Author: Phyllis Wheatley became the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry in 1773.
Wheatley’s book of poetry was quite at home in the 1770s, but time has not been as kind to them as to the works of Cowper or Watts. Many of them are devotional in content. The compilation includes several funeral poems—writing a poem for a funeral is an ancient custom no longer well kept in the West—including one written at the time of George Whitfield’s death, which is still highly regarded. The paraphrase of Isaiah 63 is also wonderful. But many of the more Classical poems will today induce yawning rather than fawning.
In the 1770s, Phyllis Wheatley’s poems made such a sensation, that Wheatley herself had to be attested by Boston’s illuminaries to prove that she was not a fraud—no one believed that a black woman could write such stirring, intelligent, and beautiful poetry. Wheatley wrote the following reminder to such people (“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 dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Wheatley was emancipated after their publication, and, from the age of 20, she was paraded around the highest social circles in Boston and London, meeting leaders like George Washington and the Lord Mayor of London among many others. The Countess of Huntingdon, benefactress of the early Methodist movement, was the patron of Wheatley’s book.
The chief value of this little poetry compilation, in my opinion, is found in the personal poems dealing with grief. The poems themselves are of course beautiful to read, but most of them would bore modern taste.
Wheatley reminds her readers that the body of a dead saint is only “the cold shell of his great soul” (loc. 194). She always presses us toward a biblical view of dead saints: they are better off than us!
The shortcomings of this collection include tedious Classical (mythological) references. As a whole, the theology here is not especially profound. Nevertheless, for devotional content and poetic value it rivals most of the great Christian poets I have read.
“Let grief no longer damp devotion’s fire.” (loc. 385)
“She feeds on truth and uncreated things.” (loc. 581)
On other topics:
To him, whose works arry’d with mercy shine,
What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!
(“Thoughts on the Works of Providence.” loc. 355)
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?
(“To the Right Honourable William, etc.”, loc. 507)
Enlarg’d he sees unnumber’d systems roll,
Beneath him sees the universal whole,
Planets on planets run their destin’d round,
And circling wonders fill the vast profound.
(“A Funeral Poem on the Death of C. E. an Infant of Twelve Months.” loc. 469)
Why thus enrob’d delights he to appear
In the dread image of the Pow’r of war? . . .
When all forsook I trod the press alone,
And conquer’d by omnipotence my own;
His eye the ample field of battle round
Survey’d, but no created succours found;
His own omnipotence sustain’d the right,
His vengeance sunk the haughty foes in night.
(“Isaiah lxiii. 1-8.”)