Two poems by Phillis Wheatley
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 Saviour too: Once I redemption neither sought nor knew. Some view our sable race with scornful eye, ``Their colour is a diabolic die.'' Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.
From the introduction to ``The Poems of Phillis Wheatley,'' by Julian D. Mason Jr.
PHILLIS Wheatley was brought from Africa to Boston as a slave in 1761 when she was probably about seven years old, and was soon bought by John Wheatley, a respected tailor of Boston....
Under the supervision of Wheatley's daughter, Mary, Phillis soon began to emerge as a child worthy of attention and instruction. Indeed, her quickness of mind not only found favor in the eyes of the Wheatleys, but it also marked her for unusual notoriety among a gradually increasing segment of the Boston population....
It is generally supposed that Phillis was about 13 years old when she began to try her hand at poetry. She was very much influenced by the poetry of the popular Alexander Pope, and her earliest attempt that has survived may be ``On Being Brought from Africa to America....''
It is quite clear that Phillis Wheatley was not a great poet. Phillis had aspirations, but she also knew her shortcomings; and her concerns were less august, less pretentious.
Yet some of her poems reveal an exceptional being producing exceptional poetry.... It is interesting that various commentators have chosen different ones of her small body of poems to praise as the best, and almost all writers on this subject favor to some degree ``An Hymn to the Morning'' and ``An Hymn to the Evening.''
An hymn to the evening SOON as the sun forsook the eastern main The pealing thunder shook the heav'nly plain; Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr's wing, Exhales the incense of the blooming spring. Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes, And through the air their mingled music floats.
Through all the heav'ns what beauteous dies are
spread! But the west glories in the deepest red: So may our breasts with ev'ry virtue glow, The living temples of our God below!
Fill'd with the praise of him who gives the light; And draws the sable curtains of the night, Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind, At morn to wake more heav'nly, more refin'd; So shall the labours of the day begin More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night's leaden sceptre seals my drousy eyes, Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.
From ``Visions and Revisions of American Poetry'' by Lewis Putnam Turco WHEATLEY'S first publication, a translation of a story by Ovid, was published at the behest and with the aid of friends, and her first full book, ``Poems on Various Subjects,'' appeared in England in 1773, though a pamphlet of her work was printed in Boston in 1770.
There is no doubt that Wheatley was a prodigy and a genius....
One wonders what might have happened had she torn away the Negro mask, the slave mask that protected her and kept her a celebrity rather than allowing her to develop as a poet.
Excerpt from THE POEMS OF PHILLIS WHEATLEY, edited by Julian D. Mason Jr. 1966, the University of North Carolina Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Reprinted by permission from VISIONS AND REVISIONS OF AMERICAN POETRY by Lewis Putnam Turco, published by the University of Arkansas Press. Copyright by Lewis Putnan Turco, 1986.