Although other African Americans published individual poems before her, Phillis Wheatley is often regarded as the first African American poet. In 1773 she became the first black American to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Wheatley was born on the west coast of Africa, probably in 1753. At age seven or eight, she was kidnapped from her parents’ home, sold to slave traders, and brought to America. John Wheatley, a prosperous tailor, and his wife, Susannah, purchased the slave girl at a Boston slave market in 1761 and gave her the name Phillis. She became Mrs. Wheatley’s personal maid.
The Wheatleys were strict Methodists who attempted to turn their slaves into literate and cultured Christians. Within eighteen months of her purchase, Phillis Wheatley had learned to speak, read, and write in English and had begun to study Latin as well. At an early age, she was exposed to the Bible, the classical Greek and Roman works, and contemporary British poets. While still in her teens, with her masters’ encouragement, Wheatley began to write poems.
At age fourteen, Wheatley published her first poem in a Newport, Rhode Island, newspaper. The elegy “On the Death of Mr. George Whitefield” appeared in 1770 and brought the young poet some recognition. The poem was included in Poems on Various Subjects, first published in London in 1773. That volume of thirty-eight poems brought Wheatley widespread attention. She became known as the “sable muse” and was cited in England and America as an example of the impressive intellectual potential of African slaves.
The volume comprises religious poems, elegies, and historical poems, written, for the most part, in the neoclassical style of eighteenth century British and colonial writers. Most of the poems consist of series of rhyming couplets reminiscent of those of Alexander Pope, the British poet whom Wheatley greatly admired.
The elegies are generally considered the finest poems in Poems on Various Subjects, the best ones rivaling those of an earlier colonial poet, Anne...
(The entire section is 875 words.)