How do we remember Phillis Wheatley?
Wheatley lived several distinct lives. She was abducted from what we would consider Gambia today, and brought to America without her family.
Her front teeth had not yet grown in.
At around age 20, her owners emancipated her not out of a moral demand, but due to her success. As a Black poetess, she became something of a celebrity in London. She was also well-received in the colonies. George Washington praised her, yet he continued to own slaves. Incidentally, he refused to grant one of those slaves, Oona Judge, freedom after she ran away in 1796, rendering her a fugitive for the rest of her life. Phillis enjoyed freedom, but her freedom came with a troublesome marriage, continuous poor health, and poverty.
By 1796, the year of Oona Judge’s flight, Phillis Wheatley had been dead for twelve years. Phillis died in obscurity, working as a washwoman and leaving no children behind. It’s unclear if Oona Judge ever heard of the famous Phillis Wheatley.
Phillis ended her life free, but by the time of her death, she was no longer the novelty, the “talented slave.” She left her poems behind, left slavery behind, and left Africa behind. She even left her name behind, as “Phillis” is the name of the ship on which she arrived, and “Wheatley” is the name of her former owners.
The three decades of her life consisted of unfathomable change. Many enslaved women didn’t have three decades, and if they did, their conditions may have presented far more difficulties. Her poetry, however, lives. Reading it today forces us to confront the voice of a young woman who knew death and knew disparity. She also knew her abilities and genius were real:
Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck’d with pomp by thee!
Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.
FromHelicon’s refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.
Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov’d object strikes her wand’ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.
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.
ThoughWinter frowns to Fancy’s raptur’d eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o’er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow’ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown’d:
Show’rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose,
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.
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.
Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th’ expanse on high:
FromTithon’s bed now might Aurorarise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o’erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight theMuse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy’s flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.