Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was born in West Africa and came to the New World on a slave ship. She was both purchased and eventually freed by Boston commercialist John Wheatley. Phillis was part of a group of refugee slaves who were too young or frail for rigorous labor. She did housework for the Wheatleys. They noticed Phillis’s brilliance and educated her in the Bible and classics in English, Latin, Greek. She was particularly fond of the works of John Milton and Alexander Pope.
Phillis started writing poems when she was close to thirteen years old. By the time she was eighteen, she had a collection of poetry that was ready for publication. Because no American publishing companies would print her book, the Wheatleys helped Phillis contact a British bookseller Archibald Bell, who was supported by abolitionists. Phillis traveled to London in 1771 to publish Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. While she was in England, she met many influential abolitionists, philanthropists, and officials. Her book, the first volume of poetry by an African American in modern times, was published as she returned home.
Wheatley is known for classical and neoclassical techniques, Biblical references, and her extensive use of the couplet form in writing elegies and other poems. Her voice is unique, as is her story. Phillis was released from slavery in 1774, but she continued living with and working for the Wheatleys. As they passed away, Phillis’s world changed drastically; her life became much less comfortable. She continued writing, but the post-revolutionary period was unfriendly to free people of color, and both work and money were scared. She died in abject poverty.
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