Chapter 2: Early American Literature 1700-1800

Phillis Wheatley

Paul P. Reuben
  October 15, 2016

Page Links:
Jupiter Hammon's Poem "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly" (sic) Primary Works Selected Bibliography 1980-Present Her Achievements Strongest Anti-Slavery Statement "Manuscript by first black American woman poet brings $68,500" "Ocean" Study Questions MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

A Brief Biography

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Source: Legacy Photo Gallery
A rare portrait of Phillis Wheatley shows her facing forward, wearing an evening dress and jewelry. The portrait appeared in Revue des Colonies in Paris between 1834 and 1842.
Image Credit: Schomburg Center

Source: PBS - Africans In America


Primary Works

An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that celebrated Divine, and eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the late Reverend, and pious George Whitefield, Chaplain to the Right Honourable the Countess of Huntingdon (first published as a broadside in Boston, 1770; republished several times); Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773); many poems were published individually.

Mason, Julian D., Jr. ed. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley: Revised and Enlarged Edition. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Bhattacharya, Nandini. Slavery, Colonialism, and Connoisseurship: Gender and Eighteenth-century Literary Transnationalism. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006.

Bomarito, Jessica and others. eds. Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2004.

Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. U. of Georgia P., 2011.

Cook, William W. African American Writers and Classical Tradition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers. NY: Basic Civitas, 2003.

Hairston, Eric A. The Ebony Column: Classics, Civilization, and the African American Reclamation of the West. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2013.

May, Cedrick. Evangelism and Resistance in the Black Atlantic, 1760-1835. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008.

M'Baye, Babacar. The Trickster Comes West: Pan-African Influence in Early Black Diasporan Narratives. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009.

Phillips, Rowan R. When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness. NY: Dalkey Archive, 2010.

Robinson, William H. Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley. 1982.

---. Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography. Boston : G.K. Hall, 1981.

---. William H. Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography. Boston : G.K. Hall, 1981.

---. Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings. 1984.

Shields, John C. Phillis Wheatley's Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2008.

- - -. Phillis Wheatley and the Romantics. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2010.

Showalter, Elaine. ed. The Vintage Book of American Women Writers. NY: Vintage, 2011.

Walters, Tracey L. African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition: Black Women Writers from Wheatley to Morrison. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Weyler, Karen A. Empowering Words: Outsiders and Authorship in Early America. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2013.

Her Achievements

1. The first African-American to publish a book of imaginative writing.

2. She started the African-American literary tradition.

3. She started the African-American women's literary tradition.

4. Her use of meter and rhyme-scheme is precise and correct.

5. She combined the influences of religion and neo-classicism in her poems.

Top Phillis Wheatley's strongest anti-slavery statement is contained in this letter to the Rev. Samson Occom dated February 11, 1774.

Reverend and honoured 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 reigned so long, is converting into beautiful order, and reveals more and more clearly the glorious dispensation of civil and religious liberty, which are so inseparably united, 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 ~ 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 the 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."

(First printed in the Connecticut Gazette for March 11, 1774) 

Top Manuscript by first black American woman poet brings $68,500

Copyright 1998; Copyright 1998 Reuters News Service

NEW YORK (May 30, 1998 01:50 a.m. ED (

A manuscript by the United States' first black woman poet -- a former Senegalese slave named Phillis Wheatley -- was sold for $68,500 at a Christie's auction Friday.

"Ocean," an ode to the sea, was written in 1773 in Boston, where Wheatley served from childhood as the personal servant of the wife of a wealthy tailor.

The only known copy of the 70-line poem -- a creased and yellowing three-page manuscript -- fetched significantly more than its estimate of $18,000 to $25,000, Christie's spokeswoman Vredy Lytsman said. She said a local book dealer had bought it.

Wheatley, known as the first black woman poet in the United States, began writing poetry at the age of 14 under the tutelage of her owners, who broke with convention by educating her in literature, Latin and philosophy.

She was freed in 1773 and later married a failed black businessman, dying destitute in 1784. "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," Wheatley's sole collection, was published in England in 1773. It did not contain "Ocean."

No manuscript or letter by her has appeared on the market for 30 years, Lytsman said.

Top "Ocean" by Phillis Wheatley

Now muse divine, thy heav'nly aid impart,
The feast of Genius, and the play of Art.
From high Parnassus' radiant top repair,
Celestial Nine! propitious to my pray'r.
In vain my Eyes explore the wat'ry reign, 5
By you unaided with the flowing strain.
When first old Chaos of tyrannic soul
Wav'd his dread Sceptre o'er the boundless whole,
Confusion reign'd till the divine Command
On floating azure fix'd the Solid Land, 10
Till first he call'd the latent seeds of light,
And gave dominion o'er eternal Night.
From deepest glooms he rais'd this ample Ball,
And round its walls he bade the surges roll;
With instant haste the new made seas complyd, 15
And the globe rolls impervious to the Tide;
Yet when the mighty Sire of Ocean frownd
"His awful trident shook the solid Ground."
The King of Tempest thunders o'er the plain,
And scorns the azure monarch of the main, 20
He sweeps thy surface, makes thy billows rore,
And furious, lash the loud resounding shore.
His pinion'd race his dread commands obey,
Syb's, Eurus, Boreas, drive the foaming sea!
See the whole stormy progeny descend! 25
And waves on waves devolving without End,
But cease Eolus, all thy winds restrain,
And let us view the wonders of the main
Where the proud Courser paws the blue abode,
Impetuous bounds, and mocks the driver's rod. 30
There, too, the Heifer fair as that which bore
Divine Europa to the Cretan shore.
With guileless mein thy gentle Creature strays
Quaffs the pure stream, and crops ambrosial GrassAgain with recent wonder I survey 35
The finny sov'reign bask in hideous play
(So fancy sees) he makes a tempest rise
And intercept the azure vaulted skies

Such is his sport: &emdash; but if his anger glow
What kindling vengeance boils the deep below! 40
Twas but e'er now an Eagle young and gay
Pursu'd his passage thro' the aierial way
He aim'd his piece, would C&emdash;f's hand do more
Yes, him he brought to pluto's dreary shore
Slow breathed his last, the painful minutes move 45
With lingring pace his rashness to reprove;
Perhaps his father's Just commands he bore
To fix dominion on some distant shore
Ah! me unblest he cries Oh! Had I staid
Or swift my Father's mandate had obey 50
But ah! too late. &emdash; Old Ocean heard his cries
He stroakes his hoary tresses and replies
What mean these plaints so near our wat'ry throne,
And what the Cause of this distressful moan!
Confess Iscarius, let thy words be true 55
Nor let me find a faithless Bird in you
His voice struck terror thro' the whole domain
Aw'd by his frowns the royal youth began,
Saw you not Sire, a tall and Gallant ship
Which proudly scims the surface of the deep 60
With pompous form from Boston's port she came
She flies, and London her resounding name
O'er the rough surge the dauntless Chief prevails
For partial Aura fills his swelling sails
His fatal musket shortens thus my day 65
And thus the victor takes my life away
Faint with his wound Iscarius said no more
His Spirit sought Oblivion's sable shore.
This Neptune saw, and with a hollow groan
Resum'd the azure honours of his Throne. 70

(from Ocean by Phillis Wheatley)


Top "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly [sic], Ethiopian Poetess, in Boston, who came from Africa at eight years of age, and soon became acquainted with the gospel of Jesus Christ." Composed by Jupiter Hammon, Hartford, August 4, 1778

Miss Wheatly; pray give leave to express as follows:

O, come you pious youth: adore
The wisdom of thy God.
In bringing thee from distant shore,
To learn His holy word.

Thou mightst been left behind,
Amidst a dark abode;
God's tender Mercy still combin'd,
Thou hast the holy word.

Fair wisdom's ways are paths of peace,
And they that walk therein,
Shall reap the joys that never cease,
And Christ shall be their king.

God's tender mercy brought thee here,
tost o'er the raging main;
In Christian faith thou hast a share,
Worth all the gold of Spain.

While thousands tossed by the sea,
And others settled down,
God's tender mercy set thee free,
From dangers still unknown.

That thou a pattern still might be,
To youth of Boston town,
The blessed Jesus thee free,
From every sinful wound.

The blessed Jesus, who came down,
Unveil'd his sacred face,
To cleanse the soul of every wound,
And give repenting grace.

That we poor sinners may obtain
The pardon of our sin;
Dear blessed Jesus now constrain,
And bring us flocking in.

Come you, Phillis, now aspire,
And seek the living God,
So step by step thou mayst go higher,
Till perfect in the word.

While thousands mov'd to distant shore,
And others left behind,
The blessed Jesus still adore,
Implant this in thy mind.


Thou hast left the heathen shore;
Thro' mercy of the Lord,
Among the heathen live no more,
Come magnify thy God.

I pray the living God may be,
The sheperd of thy soul;
His tender mercies still are free,
His mysteries to unfold.

Thou, Phillis, when thou hunger hast,
Or pantest for thy God;
Jesus Christ is thy relief,
Thou hast the holy word.

The bounteous mercies of the Lord,
Are hid beyond the sky,
And holy souls that love His word,
Shall taste them when they die.

These bounteous mercies are from God,
The merits of his Son;
The humble soul that loves his word,
He chooses for his own.

Come, dear Phillis, be advis'd,
To drink Samaria's flood;
There nothing is that shall suffice,
But Christ's redeeming blood.

When thousands muse with earthly toys,
And range about the street,
Dear Phillis, seek for heaven's joys,
Where we do hope to meet.

When God shall send His summons down,
And number saints together.
Blest angels chant, (triumphant sound)
Come live with me forever.

The humble soul shall fly to God,
And leave the things of time,
Start forth as 'twere at the first word,
To taste things more divine.

Behold! the soul shall waft away,
Whene'er we come to die,
And leave this cottage made of clay,
In twinkling of an eye.

Now glory be to the Most High,
United praises given,
By all on earth, incessantly,
And all the host of heav'n.


| Top | Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784): A Brief Biography

A Student Project by Dawn Coyan  

Early American poet, African American slave, and intellectual prodigy, Phillis Wheately gave no hint of who she would become as she stood on the slave block awaiting sale. In 1761 at the age of seven or eight, Phillis was purchased by a Boston merchant, Mr. John Wheatley, for the use of his wife. Mrs. Wheatley chose Phillis, young as she was, because of her "humble and modest demeanor." (Odell 9) Mrs. Wheatley planned to train Phillis both to replace the aging house slaves and to be her companion, since Mrs. Wheatley's daughter, Mary, would soon be old enough to leave home (Richmond 15).

Mary Wheatley took it upon herself to teach Phillis to read and write. Phillis' quick learning along with her "amiable disposition and propriety of behavior" pleased Mrs. Wheatley, who kept Phillis always with her, separating her from the other family slaves (Odell 15). After 16 months of instruction, Phillis could read English and understand "difficult passages in the Bible." (Richmond 15) At twelve she began to study Latin; by fourteen, she had become a poet.

Phillis spent her time with books, at needlework, and some occasional furniture dusting, but was always free to go to her writing when the Muse struck. She was treated like a daughter of the Wheatleys at home, but when dining out, she would request a side table for eating her dinner separately (12). It appears that she never forgot her place in society. She did not truly fit in with any group of people around her, slave or free.

Through the Wheatleys, Phillis was exposed to many of Boston's "literati," clergy, and other members of society (Odell 11). Through these men she was exposed to a wide variety of books and the Scriptures. Her writing reflects familiarity with mythology and Pope's Homer (Odell 17). Without formal education, Phillis was encouraged to write about whatever she wished, and to develop her own originality. However, she was happy to oblige when asked by others to write a poem for a special event. Many of her elegiac poems are due to special requests.

The Wheatleys received much more for their money than they intended when acquiring Phillis. Richmond calls her "an intellectual adornment," a novelty in Bostonian society, an "exotic curiosity," and the Wheatleys were happy to show her off (18). Richmond also points out that, in contrast with the blackness of Phillis' skin, the "Puritanical whiteness of her thoughts" won her the approbation of many. (19) Phillis had been baptized in the Wheatley's church, the Old South Meeting House. Her poetry and demeanor suggest that she took her faith seriously.

Phillis wrote a poetic elegy for the popular evangelist George Whitefield in 1770. This poem spread throughout the Colonies and all the way to England, where Whitefield's patroness, Lady Huntington, grieved over his death. The poem "catapulted [Phillis] from the level of local celebrity to the plateau of poet with a reputation throughout the Colonies and [. . .] overseas." (Richmond 24)

In 1772, Phillis wrote a poem thanking Lord Dartmouth for his part in convincing the King to repeal the Stamp Act. This is the only poem in which she refers to her childhood kidnapping. Referencing the sadness of that event, she bases her love of freedom for the Colonies on her wish that no others should experience the sorrows that her own parents must have felt.

In 1773, in the hopes of improving her frail health, the Wheatleys sent Phillis to Europe in the care of their son. Twenty years of age, she seemed to enjoy her time there, and met many important persons.

While Phillis was in London, her book of poetry, entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published. The book was dedicated to Lady Huntingdon, to whom she may have been introduced. According to Richmond, this was the first book by a black woman ever to be published (33). In fact, Phillis' book was one of the first books published by anyone from the Colonies. The fact that this poetry was that of a twenty year old female slave was extremely remarkable&emdash;and unbelievable. Thus it was that, in order to make the book acceptable to the public, eighteen well-respected Bostonian gentlemen signed a statement verifying the work as hers, along with a separate statement by her master. These were printed inside the book as a preface to her poetry.

Phillis' stay in Europe was shortened by a plea from Mrs. Wheatley to return home, as Mrs. Wheatley's health was now in decline. Mrs. Wheatley died in 1774.

Soon the Colonies were at war, and the general public became wholly involved in it. Phillis' audience, many of whom were Boston's elite and loyal to the Crown, fled to Canada (Richmond 37). Phillis continued to write during the war. Of note was a poem written for and sent to General Washington in 1775. (Eventually the two met in March of 1776.) The poem, entitled "To His Excellency General Washington," was eventually published in Pennsylvania Magazine in April, 1776 (Richmond 7).

Phillis wrote a second military poem a year later, called "Thoughts on His Excellency Major General Lee Being Betray'd into the Hands of the Enemy by the Treachery of a Pretended Friend."

Prior to his death in 1778, Mr. Wheatley freed Phillis. Shortly thereafter, Phillis married an African American grocer, John Peters. The husband failed at his grocer business, as well as several other business attempts, keeping them in poverty. Phillis continued to write, but the struggling economy of the Colonies hindered her effort to make a living at it. To support herself and her family, Phillis "worked as a servant in her final years," doing the hard labor she never had to when a slave (Britannica). Phillis eventually bore three children, all of whom died of frail health&emdash;the third shared a funeral with its mother. She was about 31 years old.

Several days after Phillis' death in 1784 (and too late to earn her any money), three of her poems were published. Two of these are elegiac, and the third celebrates the end of the Revolutionary War.

Phillis Wheatley's contribution to literature is important. First, in an era of subjugation of her race, she proved to have an intellect matching or superior to many of those considered her superiors. Second, she wrote in a style controlled by "rigid boundaries," the heroic couplets and the "ornate diction of neoclassicism" customary at the time (Richmond 54). Britannica calls her poetry "exceptionally mature." Phillis' ability to practice her art in the social environment in which she lived (both due to her slavery and the upheaval and war in the Colonies) makes her poetry worth studying.

The major themes of Phillis' poetry include religion, piety, morality, elegies, freedom, celebration, war, and death.


Odell, Margaretta Matilda. "Memoir." Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Boston: Geo. W. Light, 1834. 20 Sep. 2003. <>.

Richmond, M.A. Bid the Vassal Soar. Washington D.C.: Howard UP, 1974.

"Wheatley, Phillis." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia. 2003. Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service. 20 Sep, 2003. <>. 

Study Questions

1. Discuss the important themes in the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. What is the relevance of the mandala archetype?

2. Examine Phillis's verse and letters for instances of her acquired Boston gentility and of her racial awareness and of herself as "the Colonial Boston poet laureate."

3. Locate and discuss imagery in Wheatley's poems that directly or indirectly comments on her experience as a freed slave.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 2: Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or date of your login).