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Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784) was captured in Africa as a young child, and brought to Boston, Massachusetts. There, she was sold as a slave to John Wheatley who was immediately impressed by her intellect and encouraged Phyllis to learn to read English, so that she might study the Bible. “As to her WRITING, her own curiosity led her to it,” he later recalled. After Wheatley published a book of her poems in 1773, with the help of Wheatley and his family, Wheatley emancipated her. She later married and had a child. She and her husband did not prosper, and Wheatley died at 31.
In the first of the poems reprinted here, Wheatley reflected on her captivity and conversion to Christianity. In the second, she used her experience of servitude to explain the significance of the liberty much on the minds of many in the colonies.
Source: Phyllis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773), available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45465/on-being-brought-from-africa-to-america and https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47706/to-the-right-honorable-william-earl-of-dartmouth.
On being brought from Africa to America
’TWAS mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join the angelic train.
To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth
Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom’s charms unfold.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear’d the Goddess long desir’d,
Sick at the view, she languish’d and expir’d;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favours to renew,
Since in thy pow’r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did’st once deplore.
May heav’nly grace the sacred sanction give
To all thy works, and thou for ever live
Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot’s name,
But to conduct to heav’ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th’ ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.
- 1. Some Europeans in the medieval and early modern period argued that the black skin of Africans was a result of their descent from Cain, the elder son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother Abel (see Genesis 4). Although God punished Cain by sending him away from his family, he also placed an unspecified “mark” upon him, so that no harm would come to him in his exile: this mark was sometimes interpreted to be the darkening of his skin.
- 2. William Legge, 2nd Earl of Dartmouth (1731–1801), was at the time Wheatley published this poem Secretary of State for the Colonies. Legge was a benefactor of efforts to educate native Americans. Dartmouth College was named after him.
- 3. temple