Wisdom Higher Than a Fool Can Reach: The Amazing Life of Poetess Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was an amazing and intriguing woman who became a famous and noteworthy poetess in the latter eighteenth century. And what is most intriguing is that in an age of slavery and discrimination she was black. Here, Christopher Benedict tells her story…

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 Savior too,

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

‘Their colour is a diabolical die.’

Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain,

May be refin’d and join th’ angelic train”

This eight-line poem was written in 1768 by a young woman of fourteen named Phillis Wheatley. That it, and some 145 others she composed, would alternately subject her to the chaotic complexities of renown and acclaim, the attention of British nobility and America’s Founding Fathers, a tribunal before Boston’s most esteemed magistrates, ministers, and men of letters, not to mention the dismissive scorn of later, more enlightened and less subordinate generations can be best understood by taking the very nature of her blurred identity into consideration.

Her forename was gleaned from Timothy Finch’s schooner the Phillis, which deposited the seven year-old “slender, frail female child” on the Boston wharf at Beach Street on July 11, 1761 after plundering Guinea’s Isles de Los, Sierra Leone, and Senegal (where she is believed to have lived) of its inhabitants for use as human merchandise in America’s slave trade. The assignation of Phillis’ last name would result from her having been purchased, sickly and nearly naked but for a bit of soiled carpet, by Susanna Wheatley “for a trifle” (fewer than £10) to serve as housemaid.

The home, owned by affluent tailor and merchant John Wheatley, was located near Massachusetts’ original State House and within easy earshot, in years soon to come, of the Stamp Act riots and later the Boston Massacre, claiming the life of the Revolution’s first known black martyr Crispus Attucks, which Phillis would document in verse with On the Affray in King Street, on the Evening of the 5th of March, 1770.

Phillis achieved literacy through a combination of Susanna’s encouragement, the tutelage of the Wheatley’s teenaged children Nathaniel and Mary, and Phillis’ own natural desire for extracting sustenance from their English, Latin, Greek, and biblical lessons with an insatiable hunger for knowledge.

Such an impression did Phillis make on John Wheatley that he attested to her phenomenal scholarly advancement, noting that, “she, in sixteen months’ time from her arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter stranger before” and “as to her writing, her own curiosity led to it.”

In 1765, she had already committed to paper her first poem, To the University of Cambridge in New England, and had another, On Messrs Hussey and Coffin, submitted by Susanna to the Newport Mercury, published only two years later, the first by a black woman in America.

Susanna, who by this time had excused Phillis from her previously appointed chores to perfect her chosen craft, would facilitate the collection of her early works into a proposed book containing 28 titles through advertisements that ran through the February to April 1772 editions of the Boston Censor, a Tory newspaper. Owing to the popular misapprehension that a simple slave girl could have been in no way responsible for these supposedly original creations, few offers for the requested 300 subscriptions to fund the project came forth.

On Virtue

“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”

It is impossible to imagine the emotional state of Phillis, not yet twenty years old, only a little more than half of which had been spent as a kidnapped stranger in a strange land and even fewer familiar with its linguistic peculiarities, being asked to appear before a committee of eighteen of the colony’s most prestigious citizens to verify the authenticity of her writings and, in essence, become a spokesperson (quite literally) of her entire race.

In October 1772, at the urging of John Wheatley, Phillis was interrogated at length (most likely at Boston’s Town Hall) by an assemblage which included among its celebrated quilled pens and powdered wigs, those of Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant-Governor Andrew Oliver, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, Joseph Green, and the Reverends Charles Chauncy, Samuel Cooper, and Samuel Mather (son of Cotton Mather, who played a fringe role in the 1692 Salem Witch Trials).

Though there is no surviving transcript with which to flesh out the details of how they arrived at their conclusion, the matter was resolved to the satisfaction of all present, to the degree that when Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was finally published the following year, Phillis’ book was printed with the following testimonial, bearing the signatures of all eighteen of her questioners:

We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World, that the Poems specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.

With skepticism rampant throughout the colonies, Susanna had gotten a copy of the manuscript in the hands of London publisher Archibald Bell by employing as a courier the captain of her husband John’s England-bound commercial trade ship. Phillis had already established a readership across the Atlantic thanks to the success of the widespread 1770 publication of On the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, her requiem for the recently deceased evangelical preacher, beloved both in the United Kingdom and its colonies. She would soon be accepted and treated as a celebrity, rubbing shoulders with royalty, having accolades and gifts heaped upon her by icons even in their own time and whose books today line our shelves and whose portraits adorn our currency.

A Hymn to the Evening

“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.”

So that she could personally supervise the publication of her book, Susanna sent Phillis, chaperoned by the Wheatley’s son Nathaniel, to London whereupon she was squired about town to see the sights, including a tour of the Tower of London with Granville Sharp, one of the first English abolitionists.

She was received by the Earl of Dartmouth, who gave her the five guineas necessary to purchase the collected works of Alexander Pope, and was presented with a folio edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost by one-day Lord Mayor Brook Watson.

Even Benjamin Franklin, who was in London grieving the case for peaceful independence on behalf of the American colonies before the classes of the British citizenry, from the highest to most humble, deviated from his schedule of oratory and article writing to spend time with Phillis. She thought highly enough of him that she intended to dedicate her next book to the bespectacled diplomat.

A momentous meeting with King George III, for whom she had written To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in 1766 following his repeal of the Stamp Act, unfortunately did not occur as Susanna Wheatley’s health suffered a sudden decline, necessitating the immediate return of Phillis and Nathaniel. Susanna improved physically (for the time being) and, though Phillis would continue to live with them, she and John emancipated her shortly after her abrupt homecoming. A shipment of her books arrived at the New Haven customs office from London which she solicited by subscription, even imploring local publishers not to use them as a template from which to print and distribute copies of their own and, thus, undercutting her independent endeavor.

As heady as 1773 was for Phillis, the following year would prove just as sobering, bringing as it did the British occupation of Boston, the death of Susanna, and the resulting grief-stricken flight of John to points unknown. Phillis left for a time as well, living with the Wheatley’s daughter Mary and her husband in Providence until just before the Redcoats had been driven out of Boston.

A handwritten letter was sent by Phillis in October 1775 to Continental Army headquarters in Cambridge, MA addressed to the subject of her poem His Excellency General Washington, a copy of which was enclosed, “though I am not insensible of its inaccuracies”.

Four months later arrived a personal reply wherein George Washington apologized for “the seeming but not real neglect” of his delayed response while self-deprecatingly worrying over “however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyric”. His effusive praise is augmented by an invitation for Phillis to call upon him, adding that “I shall be so happy to see a person so favored by the Muses”.

She did, weeks later, journey to from Boston to Cambridge where the General and his officers lavished their attentions upon her and Washington pledged to reprint her poem, a promise he made good on when it appeared in the March 1776 Virginia Gazette. Thomas Paine followed suit, publishing her ode to General Washington in the April edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.

A Hymn to the Morning

“Ye shady groves, your verdant gloom display

To shield your poet from the burning day,

Calliope awake the sacred lyre,

While thy sisters fan the pleasing fire.”

Voltaire lent his endorsement to Phillis Wheatley’s work and she was sent a package from John Paul Jones, just prior to his embarking for Paris aboard the warship Ranger, containing praise of her writing along with hand selected copies of his own.

Francois, the Marquis de Barbe-Marbois, whose request for statistical information on the American colonies inspired Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, had read Phillis’ verses, “in which there is imagination, poetry, and zeal”.

Jefferson, a slaveholding Francophile who would later be lionized by no less than Frederick Douglass, bristled at this praise being accorded the talents of an indentured servant (a black one, anyway-and heaven forbid, a woman – as he pointedly excused from the conversation former European slaves and prisoners Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus) who could never qualify as the white man’s cerebral equal.

Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry…Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Whatley (his spelling), but it could not produce a poet.

She is thereby reduced to a functional automaton capable of reading and, perhaps, comprehending Milton and Pope, the Athenians and Romans, but, creatively, of no better than their soulless mimicry.

Blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances,” supposed Jefferson’s vile but not unoriginal claim, “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

It is noteworthy, illustrates Henry Louis Gates Jr., Harvard professor and author of The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, that “Wheatley’s freedom enslaved her to a life of hardship.” Fame brought no fortune to Phillis, who married John Peters, a free black man whom Gates describes as a “small-time grocer and sometime lawyer”, in 1778. Their years together were ones of financial and personal strife compounded by the deaths of two infants and the failures of Peters’ business ventures, landing him in debtor’s prison and stranding Phillis at home with another unwell child.

Although a handful of New England newspapers did publish some of her last poems, she was unable to gather subscriptions sufficient to cover the printing costs of her second book and, to add to her humiliation, was forced to take work as a scullery maid.

Phillis Wheatley, only thirty years old, died on December 5, 1784 and was followed a little over three hours later by her infant son. Her own widowed husband was the first to soil her literary legacy by selling the only copy of her manuscript, which to this day has never been found.

Her reputation was called severely into question by black radicals during the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, when Wheatley was denigrated as “an early Boston Aunt Jemima”, “a colonial handkerchief head”, and reflective of “the nigger component of the Black Experience”.

The spark of this controversy ignited a contemporary reevaluation of her life, beliefs, and writings. Although her prestige is still open to debate and her physical remains are in an unmarked grave somewhere in Boston, Phillis Wheatley was selected in 1993 for inclusion in the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, whose bronze sculptures thoughtfully consider one another from a triangular formation.

“Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,

At morn’ to wake more heav’nly refin’d,

So shall the labors of the day begin

More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.”

Did you find this article interesting? If so, tell the world. Tweet about it, share it, or like it by clicking on one of the buttons below…

  • The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates (Basic Civitas Books, 2003)
  • Negro Poetry and Drama by Sterling Brown (Westphalia Press,1937)
  • A Shining Thread of Hope by Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson (Random House, 2009).
  • Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, Volume 1, edited by Yolanda Williams Page (Greenwood, 2007)
  • Benjamin Franklin Holds Up a Looking Glass to the British Empire (Schiller Institute, September 2012)
  • http://www.cityofboston.gov