arrived at my celestial goal,
Full glories rush on my expanding soul.’
Joyful he spoke: exulting cherubs round
Clapped their glad wings; the heavenly vaults resound.
To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth
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.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated Faction dies.
Soon as appeared the Goddess long desired,
Sick at the view, she languished and expired;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.
No more, America, in mournful strain,
Of wrongs, and grievance unredressed complain;
No longer shall thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant to enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprang,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatched from Afric’s fancied happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labor in my parents’ breast!
Steeled was that soul and by no misery moved
That from a father seized his babe beloved:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?