Phillis Wheatley (1753 – December 5, 1784) was the first African American poet and first African-American woman to publish her writing.
Born in Gambia, Senegal, she was sold into slavery at age seven and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write, and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.
The publication of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) brought her fame, both in England, and the Thirteen Colonies; figures such as George Washington praised her work.
During Wheatley’s visit to England with her master’s son African-American poet Jupiter Hammon praised her work in his own poem. Wheatley was emancipated after the death of her master John Wheatley. She married soon after but she and her husband lost two children as infants. After he was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Wheatley fell into poverty and died of illness, quickly followed by the death of her surviving infant son.
Wheatley believed that the power of poetry is immeasurable. John C. Shields notes that her poetry did not simply reflect novels which she read but was based on her personal ideas and beliefs. Shields writes, “Wheatley had more in mind than simple conformity.
It will be shown later that her allusions to the sun god and to the goddess of the morn, always appearing as they do here in close association with her quest for poetic inspiration, are of central importance to her.”
For example, her poem “Ode to Neptune” signifies her life in many ways. The language of the poem starts out shaky and chaotic but the mood is adventurous yet scary (reflecting much of her life experiences). By the end of the poem the language and attitude seems to generate an emotion of a calm peaceful journey that served of great importance.
This poem is arranged into three stanzas of four lines in iambic tetrameter followed by a concluding couplet in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is ababcc.” Her structure or form of the poetry expressed the tone.
With the 1774 publication of Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, she “became the most famous African on the face of the earth.” Voltaire stated in a letter to a friend that Wheatley had proved that black people could write poetry.
John Paul Jones asked a fellow officer to deliver some of his personal writings to “Phillis the African favorite of the Nine (muses) and Apollo.” She was honored by many of America’s founding fathers, including George Washington.
Critics consider her work fundamental to the genre of African American literature.
She is honored as the first African American woman to publish a book and the first to make a living from her writing.