Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties.
Because Wheatley stands at the beginning of a long tradition of African-American poetry, it’s worth considering some of her best and most famous quotations. Wheatley’s poems, which bear the influence of eighteenth-century English verse (her preferred form was the heroic couplet used by Alexander Pope, among others), are written on a range of subjects, including George Washington, her fellow black artists, and her experiences as a slave in America.
The following quotations help to provide a summary of Wheatley’s poetic achievement, and her preferred topics.
‘’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’.
In the short poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’, Phillis Wheatley reminds her (white) readers that although she is black, everyone – regardless of skin colour – can be ‘refined’ and join the choirs of the godly.
Wheatley had been taken from Africa (probably Senegal, though we cannot be sure) to America as a young girl, and sold into slavery. A Boston tailor named John Wheatley bought her and she became his family servant.
‘Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.’
This is another quotation from Wheatley’s poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’. Contrasting with the reference to her Pagan land in the first line, Wheatley directly references God and Jesus Christ, the Saviour, in this line. She sees her new life as, in part, a deliverance into the hands of God, who will now save her soul.
‘’Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom’.
This quotation is taken from a poem Phillis Wheatly addressed to students at Harvard University: ‘To the University of Cambridge, in New England’ warns the impressionable young students to resist temptation and avoid sin. She begins the poem by referring to her own past:
’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.
Wheatley here refers to the African land she hailed from, calling it a ‘land of errors’ and ‘Egyptian gloom’.
‘Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.’
Another quotation from Wheatley’s poem to the students at Harvard: here, she evokes God, the ‘father of mercy’, whose ‘gracious hand’ led her to the ‘safety’ of life in America.
‘Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!’
In her poem ‘On Virtue’, Wheatley concludes her argument by calling on Virtue to attend on her during her years of youth, so that she will not be tempted by ‘false joys’ which are short-lived (or temporal) rather than everlasting. Instead, she wishes to be guided along the path that leads to eternal life and endless happiness in heaven.
‘Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?’
As well as praising the virtues of … virtue, Wheatley also wrote an ode to imagination. These poems reveal her debt to Augustan modes of poetry, which predominated for much of the eighteenth century until Romanticism came along at the end of the century. Here, Wheatley extols imagination, which can come upon the artist or poet suddenly and unexpectedly.
‘Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide.’
Wheatley is thought to have written ‘His Excellency General Washington’ in 1776, at the beginning of George Washington’s campaign against the British: the beginning of the American Revolution or War of Independence:
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.
Wheatley concludes her poem by urging Washington to keep up the fight, and let the Goddess guide his every action. He will be victorious and be given a crown, mansion, and throne: the regalia worthy of a king.
‘When first thy pencil did these beauties give
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live’.
‘To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works’ is a notable poem by Phillis Wheatley because it sees an African-American poet address an African-American artist: the poem is about an artist, Scipio Moorhead, who was an enslaved African artist living in America. Wheatley praises Moorhead’s ability to give life to his creations, rendering his figures authentic and believable.
‘Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view’.
In this quotation, also from ‘To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works’, Wheatley exhorts Moorhead, who is still a young man, to focus his art on immortal and timeless subjects which deserve to be depicted in painting.
‘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.’
This quotation is taken from another of Phillis Wheatley’s oft-anthologised poems: ‘To The Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth’.
William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth (1731-1801), was a British statesman who was made secretary of state for the colonies in 1772 while his stepbrother, Lord North, was the British Prime Minister. Dartmouth adopted a policy of conciliation in the Americas, and this was one reason why Wheatley praised him in her poem. (Of course, Dartmouth’s policy would soon be rendered by-the-by when the Boston Tea Party occurred the following year.)