The American colonies were an unsettled place on September 1, 1773. Rumblings of war were in the air, and the men we now regard as the Founding Fathers were beginning to ruminate on the agitations that would eventually spark the American Revolution and establish the United States. But amid those rumblings, life went on in the colonies, and people cultivated religious and artistic lives as they always have. Into that milieu, 250 years ago today, one of the most important and fascinating works of American literature formally hit print: Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
This book was the work of the first major Black poet in American history. Its author’s life is so remarkable that her fame as a precedent and as an icon sometimes threatens to eclipse recognition of her literary merits. Yet these merits are themselves a key part of her legacy. This little book of poems shows off Phillis Wheatley’s significant skill as a writer, while also displaying an often under-regarded commitment to the Christian faith. Its printing was indeed an epochal moment in African American history; but it was epochal in part not just because the book exists but because it’s so good.
No one can be sure of exactly where or when Phillis Wheatley was born, or what her birth name would have been. She lived in west Africa, perhaps somewhere around the modern countries of Gambia or Senegal, and she was probably about seven or eight years old when she was sold as a slave to the Boston couple John and Susanna Wheatley in 1761. Her very name was a mark of her compromised status, sharing the surname of the family who bought her and a Christian name derived from the Phillis, the ship that carried her across the Atlantic.
The Wheatleys soon recognized their young servant’s precociousness, however, and it is possible that Susanna saw in her a surrogate for her own daughter Sarah, who had died a year earlier at about the same age as young Phillis. Whatever the rationale, all evidence suggests that the Wheatleys quickly began treating Phillis in a manner not dissimilar to their own surviving children, twins Mary and Nathaniel, giving her full access to the standard affluent biblical and classical education of the day and allowing her to mix socially with their circle of acquaintances. And yet it was only as Susanna’s death was approaching in 1773 that she would emancipate Phillis. This was shortly after the publication of Poems on Various Subjects and Phillis’s subsequent trip to England, where the teenage poet had been received as a minor celebrity.
In a variety of sadly paradoxical ways, freedom made Phillis Wheatley’s life worse on a practical level. She attempted to win support for a follow-up volume, publishing numerous poems in venues celebrating liberty, a theme dear to her heart but also in vogue among colonists ready to foment a revolution. Her tribute to General George Washington won her approbation. But the war and its immediate aftermath were economically disastrous for Americans of all backgrounds, and certainly so for free Black people like Phillis and her eventual husband, John Peters, who struggled to find work and keep out of debt. Most of Phillis’s influential contacts through the Wheatley family had connections to England that were not so fortuitous in the post-Revolution environment, and fewer people had an appetite for expensive books of poetry in that decade. Phillis Wheatley Peters’s three children all died young and she followed soon after, buried in an unmarked grave in her early thirties.
Phillis Wheatley’s work didn’t exactly languish in obscurity following her death, but neither was she regarded as a particularly significant American poet until the twentieth-century reappraisal of early Black writers brought her renewed attention. Her life can certainly be read on tragic terms. Yet the existence of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral remains one of the most remarkable occurrences of American literary history.
Wheatley had been writing poems since she was at least fourteen years of age, and while there was some skepticism as to her claims to authorship, these were quite readily allayed. Those who met her in conversation or actually watched her write quickly and unambiguously testified to her wit and eloquence. One witness expostulated on “Her aspect, humble serene & graceful; her Thoughts, luminous & sepulchral, ethereal & evangelical and her Performances most excellent, yea almost inimitable. A WONDER of the Age indeed.” Prejudiced readers would look for ways to reinforce their biases, damning her with faint praise and backhanded compliments, but she didn’t make it easy for them because of the simple facts that her work was clearly her own and it was good.
While books of poetry are unlikely to top the bestseller lists today, they were far more popular in the eighteenth century. Poems on Various Subjects was an extravagant volume; it was arranged by prepublication subscriptions and published not locally in Boston but in London itself, where Wheatley would travel to help publicize it. The book included the now-famous frontispiece portrait of its author, a feature usually reserved for deceased or well-established writers. It also included attestations to its quality and authenticity. For a giddy, if all-too-brief, period of time, Phillis Wheatley became a celebrity.
That doesn’t mean her poetry is immediately accessible to audiences today. Centuries after it was penned, in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a cultural debate raged between two of Phillis Wheatley’s literary successors, Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Each man was a skilled writer in his way, but they represented two distinct approaches to how Black poets should approach their craft. Hughes consciously chose a less formal diction and less structured lines and rhymes, emulating in verse the jazz music he loved; this, he believed, was an authentic African American poesis. Cullen, heavily influenced by European poets like John Keats, loved the beauty of classic forms like the sonnet and wanted to show that a Black poet could be every bit as technically proficient a practitioner as the white predecessors who first developed them.
In the end, by and large, Hughes won the day; twentieth-century poetry in general was moving away from the structures Cullen loved, and many felt that Hughes captured the essence of the Black experience in his lines. In a sense, ironically, Hughes’s victory (and the broader cultural move away from formality that made it possible) present some challenges for the modern reader approaching Phillis Wheatley’s poems, for those poems are very much a product of their time.
But Wheatley’s ability to embrace these structures is inseparable from her very existence as a published poet. Her genius resides in precisely the ways she was able to balance out the seemingly disparate realities of her stylistic neoclassicism, her Blackness, and her Christianity. It seems to me fruitless to speculate on what Wheatley might have wrote without any one of these aspects—that person is a fiction. The Wheatley we have shows her brilliance by weaving all three together.
Throughout much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English-speaking world had turned away from variety and innovation in poetic structure. Pure unstructured free verse was on no one’s radar, but simpler or more “natural” forms dominated the literary world. Even traditional favorites like sonnets had virtually disappeared, supplanted almost entirely by rhymed couplets (and the occasional blank verse or quatrains). Phillis Wheatley’s chief influences are the poets who excelled in this approach—John Dryden, Mark Akenside, and Alexander Pope. She adopts many of their characteristics, not just in rhyme and meter but in style, employing the rich stock of poetic vocabulary and Hellenistic mythological references, profusely capitalized.
Contemporary readers looking for the short colloquial lines of Langston Hughes’s jazzy style or the freer verse of more recent poetry will be disappointed and perhaps a bit baffled by Wheatley’s work. But she wasn’t writing for us; she was writing to an audience steeped in a classical approach to literature, an approach that she by all accounts loved and admired herself. Working in this idiom, she is not merely competent but masterful, her meter fluid, her rhymes crisp, her references and allusions on point.
But part of her distinctiveness is that she is a Black woman mining a trove that could be perceived as the purview of white men. Adept even as a teenager to recognizing the nature of her audience, Wheatley doesn’t shy away from classicism but rather deploys it to make space for herself. Her dedicatory poem “To Maecenas” follows the rules of a standard shout-out to an artistic patron while also pointedly tying her to the classical dramatist Terence, himself born in Africa. Likewise, her frequent invocations of the Muses are typical fare for her kind of verse but also stand as pointed reminders that the Greco-Roman spirits of inspiration were all female.
Yet if the long Western classical tradition allowed her some space to work, it is especially her Christian faith in which she finds her strongest and canniest advocacy. Literary readers could pick and choose which aspects of the tradition they wished to emphasize; Christian readers were in the end stuck with the Bible as it was. And it was a Bible that Wheatley knew well.
In his book Reading While Black, Esau McCauley notes that the African American experience allowed the Black community to possess a natural insight into certain Scripture passages that call out injustice and privilege marginalized groups. These are insights that could be missed or downright suppressed by groups that want to keep and consolidate power. McCauley himself identifies Wheatley as a writer who might “internalize at least in part the negative understanding of Black worth found among white Christians,” offering instead “a more muted critique.” I would contend, however, that once we recognize Wheatley’s idiom and her audience, she is every bit as pointed in her critiques as we might hope and demonstrates precisely the biblical insights that McCauley has in mind. As Vincent Carretta observes, “Wheatley repeatedly appropriates the values of Christianity to judge and find wanting hypocritical self-styled Christians of European descent.”
Her most infamous poem is perhaps “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” which in its few lines may be seen to justify her enslavement. Yet the text’s appreciation for God’s work through in the midst of tragedy no more justifies her mistreatment than any theological recognition that divine providence sovereignly works through sinful situations rather than being thwarted by them. Carretta and others have brought attention to her careful juxtaposition of words in the final couplet, which associate Black people with Christians, in opposition to those who would “view our sable race with scornful eye.”
But her skillful understanding of Christianity is on display even more evidently in some of her other works. One such poem is her elegy “On the Death of the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield 1770,” which helped establish her reputation. Whitefield served as the chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon, who would become the dedicatee to Poems on Various Subjects. In commemorating him, Wheatley had to walk a fine line. She would not have wished to alienate those who appreciated Whitefield’s massively influential ministry—he was the most significant evangelist of his day. He was also one of the first to preach to Black people as well as white, and he advocated more humane treatment of slaves. Yet he never denounced the institution of slavery, and his actions helped it flourish in the colony of Georgia.
“Take him, ye wretched, for your only good,
Take him ye starving sinners, for your food;
Ye thirsty, come to this life-giving stream,
Ye preachers, take him for your joyful theme;
Take him my dear Americans, he said,
Be your complaints on his kind bosom laid:
Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,
Impartial Saviour is his title due:
Wash’d in the fountain of redeeming blood,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.”
By setting these lines up as though they were Whitefield’s own, she takes on the authoritative voice of the renowned preacher. But the message her Whitefield speaks is one that specifically highlight the Bible’s insistence on equality and unity in Christ—all people are equally sinful, and all are thus equally in need of redeeming grace from an “Impartial Saviour.” And while everyone is equal, her formulation moves in distinct direction: wretched → sinners → thirsty → preachers → Americans → Africans → sons, kings, and priests. Thus, preachers and Americans are set closest in order to wretchedness and sin, while Africans come immediately after Americans and then are situated closest to the Savior and to their eventual role as “sons, and kings, and priests of God.” This has the effect of using Whitefield’s voice to elevate Black dignity in the gospel.
A similar effect is present in her poem “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England.” Written when she was around fifteen years old, the poem is presented to students at what we now know as Harvard. Once again, she is addressing an audience very different from her, composed of educated young white men. Her task is to make space for herself as an authoritative speaker, and here too Christian theology gives her the space to do so. The poem is bracketed by references to biblical Africa, beginning with an identification of her “native shore” as a land of “Egyptian gloom,” but ending by “An Ethiop tells you [sin] ’tis your greatest foe.” Egypt in Scripture has the connotations as a “land of errors,” the pagan foe of Israel and sight of their enslavement. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is presented more positively: biblically literate readers might recall Psalm 68:31’s prophecy that “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God,” or recognize favorable figures like Ebed-melech in Jeremiah 38 or the eunuch who trusts the gospel in Acts 8.
This works because the poem takes a series of up-and-down movements that allow Wheatley to level the playing field. The students, she notes, may “scan the heights / Above,” looking to the sky to “mark the systems of revolving worlds.” While this shows some elevation and privilege, it also reminds them that they, like she, resides below heaven. “Still more,” she adds, heaven came down to them for their redemption: “Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.” That is, the students share in the same stain of sin as Wheatley herself and are in need of the same redemption:
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 . . .
By this point in the poem, then, Wheatley has masterfully used the gospel message itself to bring the students down to earth, as it were. “The whole human race” has “fall’n,” and through Christ, any person “might rise again” to “the sublimest skies.”
My hope is that this gives you a taste of Phillis Wheatley’s poetic genius, which would be impressive in a seasoned writer and is nothing short of astonishing coming from her particular context, given all the societal disadvantages stacked against her. She continued to write later in life, and her remaining literary output is likewise impressive. We can all wish that she could have lived and prospered more, and we can all hope that more as-yet-unknown writings will continue to find the light of day. But what we do have is Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. It’s the best neoclassical Black Christian book you’ll ever read, and its brilliance derives precisely because those qualities are united inseparably and inextricably. There are few works I know of that more beautifully sing praise in the light of Christian faith, as Wheatley herself would declare: “To him, whose works array’d with mercy shine / What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!”