Phillis Wheatley: The Peerless Poet

February 11th | By Kendra Knight

On January 20th, 2021, Amanda Gorman, an award-winning writer and graduate of Harvard University, became the youngest inaugural poet in United States history. As the world celebrates her stunning work “The Hill We Climb,” I want to highlight the accomplishments of another phenomenal black woman who challenged and exceeded the world’s expectations.

When she was just seven or eight years old (we do not know her exact birthdate, but sources report that she had just lost her front baby teeth), a young girl was kidnapped from her home in West Africa and transported first to the Carribean and then to the United States on a slave ship called the Phillis. She was purchased “for a trifle” by Susanna and John Wheatley of Boston, who named her after the ship that had brought her to them. Despite having experienced such trauma and knowing no English when she arrived, Phillis showed an amazing aptitude for language.The Wheatleys fostered her love of learning, and Phillis was soon studying British literature, history, astronomy, geography, Greek, Latin, and the Bible. She published her first poem at age 13 and became internationally famous for her poetry at age 17. In 1773, around age 18, she published a book of poems entitled, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

Despite her obvious talent and intellectual ability, Wheatley faced racism and sexism throughout her life. Her book of poems included a page signed by eighteen influential white men (including the governor of Massachusetts at the time) assuring “the World that the Poems specified in the following Page were written by Phillis” because too many people did not believe that a black girl could write such impressive poetry. Many white Americans clung to the idea that people of African descent were less rational than other races, and therefore needed to be guided (controlled) by white people.Phillis Wheatley was living proof that their claims of white intellectual superiority were ignorant and unfounded.

Wheatley was manumitted (freed) in 1774, likely because she was famous and the public pressured the Wheatley family to release her. She continued to write poetry, but struggled financially the remainder of her life. Phillis Wheatley died at age 31 in poverty.

I’d like to share an excerpt from one of my favorite Phillis Wheatley poems. She writes in a very formal style, which can be difficult to understand at first, but read through it slowly and you will get a glimpse of her talent.

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.

...

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.

Excerpts from “On Imagination” by Phillis Wheatley, 1773