Phillis Wheatley, Poet and Prodigy

July 23, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

"Yet do I marvel at this curious thing,'' wrote the African-American poet Countee Cullen, ''to make a poet black and bid him sing!''

Few poets have faced a greater dilemma between the artistic sensibility and the crushing circumstances of life than Phillis Wheatley, America's first published black woman poet.

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was a verbal prodigy, extremely rare in any era and virtually unknown among the African captives brought to America during the 18th century.

The future poet was sold at auction in Boston shortly after her arrival from Senegal in 1761. Susannah Wheatley, wife of a well-to-do Boston tailor, had wanted a personal servant to care for her in her old age. Something drew her to the sickly little girl with large, expressive eyes, who appeared to be about 7.

Susannah got more than she bargained for. She wanted a servant; she acquired a poet. And she would spend the rest of her life promoting and supporting the talent of the black child who mutely followed her home from the slave market.

Phillis demonstrated amazing facility with the English language only a few months after her arrival. By the time she was 9, she had learned to read the Bible and could write in a graceful, flowing hand. At 12, she was writing poetry.

Susannah decided to nurture this talent by making her own 18-year-old daughter, Mary, Phillis' tutor. But Phillis' health remained poor; for the rest of her life she would suffer from a respiratory disease that may have been asthma or tuberculosis.

Believing the girl to be endowed with special gifts, the Wheatleys relieved Phillis of most household duties. But they also forbade her any contact with the other black servants in the house. ''In many ways,'' reports one of Phillis' biographers, ''the Wheatleys treated her like an exotic hot-house flower.''

Meanwhile, Susannah was busy stage-mothering the girl into a social sensation, turning her home into a literary salon and inviting Boston's leading merchants and clerics to hear Phillis recite her verses.

The Wheatleys lived during the ''Great Awakening'' of religious sentiment in America. Phillis became attracted to the preaching of the Rev. George Whitefield, an electrifying orator who taught ''that salvation was available to all'' and that ''every human being had an equal chance to obtain God's grace.''

Ministers of the ''Great Awakening'' held that true Christianity meant love of one's fellow men -- including ''orphans, paupers, Indians and slaves.'' Though Whitefield did not specifically campaign against slavery, he insisted that people of all colors were spiritual equals. And he helped introduce the idea that it was sinful for the white man to enslave his black brother, who also had an immortal soul.

Phillis embraced these doctrines whole-heartedly and made ,X them the basis of much of her poetry. Her most important literary model was Alexander Pope, whose forms and classical imagery she imitated. Pope, a Roman Catholic in Protestant England, considered himself a member of an oppressed minority.

But where Pope used satire to attack injustice, Phillis did not dare express her bitterness about slavery in her poetry. Despite her relatively privileged position, the Wheatleys' tolerance only went so far.

Thus the society in which Phillis lived was filled with contradictions and paradoxes. She was a slave denied the company and companionship of other slaves. She was praised for her accomplishments, but cursed for her blackness. She was received by whites as a person of undeniable talent, but never as an equal.

On the Reverend Whitefield's death in 1770, Phillis wrote an elegy that was published in Boston and New York. Susannah tried to obtain a subscription of 300 buyers for a volume of Phillis' poems, but the project failed. The book, ''Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral,'' was finally published in London in 1773. It was only the second book published by an American woman -- Anne Bradstreet's was the first, in 1650 -- and the first published by a black American.

Phillis was finally freed by her mistress in 1773. She made an unhappy marriage to John Peters, a free Boston black man, in 1778 and bore him a child. But her health continued to decline. She died December 4, 1784 at the age of 31.

At a time when writers like Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison enjoy national acclaim and honors, it is well to recall that the tradition they embody had its origins in the art of a humble slave girl who was brought to this country in chains more than 200 years ago.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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