Phillis Wheatley, thought to have been born around 1753, was the first African-American poet, as well as the first African-American female writer to publish and subsequently make a living from her work. While Wheatley lived a life of poverty and misfortune, her poetry accurately described the effect of slavery on her own self-identity, and paved the way for modern African-American literature and feminist thought.
Purchased by the Wheatley family in 1761 at age 7 or 8 and named for the slave ship that brought her to America, Phillis Wheatley was tutored by the Wheatleys' daughter, Mary, and quickly learned to read and write. By age 12, she could read Latin and the Bible, and began to explore the work of poets such as Alexander Pope, and the works of ancient Greeks, including Homer and Horace. She traveled to England in 1773 with the Wheatleys' eldest son, Nathaniel. It was in England that her first and only book of poetry was published.
Style and Subject Matter
Wheatley was influenced by a number of writers, including Alexander Pope, whose poetic form she adopted. Her style in terms of the emotions she expressed and the subject matter she chose to explore was greatly restrained, as she was first and foremost a slave in white society, and was dependent on the generosity of her owners and benefactors. Wheatley wrote poems on special occasions, such as the deaths of important people and the anniversaries of important events (as in "To the King's Most Excellent Majesty," which celebrated King George III for repealing the Stamp Act). Her subject matter also included her Puritanical values, her surrounds and her Christian faith. Wheatley borrowed Pope's style of including classical allusions to mythology (citing the muses as inspiration for her poetry, for example) and to ancient history.
Lack of Racial and Social Issues
Wheatley's poetry is void of political or social themes, including racial issues that characterized the work of other enslaved African-American poets. She subsequently referred to her slavery as divine mercy and, in some ways, as a positive act, as seen in poems including "On Being Brought From Africa to America," in which she noted that the act of being enslaved only served to introduce her to her Christian faith. While her poetry may contain subtle messages about feminist issues and slavery, Wheatley never directly refers to these issues or her own story.
Wheatley published a single book of poetry in her lifetime, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral." While Wheatley wrote fewer than 100 poems, these poems were praised in her own time by everyone from Voltaire to America's forefathers, notably George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. While Wheatley did not directly express racial awareness or feminist issues in her work, her poetry is thought an accurate chronicle of the psychological effect of slavery on her self-identity, and is considered the foundation for African-American literature, influencing modern African-American feminist writers, including author and poet Alice Walker.
- "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral"; Phillis Wheatley; 2005
- "The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers"; Henry Louis Gates; 2003
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