In 1761, a young girl arrived in Boston on a slave ship, sold to the Wheatley family, and given the name Phillis Wheatley. Struck by Phillis' extraordinary precociousness, the Wheatleys provided her with an education that was unusual for a woman of the time and astonishing for a slave. After studying English and classical literature, geography, the Bible, and Latin, Phillis published her first poem in 1767 at the age of 14, winning much public attention and considerable fame. When Boston publishers who doubted its authenticity rejected an initial collection of her poetry, Wheatley sailed to London in 1773 and found a publisher there for Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This volume collects both Wheatley's letters and her poetry: hymns, elegies, translations, philosophical poems, tales, and epyllions--including a poignant plea to the Earl of Dartmouth urging freedom for America and comparing the country's condition to her own. With her contemplative elegies and her use of the poetic imagination to escape an unsatisfactory world, Wheatley anticipated the Romantic Movement of the following century. The appendices to this edition include poems of Wheatley's contemporary African-American poets: Lucy Terry, Jupiter Harmon, and Francis Williams.
The curriculet is being added to your library
Watch this brief documentary to learn more about the fascinating life of Phillis Wheatley. (This annotation contains a video)
The term "begrudgingly" indicates that Thomas Jefferson was
Did you know that you can easily look up words in the text? Just drag your cursor over a word and click on the Define icon. Use the Define feature to look up the word evangelical. Then, pick out a synonym that best matches the word as it is used in the context of the sentence.
This iconic image of a slave ship illustrates the brutality of the slave trade. Bodies were packed closely together and many people died during the journey from Africa to the Americas. It is possible that Phillis traveled on a ship that was similar to the one shown in this image. (This annotation contains an image)
Up until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the word "negro" was commonly used to describe individuals with African descent. Today, this word is offensive and outdated. As you read, think carefully about the context of the times that Phillis Wheatley was writing her poems.
Use evidence from the text to explain if the advertisement is correct when it describes Phillis' writing as, "pure, unassisted genius"?
While Phillis Wheatley wasn't the first enslaved woman to write poetry, she did become the most famous. Think about your educational experience. Have you learned about enslaved female authors in any of your courses at school prior to reading this text? What are the implications of your answer?
The phrase "formely pagan poet" indicates that upon arrival to America, Phillis was purchased by a White family and
Olaudah Equiano was born in Africa and was sold to slave owners in Virginia. He was later freed and wrote the biography shown below. The biography detailed the brutality of slavery and was popular amongst abolitionists. While both Equiano and Wheatley were former slaves, Wheatley's writings do not describe the horrors of slavery in detail. (This annotation contains an image)
What is the "great risk" that Wheatley's slave owner took when he allowed Phillis to visit London?
What does the author mean when they describe Wheatley's view of her kidnapping as a "fortunate fall into religious liberation"?
Wheatley is a controversial figure for some because her poetry lacks fervent anti-slavery themes. Pay attention to any reference of slavery and think about why Phillis did not write as directly about slavery as other enslaved or formally enslaved authors did.
Based on the information highlighted in this passage, Wheatley viewed her slave owners as
The major goal of the abolitionist movement was to eradicate slavery. Keep in mind that slavery was not abolished in the United States until President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It wasn't until December 1865 that the Thirteenth Amendment was passed that states, "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude … shall exist within the United States."
Thomas Jefferson has a very _____ opinion of the quality of Phillis Wheatley's poetry.
Thomas Jefferson was a founding father and president of the United States. However, he was also a slave- holder who owned up to 600 slaves throughout his life. Given this fact, think about the nature of his critique of Phillis Wheatley. (This annotation contains an image)
The Countess of Huntingdon was Phillis Wheatley's patron. This means that she provided the financial backing for Phillis to get her poetry published. The two women never met in person. The Countess lived in England while Phillis lived in Boston. (This annotation contains an image)
The tone of the preface can best be described as
Answer the following question after reading this letter titled "To the PUBLICK." Why was this letter included in the book?
The words "Negro" and "Barbarian" are shocking to see for modern readers. However, this was commonly used language in the context of the eighteenth century.
POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS.
The poem "To Maecenas" refers to the way Roman poets Virgil and Horace dedicated their poems to the Roman politician Maecenas. Maecenas was a patron of poets in ancient Rome. What does this detail reveal about Wheatley's education?
Re-read the dedication page, then answer the following question. Who is Wheatley referring to when she writes her poem "To Maecenas"?
The phrase "false joys of time" refers to
The University of Cambridge was renamed Harvard University. When this poem was written, the university had already been in existence for over one hundred years.
The reason Wheatley describes Africa as a "Pagan land" is
This is in reference to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:15). Cain killed his brother, Abel, and God told Cain, "Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth" (Genesis 4:11-12). At the end of the story, "the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him" (Genesis 4:15-16). During the time that Phillis was alive, many people held the belief that the mark of Cain was dark skin. Many people used the "mark of Cain" belief as a reason to hold slaves.
Who is Phillis referring to when she says "him" and "he" in this passage?
In colonial America, infant mortality was very high. 10-30% of children died before they turned one year old. Less than two-thirds of children survived to ten years old. Notice that Phillis writes several poems that are inspired by death. This would have been a common occurrence and a normal part of daily life. It is natural that death would be a prominent feature in so many of her poems.
The passage begins with a somber tone and ends with a(n) __________ tone.
The story of Goliath comes from the Christian Bible. Check out the video below for an interesting perspective from the author Malcom Gladwell about the cultural significance of this story. (This annotation contains a video)
Use the Define feature to look up the word scorn. Then, identify a synonym for scorn from the list below.
David is a very common subject of numerous works of art, including this poem. One of the most famous images of David is the portrayal that Michelangelo sculpted during the Renaissance. Think about how Michelangelo's representation of David compares to Phillis Wheatley's representation of David. (This annotation contains an image)
This detail indicates that David was __________.
As you read, compare Phillis' account of the story of David and Goliath to the story in the Bible (Samuel 1:17). Notice that she is very accurate and provides all the details that come up in the Biblical version. This indicates a high level of familiarity with the story. (This annotation contains a link)
Jehovah is Latin for the Hebrew word for "God". Remember that Phillis Wheatley was educated in both Latin and Greek.
In this poem, Phillis is describing the beauty of ________________.
The reference to Olympus illustrate's Wheatley's familiarity with Greek mythology. In Greek mythology, the gods lived on Mt. Olympus.
The phrases "immortal joys," "strains extatic" and "praise divine" reveals what about Phillis' view of death?
This title refers to the Biblical book of Isaiah 63:1-8. Read the text from the Bible below and compare Phillis' account of the story. (This annotation contains a link)
This line alludes to which other Biblical event?
As you read Phillis' poem describing imagination, think about what Thomas Jefferson said about the ability of African Americans to write poetry. He stated, "Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry.—Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet." Why would a poem like this cause such a reaction from White slave owners?
This is an example of Phillis Wheatley's familiarity with Roman mythology. Tithon was Aurora's lover who flew across the sky to mark the arrival of the sun in the morning.
This is a picture of William, Earl of Dartmouth. He was a friend of Phillis Wheatley's patron, the countess of Huntingdon. The Earl was an abolitionist who Phillis met while she was traveling in London. Notice how Phillis directly addresses the issue of slavery in this poem. (This annotation contains an image)
What is Phillis referring to when she states, "I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/ Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat"?
What event does this passage describe?
Aeolus was the ruler of the winds in Greek mythology. What does this reference indicate about Phillis Wheatley's education?
Despite the very tragic inspiration for this poem, Wheatley ends the poem expressing a tone of hope with her statement "share immortal bliss." This references the Christian belief in immortal life after death.
The reference to Olympus illustrates which major influence on Phillis Wheatley's poetry?
What does the author argue in this passage?
Over one-thirds of children died before the age of ten in colonial America. While it might seem disconcerting to see so many poems about the death of a child, this was something that was very common in daily colonial life.
Watch this video explaining using text to make inferences before answering the question associated with this poem. (This annotation contains a video)
What does "the heav'nly nectar of relief" refer to?
See the painting that inspired this poem. Phillis Wheatley was inspired to write this poem after viewing this painting. (This annotation contains an image)
By comparing Niobe to the goddess Venus, Wheatley is stating that Niobe is
Niobe is a character from Greek mythology. She was the queen of Thebes and, after bragging about her eleven children, Apollo and Artemis were sent to the earth to slaughter all of Niobe's children.
Apollo was the Greek god of music and also of prophecy. He was also a god of light, known as "Phoebus."
"Feather'd mischief" refers to
This poem is one of Phillis Wheatley's longest. It helps to have context to fully understand the poem. Visit the page below to read a summary of Ovid's Metamorphisis where the Greek mythological figure Niobe is discussed. (This annotation contains a link)
The language in this passage suggests a ___________ tone.
Phillis Wheatley wrote this poem while she was traveling to England to recover from a chronic asthma ailment in 1771. When Wheatley arrived in England she met many important people including the Earl of Dartmouth (who she wrote about in a previous poem in this collection), poet and activist Baron George Lyttleton, and Benjamin Franklin.
The use of the words "mourns", "sad", and "grief" indicates a ______ tone.
When Wheatley references a unicorn in this poem, she is referring to Great Britain's royal coat of arms. See the picture below for the image of "Britain's royal standard" that Wheatley writes about with such admiration. (This annotation contains an image)
EXTANT POEMS NOT PUBLISHED IN POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS
Think about the significance of Phillis Wheatley's age at the time this poem was written. Remember that she was kidnapped and sold into slavery at age 7 or 8. As you read the poem, keep in mind that Phillis learned English as a second language and was also a slave. How does this contribute to your feelings about the poem?
In this poem Phillis is trying to
Use the Define feature to look up the word "Deist". Think about how Phillis Wheatley constructs her response to the major beliefs of Deists in the poem that follows.
What does the phrase "Satan's child" reveal about Phillis Wheatley's feelings regarding Deists?
The phrase "savage monsters" refers to
"Thy child" refers to which of the following?
Agenoria is the Roman goddess of activity. She was often portrayed working with tools and basic machinery. Observe the image of her below. Then, think about why Wheatley references Agenoria in this passage. (This annotation contains an image)
Parnassus is a mountain in Greece. It is important to note that Roman poets received inspiration from Mt. Parnassus' Castalian spring and considered Mt. Parnassus the home of the Muses.
"Floating azure" refers to
As you read this poem, focus on how Wheatley personifies death. What impact does this have on the tone of this poem?
The tone of this poem is best described as
Think about the importance of this statement in the context of slavery. It is important to remember that while many people supported slavery, there were others who were adamantly opposed to the institution of slavery. This statement does imply that those with a European education are civilized and those without are savage. This is a very distorted and racist way of thinking, yet is very representative of the European views in the 18th century.
This statement is an example of which of the following?
This poem was written in response to the poem before it. It was written by Rochfort (who is mentioned in Wheatley's previous poem). In his response, Rochfort compares Wheatley's poetry to the strength of the British navy. This is a very significant compliment since the British navy was the most powerful navy in the world when this poem was written.
In this passage "her" refers to which of the following?
Phillis Wheatley's poem to George Washington indicates her support of the revolutionary movement. Imagine how the values of the revolution would have made someone who had been enslaved feel.
The tone of this note from Phillis Wheatley to George Washington can best be described as
General Lee was a General of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He was captured by the British during the war. This poem is Phillis Wheatley's response to this incident. (This annotation contains an image)
What does the phrase "Disgrace to Brittain, and the British name!" reveal about Phillis Wheatley's view of the war?
The description of death in this passage is an example of
Personification plays a major role in many of Phillis Wheatley's poems. Watch this short video to learn more about how to identify personification in a text. (This annotation contains a video)
The first seven lines reveal what detail about Phillis Wheatley?
This is a picture of the subject of this poem, Revered Samuel Cooper. Members of his parish at the Brattle St. Church included some of the most influential people of the American Revolution: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, and John Adams. (This annotation contains an image)
From the way Phillis Wheatley describes Revered Cooper, we can infer that he was
This passage reveals how well loved the Reverend Cooper was to all those who knew him. Wheatley describes the Reverend as someone who people listen to and respect. Given the role of religion in colonial America, it is logical that the death of a reverend would produce this much sentiment.
This magazine was named by its founder, John Wesley, after the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius. Like Arminius, Methodists believed in universal redemption, opposing the Calvinist doctrine of salvation only for a few selected people. The image below is the cover of an original magazine. (This annotation contains an image)
The line "Beneath yon aged oak's protecting arms" is an example of ______________.
VARIANTS OF POEMS PUBLISHED IN POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS
"George" refers to King George III, the king of Great Britain from 1760- 1820. The painting below is the most famous image of him. (This annotation contains an image)
The phrase "the morning heav'd its Orient head" refers to
From this line we can infer that
Phillis Wheatley writes several poems about the dead of Reverend Sewall. It is clear that he was a very influential person in her life.
Why did the publisher include this note before the poem?
Consider why Phillis Wheatley may have included the line, "Take HIM ye Africans, he longs for you". Do you think she really felt this way? Remember, she was kidnapped at age 7 or 8.
What does this note reveal about the poem?
Notice how Wheatley personifies death in this poem. She describes death as "the tyrant of the grave".
From this comment it is clear that Phillis Wheatley was allowed to converse and associate with her master's family. What does this reveal about her status in the family?
Phillis Wheatley wrote the poem "Recollection" as a result of
Phillis Wheatley writes a significant amount of her poetry to individuals who have lost a loved one. Think about what this fact along with the context of the poem reveals about Wheatley's religious beliefs.
Another way to say "the lucent Torrent from thine Eyes," is __________.
In this passage Phillis Wheatley is
Recall that infant mortality rates were significantly higher in colonial America. It would have been very common to experience the death of a young child since one third of children died before the age of ten years old.
What is Phillis Wheatley describing in this section of the poem?
This is an image of the Earl of Dartmouth that Phillis Wheatley dedicates this poem to. He was Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1772 to 1775. (This annotation contains an image)
Thomas Hubbard was very active in civic and religious affairs in Boston. He organized the Massachusetts Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge among the Indians of North America, and he supported efforts to help the poor.
The word "unreluctant" implies that the subject of the poem is ________ to go to heaven.
From this passage we can infer that
In Greek mythology, Hebe is the goddess of youth. See the image below of a neoclassical representation of Hebe. (This annotation contains an image)
The line "we sweep the liquid Plain," refers to
"Phoebus" is another name for the god Apollo and the "Car" refers to the sun. It is clear that Wheatley is anxious to arrive in London and is noting that the days at sea are going by slowly.
The tone of this letter can best be described as
Recall that the Countess of Huntingdon was a patron of Phillis Wheatley.
The highlighted passage reveals what detail about Phillis Wheatley?
Phillis Wheatley was in poor health for much of her life. This line indicates that she struggled with her health even into adulthood. Historians believe that she had asthma.
Since Phillis Wheatley refers to her "master" it is clear that she is still a slave. It might be challenging to remember this since her prose is so advanced. However, this detail is important to remember because it frames the way she related to the world and how the world related to her.
What is the most significant event in Phillis Wheatley's life that is revealed in this portion of the letter?
What is another way to say "Africans and Indians; though despisd on earth on account of our colour"?
Phillis Wheatley describes her mistress' condition as "languishing". This word indicates that her mistress is not improving and may die soon. From the letter, it is clear that Phillis Wheatley is writing on behalf of her mistress and is asking that her mistress' son is taken care of while he is in England.
What can we infer Wheatley meant from the statement "Soaring upward"?
Phillis Wheatley is recounting the death of Mrs. Wheatley. This detail is incredibly intimate and shows that Phillis Wheatley is considered to be part of the Wheatley family.
What does the first portion of this letter reveal about Phillis Wheatley's relationship with her mistress?
Bristol Yamma and John Quamine were two free African Americans. They had been sent by the Missionary Society of Newport to be trained for missionary work in Africa.
This is a picture of modern day Queenstreet in Boston, Massachusetts. It has now been renamed to Court Street. (This annotation contains an image)
Use the Define feature to look up the word hindrances. Then, choose a synonym of the word from the list below.
PROPOSALS FOR VOLUMES OF POETRY
From the phrase "uncultivated Barbarian from Africa" we can infer that the author of this passage believes
Four shillings is the equivalent to about twenty four dollars. One important detail from Phillis Wheatley's life is that she died at age 31 in poverty. Do you think that she received the money from the sales of her poetry?
Who is the author referring to when he writes "ingenious author"?
Twelve pounds is equivalent to about $1400 dollars in today's money. This is the cost that the publisher was charging for booksellers for an order. From the cost, we can infer that a significant amount of books were ordered. The publishers must have known that the poetry books would be very popular and would sell well.
The "Notes" section of this text is helpful to review as you read each of the poems. The notes offer some context for understanding the poetry that will help you navigate the challenging language.
Who was Phillis Wheatley's patron?
While Phillis Wheatley was probably from Senegal, she does refer to herself as an "Ethiop". In this note about the poem "To the University of Cambridge, in New- England" we learn that Africans were sometimes called Ethiop, regardless of where they were from. See the map below to review the geographic location of Senegal. Senegal is located on the west coast of Africa. (This annotation contains an image)
After reading this passage, it is clear that Methodist ministers
This is an image of Captain John Hanfield. We can infer that Phillis was very familiar with the events that were occurring in Boston around the time leading up the Revolutionary War. (This annotation contains an image)
This poem is one of the most famous poems written by Wheatley. She wrote this poem because she was very pleased by the appointment of Dartmouth. Dartmouth was a friend of the abolitionist Countess of Huntingdon.
The fact that Phillis Wheatley writes poetry dedicated to a secretary state indicates that
The reference to Greek mythology indicates that Phillis Wheatley was deeply influenced by
This is a painting of Mary Sanford Oliver. She was married to Lieutenant- Governor Andrew Oliver who was a merchant and public official in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. (This annotation contains an image)
The title of this poem indicates that Phillis Wheatley had which of the following beliefs?
Click on the link below to find a primary source (an excerpt from a Boston newspaper) of the account of the dead of Christopher Snider. (This annotation contains a link)
From George Washington's response it is clear that
In March of 1776, Washington was visited by Phillis Wheatley. How do you think Phillis Wheatley felt during this meeting considering that she was still enslaved?
Recall that the Countess of Huntingdon became Phillis Wheatley's patron. Despite the fact that both women never met, they communicated often and Countess Huntingdon was a major supporter of Phillis Wheatley's poetry.
The phrase "the Negro Girl of Mr. Wheatley's" indicates that
Bristol Yamma and John Quamine were formerly enslaved Africans who had been brought to America from the Gold Coast of Africa. Individuals were attempting to raise money to support the education of Yamma and Quamine to prepare them for a mission to Africa.
This note suggests that Phillis Wheatley had anti-slavery sentiments. Using what you know about the time period, why do you think her poetry does not contain more direct attacks on slavery?
As you read, think about who authored this poem. Do you think Phillis Wheatley wrote this poem?
Who does "A Prince of heav'nly Birth" refer to?
Lucy Terry Prince was a published free black. Visit the link below to learn more about her remarkable life. (This annotation contains a link)
The tone of this poem can best be described as __________.
Visit the link below for a complete collection of Jupiter Hammon's poetry. (This annotation contains a link)
The overall tone of this poem is best described as ________.
During the 18th century it was common for all people of African descent to be called "Ethiopian".
Why does the author include "Psal. xxxiv, 6, 6, 8" at the end of this sentence?
Think about why the author references Phillis by name. What impact does this have on the tone?
Why do you think the author chooses to end each stanza with a Bible verse?
Read the following excerpt from 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 from the Christian Bible. Then, compare it to the stanza highlighted in the poem and compare the content: "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory.'"
How does this portrayal of slavery compare to what you know about the reality of slavery?
In the Christian Bible, Jesus is often represented as the "lamb of God".
The author includes both a master and a servant speaker in order to
Similar to Phillis Wheatley, this Jupiter Hammon writes poetry with deeply religious undertones. This illustrates the importance of religion in all aspects of colonial life.
This is an image of Francis Williams that was painted around 1745. Notice that he is wearing traditionally European formal clothing. This is a very rare image and demonstrates Francis William's status in society. (This annotation contains an image)
The author's tone is this passage is best described as ___________.
This statement is indicative of many individuals during the 18th century. Why would it be beneficial for a slave-owning society to believe that people of African origin were intellectually inferior to their European counterparts?
This passage indicates that
Make sure to go back through the poem and use these notes to help as you read for greater understanding. Since the language is very old, it is important to use these useful notes as you read.