Phillis Wheatley : The First Portrait of Poetry

Phillis Wheatley, one of poetry’s pioneering women, was the first African-American poet to ever be published. Her poetry is the spirit of hope.

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Poetry’s Pioneering Women Series highlights the work of Phillis Wheatley. She is one of the best-known poets of the pre-19th century. Although she spent most of her life enslaved, she received an education and learned to read and write. Biblical stories deeply inspired Phillis Wheatley. They brought out her passion for learning. As a result, she started to write poems at an early age.

Wheatley’s History

Phillis Wheatley Peters was born around 1753 in Gambia, Africa. In 1761, enslavers captured her and brought her to America at seven years old. Soon after her arrival, they sold her to the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts. Although brought to work as a maid, Phillis was a quick learner in many forms. The Wheatley family noticed this early on. They educated her as if she was their third child, even with a society strictly against it.

While in the Wheatley household, she became well versed in the Bible, Latin classics, and British literature. She was also encouraged to study geography, astrology, and history. At fourteen, she started to write poetry inspired by religion and morals. She used poetry to comment on the struggles of her life experiences. The Wheatley’s recognized her talents and supported her writing. She published her first poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” in 1767. However, her poem “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield,” published in 1770, made her well-known.

Her published works may seem like a stepping stone for any writer. However, she was doing something unheard of for any African enslaved woman at the time. By 1773, she published her first book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Many people doubted Wheatley’s talents because of her race. Since a black woman wrote this book, it had to include a portrait of Wheatley to prove it. She became the first enslaved American from Africa and the second black woman ever published. Phillis Wheatley was emancipated shortly after the book’s release.

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Poetry In Movement

Poetry was a pastime for many white Americans during the pre-19th century. However, enslaved African Americans were not granted the same freedoms. They were rarely looked at as individuals nor ones with creative ideas. White slavers questioned Phillis Wheatley’s artistic talents. Hence, her portrait was a necessary addition to her collection of poems. An African person’s abilities were constantly devalued during this time. However, Wheatley’s poetic talents contributed to a larger picture in history.

Her literary work showed how African Americans are equally creative and intelligent human beings. When granted the opportunity of education, such writers are limitless. Her impact through poetry helped spark the abolitionist movement.

One of her most famous poems, On Being Brought from Africa to America, has made her the image of elegiacal poetry. Wheatley’s style of poetry expresses that of her inspirations, Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. Therefore, she often wrote elegies to show lament for the dead. An elegy is a poem that contains a lyrical expression of sorrow for the death of a friend or loved one. While many of her poems indulge in the hurtful past, she also showcases pride in her African culture by a performance-like writing style.

On Being Brought from Africa to America

by Phillis Wheatley

‘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 Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

One of the most prominent elements in Wheatley’s work is her remarkable spirit. In this poem, you can see how religion played a key role in her poetry. Hope keeps the poem alive. Wheatley changed the narrative of her story. In the first two lines, Wheatley has personified “mercy” as an object that has brought her from Africa to America. It’s purpose in the poem is to help her understand the plan God made for her.

There is a heavy theme at play with racial equality. Undoubtedly, it’s clear that the reality of people profiting off of another human’s life is not merciful in the slightest. Instead, Wheatley takes humans out of the story to gain back her power. She lifts it up to God. Wheatley uses classical and neo-classical methods to apply various themes at once. Additionally, her last published work displays the use of couplets in iambic pentameter and heroic.

Themes of Redemption

Wheatley applies themes of redemption in this poem, along with racial equality, in the last few lines. She calls out to humans to reconcile, “Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.” The poem expresses how African people are just as worthy of God’s salvation, or Christianity, as a whole. Wheatley uses biblical metaphors with “black as Cain.” This displays the hypocrisy of Christians who treat African Americans as less than. Through the use of “refin’d,” Wheatley raises the idea that anyone can be pure and find salvation. She uses this image to show that anyone can go to heaven no matter the color of their skin.

Phillis Wheatley is a significant literary figure in women’s history. Her poetry gives the world hope through themes of redemption and salvation. Her comments on equality and education for African women and young girls have impacted lives all over the world.

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Learn More About Women’s History in Poetry’s Pioneering Women Series.