October 18

Phillis Wheatley: Freed by Imagination

On the 18th of October 1775, African-American poet Phillis Wheatley was freed from slavery. Born in Senegal in 1753, Phillis was kidnapped and brought to Boston at at the age of 8 on a 1761 slave ship. There, she had the fortune of being purchased by John Wheatley as a personal servant to his wife Susanna. Instead of training her as a servant, due to her poor health and emerging intelligence, the Wheatleys started educating Phillis in classical languages, history, literature, mythology. She published her first poem at the age of 12 in the local paper. Phillis expressed her gratitude to the family who changed her fate by introducing her to theology and a varied schooling:

‘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 color is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Wheatley was a total exception to the norm in a day and age when black servants had few or no rights. Poems on Various Subjects (1773), financed by her mistress, was the first ever volume of poems published by an African-American person in the U.S. and the third American woman ever. In the preface, seventeen Boston men had to certify that she was indeed the author, such was the credibility of a black woman in 18th century America. After some travelling to London following her success, Phillis returned to the U.S. and married a free black man, but all their three children died in infancy. Her protectors, Mr and Mrs Wheatley, passed away too and she was forced to return to work as a maid in a boarding house. She continued writing but she found no publishers for her second book. She died of illness as a young woman of only 31 after a tumultuous life of ups and downs, but left a strong legacy for changing racial attitudes in a Revolutionary era.

In Wheatley’s Poetics of Liberation: Backgrounds and Contexts (2008), John C. Shields demonstrated that although she was probably not the greatest poet, her originality came from a relatively short period of assimilation of various intellectual traditions, turning these into a unique vision. Shields identified three stages in her progress: her youth poetry, while she strived for white acceptance, a more mature phase, where by not finding publishers there was an inward turn  to contemplation and self-study i.e. poems such as On Imagination (1773); and, after her manumission (or freeing from slavery), a more confident, public and aggressive stance.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect in Wheatley’s writing is the parallel of her liberation from slavery and the release of her imagination or inner freedom. At the same time, there is a distinctive sense of agency or her realisation of having some power over her own destiny. In Phillis Wheatley and the Romantics (2010), Shields compared the romanticism of the poem On Imagination to John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale (1819) in the sense that in both imagination helps recreate an idyllic mythical world, but which provides only temporary escape from reality. In Wheatley’s case, more than any other white free male poet’s case, the romantic similes acquire stronger visual connotations: fetters become real chains or shackles and the role of imagination can be seen quite literally as liberator from captivity.

On Imagination
Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck’d with pomp by thee!
Thy wond’rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.
From Helicon’s refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.
Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov’d objects strikes her wand’ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.