Despite Phillis Wheatley’s fame, we know surprisingly little about her early life. She was taken from her home in Africa when she was seven or eight, and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston. The family taught her to read and write, and encouraged her to write poetry as soon as they witnessed her talent for it. In 1773, Phillis published her first poem, making her the first African American to be published. She was only 12 at the time.
Her work was praised by high-ranking members of society, including, perhaps most notably, George Washington. Her writing made her famous throughout the colonies. Not long after her poems were first published, the family that owned Wheatley emancipated her. Unfortunately, her life took a turn from there, especially after the deaths of many of the Wheatleys who had helped support her. She was stricken with poverty. The fame she earned from her writing did little to sustain her husband and children. She fell ill and died at the age of 31.
A Farewell to America
Adieu, New-England’s smiling meads,
Adieu, th’ flow’ry plain:
I leave thine op’ning charms, O spring,
And tempt the roaring main.
In vain for me the flow’rets rise,
And boast their gaudy pride,
While here beneath the northern skies
I mourn for health deny’d.
Celestial maid of rosy hue,
Oh let me feel thy reign!
I languish till thy face I view,
Thy vanish’d joys regain.
Susannah mourns, nor can I bear
To see the crystal shower
Or mark the tender falling tear
At sad departure’s hour;
Not regarding can I see
Her soul with grief opprest
But let no sighs, no groans for me
Steal from her pensive breast.
In vain the feather’d warblers sing
In vain the garden blooms
And on the bosom of the spring
Breathes out her sweet perfumes.
While for Britannia’s distant shore
We weep the liquid plain,
And with astonish’d eyes explore
The wide-extended main.
Lo! Health appears! celestial dame!
Complacent and serene,
With Hebe’s mantle oe’r her frame,
With soul-delighting mien.
To mark the vale where London lies
With misty vapors crown’d
Which cloud Aurora’s thousand dyes,
And veil her charms around.
Why, Phoebus, moves thy car so slow?
So slow thy rising ray?
Give us the famous town to view,
Thou glorious King of day!
For thee, Britannia, I resign
New-England’s smiling fields;
To view again her charms divine,
What joy the prospect yields!
But thou! Temptation hence away,
With all thy fatal train,
Nor once seduce my soul away,
By thine enchanting strain.
Thrice happy they, whose heavenly shield
Secures their souls from harm,
And fell Temptation on the field
Of all its pow’r disarms.
Phillis Wheatley, 1753 – 1784