Black American Poets and Dramatists: Before the Harlem Renaissance

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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Phillis Wheatley

c. 1753-1784

PHILLIS WHEATLEY'S exact birthdate is unknown, but it is estimated at 1753 or 1754. She was possibly bom in Senegal.It is certain that Wheatley arrived, in bondage, in New England in 1761. She was purchased by John Wheatley—from whom she took her surname—as a present for his wife Susanna.She was a precocious child who, according to her biographer, William H. Robinson, mastered the English language in sixteen months. Phillis soon acquired the fundamentals of a classical education, becoming acquainted with the Bible as well as a good deal of English literature and Greek and Latin literature in translation. She also learned Latin. The Wheatleys, who were proud of Phillis, introduced her to the affluent and educated circles of Boston society, where she was received warmly for her erudition and charm, and also for the fact that she was an educated slave— a rarity, and some thought an impossibility, in the Boston of that day.

Wheatley's An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of That Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield ( 1770) was her first separate publication, though it is thought that she wrote many poems earlier than 1770, such as "On Being Brought from Africa to America" and "To the University of Cambridge, in New England," some of which appeared in various periodicals. "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," published in the Newport Mercury for 1767, is her first known appearance in print.

Wheatley's elegy on George Whitefield garnered much attention because of the popularity of the evangelist and because of the delicately crafted lines in which he was celebrated. Yet it was the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral ( 1773) that solidified her reputation as a poet. Just before its publication in England, Wheatley was received with fascination and hospitality in London society under the sponsorship of the Countess of Huntingdon, to whom Wheatley dedicated the collection. The voyage to England provided a strong draft of freedom for Wheatley, and some

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