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PHILLIS WHEATLEY: 1753-1784

Enslaved in the Gambia or Senegal,

scholars surmise, she survived the nauseous

and violent bottom line of the

Triangular Trade to be bought aged eight

as a maid for his wife by John Wheatley,

merchant and tailor of British-ruled Boston,

a known progressive in education.

 

She was christened ‘Phillis’ after the slave ship

that took her childhood. She was prodigious,

and was removed from domestic duties.

Tutored by his daughter, at twelve she knew

Latin, Greek, the Bible and, later,

became a true genius of Augustan

couplets – their wit, their beat, their certainty.

With her master’s son, she went to London,

where her poems were published to some acclaim.

Her encomium to George Washington

was re-published by Thomas Paine. ‘Proceed…

A crown,  a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.’

 

Ah, how we tolerate unflinchingly,

unthinkingly absurd and absolute

contradictions – freedom and servitude,

enlightenment and doctrinal dogma!

‘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, Negros, black as Cain,

May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.’

 

On Wheatley’s death she was freed – all that his will

left her: liberty without means. She married

a free black grocer. They lived in poverty.

Two infant children died. And yet she wrote –

but without white, male or titled patrons

was unpublished. Her husband was jailed for debt.

She supported herself and her sickly son

as a scullery maid. One December day

they died in squalor, were laid in unmarked graves.

 

What did she choose to remember of the seas

pounding against the timbers, and the cries,

and the chains days after days after days?

Or the drums into the night; or the smoke

from the cooking fires at dawn; the bright clothes;

the songs; her mother’s voice?

 

 

Note: The poem was first published on the site in July 2015.  It is published here with minor amendments.

 

 

 

© Copyright David Selzer
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2 Responses
  • Elise Oliver
    June 30, 2020

    I remember this sad, but lovely, poetic eulogy when it was first posted five years ago. At the time it inspired me to find out more about her tragic life’s cyclical journey and I was astonished to discover that it had been deemed necessary to include endorsements and authentications from seventeen Boston men in the preface to her published work before it would be accepted as her own.

  • David Selzer
    June 30, 2020

    I had thought of it only as an elegy, which it is, but, you are right, it is a eulogy.

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