32 Phillis Wheatley

Note on the following edition of Wheatley’s Poems

The first main section below, Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, contains the original “Preface” and “To the Public.” The poems shown underneath those two sections are from Poems, but many have been left out. For a complete edition of the publication, refer to Gutenberg.

wheatley title page
Frontespiece and Title Page to Wheatley’s Poems (1773). From https://snl.no/Phillis_Wheatley, Public Domain.

Poems on various subjects, religious and moral

by Phillis Wheatley (Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, Of Boston, In New-England)

PREFACE

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 Publisher.

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.

JOHN WHEATLEY.

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.


POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS

To Mæcenas

MÆCENAS, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds play’d.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
Their noble strains your equal genius shares
In softer language, and diviner airs.
  While Homer paints lo! circumfus’d in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;
Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heav’n quakes, earth trembles, and the shores resound.
Great Sire of verse, before my mortal eyes,
The lightnings blaze across the vaulted skies,
And, as the thunder shakes the heav’nly plains,
A deep-felt horror thrills through all my veins.
When gentler strains demand thy graceful song,
The length’ning line moves languishing along.
When great Patroclus courts Achilles’ aid,
The grateful tribute of my tears is paid;
Prone on the shore he feels the pangs of love,
And stern Pelides tend’rest passions move.
  Great Maro’s strain in heav’nly numbers flows,
The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows.
O could I rival thine and Virgil’s page,
Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;
Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn,
And the same ardors in my soul should burn:
Then should my song in bolder notes arise,
And all my numbers pleasingly surprize;
But here I sit, and mourn a grov’ling mind,
That fain would mount, and ride upon the wind.
  Not you, my friend, these plaintive strains become,
Not you, whose bosom is the Muses home;
When they from tow’ring Helicon retire,
They fan in you the bright immortal fire,
But I less happy, cannot raise the song,
The fault’ring music dies upon my tongue.
  The happier Terence[1] all the choir inspir’d,
His soul replenish’d, and his bosom fir’d;
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,
To one alone of Afric’s sable race;
From age to age transmitting thus his name
With the first glory in the rolls of fame?
  Thy virtues, great Mæcenas! shall be sung
In praise of him, from whom those virtues sprung:
While blooming wreaths around thy temples spread,
I’ll snatch a laurel from thine honour’d head,
While you indulgent smile upon the deed.
  As long as Thames in streams majestic flows,
Or Naiads in their oozy beds repose,
While Phœbus reigns above the starry train,
While bright Aurora purples o’er the main,
So long, great Sir, the muse thy praise shall sing,
So long thy praise shall make Parnassus ring:
Then grant, Mæcenas, thy paternal rays,
Hear me propitious, and defend my lays.

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.

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.

TO THE KING’S MOST EXCELLENT MAJESTY. 1768.

  YOUR subjects hope, dread Sire—
  The crown upon your brows may flourish long,
  And that your arm may in your God be strong!
  O may your sceptre num’rous nations sway,
  And all with love and readiness obey!
     But how shall we the British king reward!
  Rule thou in peace, our father, and our lord!
  Midst the remembrance of thy favours past,
  The meanest peasants most admire the last[2]
  May George, beloved by all the nations round,
  Live with heav’ns choicest constant blessings crown’d!
  Great God, direct, and guard him from on high,
  And from his head let ev’ry evil fly!
  And may each clime with equal gladness see
  A monarch’s smile can set his subjects free!

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.

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.

On Imagination

Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
    How bright their forms! how deck’d with pomp by thee!
Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.
    From Helicon’s refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.
    Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov’d object strikes her wand’ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.
    Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
    Though Winter frowns to Fancy’s raptur’d eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o’er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow’ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown’d:
Show’rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose,
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.
    Such is thy pow’r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:
In full perfection all thy works are wrought,
And thine the sceptre o’er the realms of thought.
Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,
Of subject-passions sov’reign ruler thou;
At thy command joy rushes on the heart,
And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.
    Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th’ expanse on high:
From Tithon’s bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o’erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.

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.

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.–

The Connecticut Gazette, March 11, 1774


  1. Note from the original edition: "He was an African by birth."
  2. original note: "The Repeal of the Stampe Act."

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Phillis Wheatley by Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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