PHILLIS WHEATLEY

PHILLIS WHEATLEY

1753-1784

Phillis Wheatley, a celebrated poet until her untimely death, was born in Africa, and stolen by slave traders at the age of seven or eight. Deposited in rags from a slave ship in Boston, she was pur¬ chased by John Wheatley as a companion for his wife Susannah.

From the beginning, Phillis was a great lover of words. Susannah taught her to read and write, and within a year and a half, Phillis Wheatley was a fluent master of the English language. At 14, after devouring all the books she could find, (preferring Alexander Pope above all others), Phillis Wheatley wrote her first poem, which histo¬ rian Lerone Bennett called “a blank verse eulogy of Harvard University.” Printed in Boston in 1770, it was to begin her life as an internationally celebrated writer.

In 1772, due to her frail health, the Wheatleys freed Phillis and sent her to England, where she was hailed as a prodigy. Her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published, with a forward signed by men such as John Hancock, and Phillis was invited to meet the queen.

But word reached her that Susannah was ill, and Phillis returned to Boston at once. Susannah Wheatley died in 1774, and Phillis remained at the Wheatley house to care for John, nev¬ er ceasing to write.

In 1775, she wrote a poem in honor of the new commander in chief of the American Army, General George Washington. When Washington received the poem, he sent a letter of thanks that praised the work as “ele¬ gant” and “striking,” while also stating that it was only for fear of appearing vain that he did not publish it himself. Phillis was then invited to Cambridge, where she was entertained by the Washington family.

Though Phillis Wheatley moved freely as a poet, like Lucy Terry Prince, the first African-American to publish poetry, she had to face the severity of racism.

After the death of John Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley married a gentleman named John Peters who turned out to be a poor match for her. The last few years of Phillis Wheat¬ ley’s life were spent in ill health and des¬ perate poverty. The couple lost their first and second child and Phillis was working in a boarding house as a charwoman when she and her third child died within hours of one another.

Though Phillis Wheatley’s death was tragic, her poems were great celebrations of freedom, Christianity, and the lives of great men. They have became part of the respect¬ ed body of literature that survives to illumi¬ nate the lives and spirits of early Americans.