ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Phillis Wheatley: America’s First African American Poet

Updated on September 15, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Phillis Wheatley



Phillis Wheatley's talent was questioned but then authenticated during her lifetime, and she is now hailed by all but the most cynical as one of America's finest poetic voices.

Phillis Wheatley’s first and only book of published poetry was titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral; it was published in England.

Two Versions of a Publication History

There are two versions of the history of this book’s publication: one is that the Countess Selina of Huntington invited Phillis to London and found a publisher for the poet; the other is that Phillis suffered from asthma, and so the Wheatley family took her to England to recuperate, and while there, they sought publication of her work.

Either way, the book was published and Wheatley’s career was established. The Wheatley family’s insight played a major role in helping a slave rise above the hardships of that vile institution.

The Value of One Poem

In May 1968, one poem written by Phillis Wheatley brought $68,500 at Christie's auction, Rockefeller Center in New York. It had been estimated to bring between $18,000 and $25,000.

The poem is titled "Ocean"; its seventy lines were written on three pages that had yellowed with time. It is thought to be the only copy.

Coming to America

Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal, Africa, in 1753. At age seven, she was brought to America and sold to John and Susannah Wheatley of Boston. She soon became a family member instead of a slave.

The Wheatleys taught Phillis to read, and she was soon reading classic literature in Greek and Latin, as well as English. But her talent did not stop with reading, because she began to write poetry, influenced by the Bible and the English poets, particularly John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray.

Phillis wrote her first poem at age thirteen, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," which was published in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. But she gained wide recognition as a poet with “On the Death of the Reverand Mr. George Whitefield,” which appeared only three years later. Chiefly, because of this poem, Phillis’ first book was later published. It is thought that she had a second book of poems, but the manuscript seems to have disappeared.

In 1778, Phillis married John Peters, a failed businessman. They had three children, all of whom died in childhood. Phillis' final years were spent in extreme poverty, despite her work as a seamstress. She continued to write poetry and tried in vain to publish her second book of poetry. She died at age 31 in Boston.

Controversy Over Authenticity

As one might surmise, there was, indeed, a controversy over the authenticity of Phillis’ writing. That a young black slave girl could write like a John Milton was not a fact easily digested back in Colonial America, when slaves were considered something less than human.

Even Thomas Jefferson showed disdain for Phillis’ writing; in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he remarked, "Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic] but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism."

Yet Jefferson goes ahead and offers criticism in his next remark, “The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem.”

Unlike Jefferson, George Washington proved to be a fan; in 1776, she wrote a poem and a letter to Washington, who praised her efforts and invited her to visit. I wonder how seriously we can take Jefferson’s criticism, when he so badly misspelled her name; one wonders if he might be speaking of someone else.

Victory Over Suffering

Readers can sample Phillis’ poetry online; her book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, is offered in its entirety, including the front material that shows how strong the controversy over her talent was.

Though suffering the ambivalence of the Colonial mind-set during her lifetime, today Phillis Wheately is hailed as the first African American poet and as the fourth important American poet in the history of American poetry.

Introduction to Phillis Wheatley Biography

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you for your response, Venkatachari M. Many of Wheatley's detractors in the 1960s were black radicals who seemed too dense/ignorant to understand what a talent like hers meant for their own cause. They were all bluster and no substance--the very opposite of Phillis' profundity. The thought-provoking discourse that she offered uplifts all of humanity from the dregs of despair and hopelessness.

  • Venkatachari M profile image

    Venkatachari M 

    2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

    A good review of her biography and poetic talents. People become prejudiced to accept such facts which is mostly natural.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)