Phillis Wheatley: Poems Background

Phillis Wheatley: Poems Background

A young girl of maybe seven or eight was kidnapped from her home in West Africa, forced to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a slave ship named the Phillis and bought for a pittance at an auction in Boston by Susanna Wheatley, who named the child after the ship which brought her. The child was placed into domestic service in the mansion owned by the wealthy merchants and tailor. By the time she was ten, Phillis already had such a firm grasp on English that she could even make her way through the Biblical book of Numbers. By twelve, she was writing poetry, demonstrating a particular talent for addressing events and occasions of notes through elegy.

One of those important events was the death of one of the founders of Methodism, evangelical cleric George Whitefield. Phillis was moved to compose “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, 1770.” Wide reprinted and circulated, the moving elegy made Wheatley famous almost overnight. Susanna Wheatley—ever the merchant—capitalized on the public awareness of Phillis and by 1772 had secured a deal with a British publisher after being turned down by American printers. The deal was conditional on the verification of young Phillis being the actual author of the verse, a laborious process which would eventually result in yet another official document bearing the inimitable autograph of John Hancock.

Subsequently, Phillis Wheatley became perhaps the first American creative artist whose route to recognition was dependent upon first becoming the toast of England. Wheatley became a literary sensation, mingling with members of Parliament and establishing a friendship with another American then calling London home: Benjamin Franklin.

While roughly a third of her published poetry are elegies to famous figures, her poetry also covers themes related to the slave experience, spirituality and religion, ancient myth and the celebration of America. Notably absent from her subjects are the lives of other individual slaves with whom she came in contact and a seeming indifference toward her African heritage.

After being given her freedom, Phillis continued to live with the Wheatleys until the deaths of John, Susanna and their daughter Mary. She married in 1778, but the best years of her life were already behind her and those leading to her death in 1784 around age 30 marked a sad end to a life that both exceeded and fell short of expectations.

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