from Poems on Various Subjects &
letters to George Washington and Samson Occom
Phyllis Wheatley’s poem “To S.M. a Young African Painter, on Seeing his Works” is a tribute to Scipio Moorhead, the artist whose illustration of Wheatley (above) served as the frontispiece for her Poems on Various Subjects. Despite their talents, both Moorhead and Wheatley were slaves, subject to, but not able to participate in, the establishment of a nation on the verge of its own independence. Although her poetry was published before the nation was fully formed, her writing is infused with language and references that we typically associate with the spirit of American nationalism and revolution.
Wheatley’s poetry, full of religious and classical references, demonstrates her knowledge of poetic conventions of the time. She tackles a variety of subjects, both personal and political. Whether she is writing to public figures like George Washington or Samson Occom, musing on the landscape, or praising Columbia, Wheatley’s poetry is both personal and political. This is especially significant given her position as a slave during a time of very public conversations about freedom and democracy.
As a woman of color who was also a slave, Wheatley’s writing faced intense scrutiny. For some, it was a question of her literacy, and whether she was capable of being a writer. For others, like Thomas Jefferson, it was a question of her talent. Poems on Various Subjects is prefaced with a letter from her master, John Wheatley, and further attested to by fifteen other men who vouch for her, affirming that they “thought [her] qualified to write them.” Given this context, Moorhead’s illustration takes on greater significance. It becomes a way for Wheatley’s audience to visualize her before they even begin to read her work. As you prepare to read Wheatley’s poetry, consider what Moorhead’s image helps to convey about her. Consider, too, how she presents herself in writing. While we may not think of Wheatley as a typical “Founding” figure, she is precisely that. She was the first black woman to be published in America, essentially establishing two literary traditions at once.
- What “American values” does Wheatley seem to emphasize?
- How does Wheatley (re)present herself in her poetry? How do these representations work alongside Moorhead’s illustration of her?
- Wheatley’s poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is probably her most famous, yet it has also faced intense scrutiny. Some say that it indicates she is content with being a slave, while others argue that it is an indictment of slavery. How do you interpret the poem?
“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 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.
P R E F A C E.
THE following POEMS were written originally for the Amusement of the Author, as they were the Products of her leisure Moments. She had no Intention ever to have published them; nor would they now have made their Appearance, but at the Importunity of many of her best, and most generous Friends; to whom she considers herself, as under the greatest Obligations.
As her Attempts in Poetry are now sent into the World, it is hoped the Critic will not severely censure their Defects; and we presume they have too much Merit to be cast aside with Contempt, as worthless and trifling Effusions.
As to the Disadvantages she has laboured under, with Regard to Learning, nothing needs to be offered, as her Master’s Letter in the following Page will sufficiently show the Difficulties in this Respect she had to encounter.
With all their Imperfections, the Poems are now humbly submitted to the
Perusal of the Public.
The following is a Copy of a LETTER sent by the Author’s Master to the
PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between seven and eight Years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her Arrival, attained the English language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.
As to her WRITING, her own Curiosity led her to it; and this she learnt in so short a Time, that in the Year 1765, she wrote a Letter to the Rev. Mr. OCCOM, the Indian Minister, while in England.
She has a great Inclination to learn the Latin Tongue, and has made some Progress in it. This Relation is given by her Master who bought her, and with whom she now lives.
Boston, Nov. 14, 1772.
To the PUBLIC.
AS it has been repeatedly suggested to the Publisher, by Persons, who have seen the Manuscript, that Numbers would be ready to suspect they were not really the Writings of PHILLIS, he has procured the following Attestation, from the most respectable Characters in Boston, that none might have the least Ground for disputing their Original.
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.
His Excellency THOMAS HUTCHINSON, Governor.
The Hon. ANDREW OLIVER, Lieutenant-Governor.
The Hon. Thomas Hubbard, | The Rev. Charles Chauncey, D. D.
The Hon. John Erving, | The Rev. Mather Byles, D. D.
The Hon. James Pitts, | The Rev. Ed. Pemberton, D. D.
The Hon. Harrison Gray, | The Rev. Andrew Elliot, D. D.
The Hon. James Bowdoin, | The Rev. Samuel Cooper, D. D.
John Hancock, Esq; | The Rev. Mr. Saumel Mather,
Joseph Green, Esq; | The Rev. Mr. John Moorhead,
Richard Carey, Esq; | Mr. John Wheat ey, her Master.
N. B. The original Attestation, signed by the above Gentlemen,
may be seen by applying to Archibald Bell, Bookseller,
No. 8, Aldgate-Street.
*The Words “following Page,” allude to the Contents of the Manuscript Copy, with are wrote at the Back of the above Attestation.
TO THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE, IN NEW-ENGLAND.
WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
‘Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.
Students, to you ’tis giv’n to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heav’n,
How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands out-stretcht upon the cross;
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
When the whole human race by sin had fall’n,
He deign’d to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.
Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heav’n.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shun’d, nor once remit your guard;
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you ’tis your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.
Thoughts on the WORKS OF PROVIDENCE.
A R I S E, my soul, on wings enraptur’d, rise
To praise the monarch of the earth and skies,
Whose goodness and benificence appear
As round its centre moves the rolling year,
Or when the morning glows with rosy charms,
Or the sun slumbers in the ocean’s arms:
Of light divine be a rich portion lent
To guide my soul, and favour my intend.
Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!
Ador’d for ever be the God unseen,
Which round the sun revolves this vast machine,
Though to his eye its mass a point appears:
Ador’d the God that whirls surrounding spheres,
Which first ordain’d that mighty Sol should reign
The peerless monarch of th’ ethereal train:
Of miles twice forty millions is his height,
And yet his radiance dazzles mortal sight
So far beneath—from him th’ extended earth
Vigour derives, and ev’ry flow’ry birth:
Vast through her orb she moves with easy grace
Around her Phoebus in unbounded space;
True to her course th’ impetuous storm derides,
Triumphant o’er the winds, and surging tides.
Almighty, in these wond’rous works of thine,
What Pow’r, what Wisdom, and what Goodness shine!
And are thy wonders, Lord, by men explor’d,
And yet creating glory unador’d!
Creation smiles in various beauty gay,
While day to night, and night succeeds to day:
That Wisdom, which attends Jehovah’s ways,
Shines most conspicuous in the solar rays:
Without them, destitute of heat and light,
This world would be the reign of endless night:
In their excess how would our race complain,
Abhorring life! how hate its length’ned chain!
From air adust what num’rous ills would rise?
What dire contagion taint the burning skies?
What pestilential vapours, fraught with death,
Would rise, and overspread the lands beneath?
Hail, smiling morn, that from the orient main
Ascending dost adorn the heav’nly plain!
So rich, so various are thy beauteous dies,
That spread through all the circuit of the skies,
That, full of thee, my soul in rapture soars,
And thy great God, the cause of all adores.
O’er beings infinite his love extends,
His Wisdom rules them, and his Pow’r defends.
When tasks diurnal tire the human frame,
The spirits faint, and dim the vital flame,
Then too that ever active bounty shines,
Which not infinity of space confines.
The sable veil, that Night in silence draws,
Conceals effects, but shows th’ Almighty Cause,
Night seals in sleep the wide creation fair,
And all is peaceful but the brow of care.
Again, gay Phoebus, as the day before,
Wakes ev’ry eye, but what shall wake no more;
Again the face of nature is renew’d,
Which still appears harmonious, fair, and good.
May grateful strains salute the smiling morn,
Before its beams the eastern hills adorn!
Shall day to day, and night to night conspire
To show the goodness of the Almighty Sire?
This mental voice shall man regardless hear,
And never, never raise the filial pray’r?
To-day, O hearken, nor your folly mourn
For time mispent, that never will return.
But see the sons of vegetation rise,
And spread their leafy banners to the skies.
All-wise Almighty Providence we trace
In trees, and plants, and all the flow’ry race;
As clear as in the nobler frame of man,
All lovely copies of the Maker’s plan.
The pow’r the same that forms a ray of light,
That call d creation from eternal night.
“Let there be light,” he said: from his profound
Old Chaos heard, and trembled at the sound:
Swift as the word, inspir’d by pow’r divine,
Behold the light around its Maker shine,
The first fair product of th’ omnific God,
And now through all his works diffus’d abroad.
As reason’s pow’rs by day our God disclose,
So we may trace him in the night’s repose:
Say what is sleep? and dreams how passing strange!
When action ceases, and ideas range
Licentious and unbounded o’er the plains,
Where Fancy’s queen in giddy triumph reigns.
Hear in soft strains the dreaming lover sigh
To a kind fair, or rave in jealousy;
On pleasure now, and now on vengeance bent,
The lab’ring passions struggle for a vent.
What pow’r, O man! thy reason then restores,
So long suspended in nocturnal hours?
What secret hand returns the mental train,
And gives improv’d thine active pow’rs again?
From thee, O man, what gratitude should rise!
And, when from balmy sleep thou op’st thine eyes,
Let thy first thoughts be praises to the skies.
How merciful our God who thus imparts
O’erflowing tides of joy to human hearts,
When wants and woes might be our righteous lot,
Our God forgetting, by our God forgot!
Among the mental pow’rs a question rose,
“What most the image of th’ Eternal shows?”
When thus to Reason (so let Fancy rove)
Her great companion spoke immortal Love.
“Say, mighty pow’r, how long shall strife prevail,
“And with its murmurs load the whisp’ring gale?
“Refer the cause to Recollection’s shrine,
“Who loud proclaims my origin divine,
“The cause whence heav’n and earth began to be,
“And is not man immortaliz’d by me?
“Reason let this most causeless strife subside.”
Thus Love pronounc’d, and Reason thus reply’d.
“Thy birth, coelestial queen! ’tis mine to own,
“In thee resplendent is the Godhead shown;
“Thy words persuade, my soul enraptur’d feels
“Resistless beauty which thy smile reveals.”
Ardent she spoke, and, kindling at her charms,
She clasp’d the blooming goddess in her arms.
Infinite Love where’er we turn our eyes
Appears: this ev’ry creature’s wants supplies;
This most is heard in Nature’s constant voice,
This makes the morn, and this the eve rejoice;
This bids the fost’ring rains and dews descend
To nourish all, to serve one gen’ral end,
The good of man: yet man ungrateful pays
But little homage, and but little praise.
To him, whose works arry’d with mercy shine,
What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!
To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl
of DARTMOUTH, His Majesty’s Principal
Secretary of State for North-America, &c.
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 appear’d the Goddess long desir’d,
Sick at the view, she languish’d and expir’d;
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 unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favours to renew,
Since in thy pow’r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did’st once deplore.
May heav’nly grace the sacred sanction give
To all thy works, and thou for ever live
Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot’s name,
But to conduct to heav’ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th’ ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.
To a LADY on her coming to North-America
with her Son, for the Recovery of her Health.
INDULGENT muse! my grov’ling mind inspire,
And fill my bosom with celestial fire.
See from Jamaica’s fervid shore she moves,
Like the fair mother of the blooming loves,
When from above the Goddess with her hand
Fans the soft breeze, and lights upon the land;
Thus she on Neptune’s wat’ry realm reclin’d
Appear’d, and thus invites the ling’ring wind.
“Arise, ye winds, America explore,
“Waft me, ye gales, from this malignant shore;
“The Northern milder climes I long to greet,
“There hope that health will my arrival meet.”
Soon as she spoke in my ideal view
The winds assented, and the vessel flew.
Madam, your spouse bereft of wife and son,
In the grove’s dark recesses pours his moan;
Each branch, wide-spreading to the ambient sky,
Forgets its verdure, and submits to die.
From thence I turn, and leave the sultry plain,
And swift pursue thy passage o’er the main:
The ship arrives before the fav’ring wind,
And makes the Philadelphian port assign’d,
Thence I attend you to Bostonia’s arms,
Where gen’rous friendship ev’ry bosom warms:
Thrice welcome here! may health revive again,
Bloom on thy cheek, and bound in ev’ry vein!
Then back return to gladden ev’ry heart,
And give your spouse his soul’s far dearer part,
Receiv’d again with what a sweet surprise,
The tear in transport starting from his eyes!
While his attendant son with blooming grace
Springs to his father’s ever dear embrace.
With shouts of joy Jamaica’s rocks resound,
With shouts of joy the country rings around.
To a LADY and her Children, on the Death
of her Son and their Brother.
O’ERWHELMING sorrow now demands my song:
From death the overwhelming sorrow sprung.
What flowing tears? What hearts with grief opprest?
What sighs on sighs heave the fond parent’s breast?
The brother weeps, the hapless sisters join
Th’ increasing woe, and swell the crystal brine;
The poor, who once his gen’rous bounty fed,
Droop, and bewail their benefactor dead.
In death the friend, the kind companion lies,
And in one death what various comfort dies!
Th’ unhappy mother sees the sanguine rill
Forget to flow, and nature’s wheels stand still,
But see from earth his spirit far remov’d,
And know no grief recals your best-belov’d:
He, upon pinions swifter than the wind,
Has left mortality’s sad scenes behind
For joys to this terrestial state unknown,
And glories richer than the monarch’s crown.
Of virtue’s steady course the prize behold!
What blissful wonders to his mind unfold!
But of celestial joys I sing in vain:
Attempt not, muse, the too advent’rous strain.
No more in briny show’rs, ye friends around,
Or bathe his clay, or waste them on the ground:
Still do you weep, still wish for his return?
How cruel thus to wish, and thus to mourn?
No more for him the streams of sorrow pour,
But haste to join him on the heav’nly shore,
On harps of gold to tune immortal lays,
And to your God immortal anthems raise.
To a GENTLEMAN and LADY on the Death
of the Lady’s Brother and Sister, and a
Child of the Name of Avis, aged one Year.
ON Death’s domain intent I fix my eyes,
Where human nature in vast ruin lies:
With pensive mind I search the drear abode,
Where the great conqu’ror has his spoils bestow’d;
There where the offspring of six thousand years
In endless numbers to my view appears:
Whole kingdoms in his gloomy den are thrust,
And nations mix with their primeval dust:
Insatiate still he gluts the ample tomb;
His is the present, his the age to come.
See here a brother, here a sister spread,
And a sweet daughter mingled with the dead.
But, Madam, let your grief be laid aside,
And let the fountain of your tears be dry’d,
In vain they flow to wet the dusty plain,
Your sighs are wafted to the skies in vain,
Your pains they witness, but they can no more,
While Death reigns tyrant o’er this mortal shore.
The glowing stars and silver queen of light
At last must perish in the gloom of night:
Resign thy friends to that Almighty hand,
Which gave them life, and bow to his command;
Thine Avis give without a murm’ring heart,
Though half thy soul be fated to depart.
To shining guards consign thine infant care
To waft triumphant through the seas of air:
Her soul enlarg’d to heav’nly pleasure springs,
She feeds on truth and uncreated things.
Methinks I hear her in the realms above,
And leaning forward with a filial love,
Invite you there to share immortal bliss
Unknown, untasted in a state like this.
With tow’ring hopes, and growing grace arise,
And seek beatitude beyond the skies.
To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works.
TO show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
And may the charms of each seraphic theme
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!
High to the blissful wonders of the skies
Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.
Thrice happy, when exalted to survey
That splendid city, crown’d with endless day,
Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:
Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.
Calm and serene thy moments glide along,
And may the muse inspire each future song!
Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless’d,
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!
But when these shades of time are chas’d away,
And darkness ends in everlasting day,
On what seraphic pinions shall we move,
And view the landscapes in the realms above?
There shall thy tongue in heav’nly murmurs flow,
And there my muse with heav’nly transport glow:
No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,
Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes,
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,
And purer language on th’ ethereal plain.
Cease, gentle muse! the solemn gloom of night
Now seals the fair creation from my sight.
His EXCELLENCY GEN. WASHINGTON.
Celestial choir I enthron’d in realms of light.
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown |
See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light
Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!
The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel binds her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in place and honours,—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform’d its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!
Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state |
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, Washington be thine.
Letter to Reverend Samson Occum
Rev’d and honor’d Sir,
I have this Day received your obliging kind Epistle, and am greatly satisfied with your Reasons respecting the Negroes, and think highly reasonable what you offer in Vindication of their natural Rights: Those that invade them cannot be insensible that the divine Light is chasing away the thick Darkness which broods over the Land of Africa; and the Chaos which has reign’d so long, is converting into beautiful Order, and [r]eveals more and more clearly, the glorious Dispensation of civil and religious Liberty, which are so inseparably Limited, that there is little or no Enjoyment of one Without the other: Otherwise, perhaps, the Israelites had been less solicitous for their Freedom from Egyptian slavery; I do not say they would have been contented without it, by no means, for in every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us. God grant Deliverance in his own Way and Time, and get him honour upon all those whose Avarice impels them to countenance and help forward tile Calamities of their fellow Creatures. This I desire not for their Hurt, but to convince them of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically, opposite. How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree, —
I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.–
Religious and Moral Poems by Phillis Wheatley is produced by Project Gutenberg and released under a public domain license.
Letter to Phyllis Wheatley by George Washington is produced by the United States National Archives and released under a public domain license.
To His Excellency George Washington by Phyllis Wheatley is produced by the United States National Archives and released under a public domain license.