Portrait of the Poet

February 1, 2016, Prescott-

The Winter Scavenger Hunt prompt says “artist”, not “poet”, but a poet IS an artist.

Today begins the month “officially” set aside as Black History Month.  African-Americans certainly are not limited to any given point along a year, in terms of their impact on our nation’s history.  Yet, why quibble?  We do well to reach as far back as possible, in comprehending the spirit and drive that gives each individual, regardless of ethnicity or melanin level, the capacity for great achievement.

The first published African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley, was brought to Boston at the age of 8, from either Gambia or Senegal.  She was given the name Phillis by her captor, Peter Gwinn, and sold as a slave to a tailor named John Wheatley.  The Wheatley family taught Phillis to read and write, encouraging her to study the Classics.

Phillis began to write her own poetry at the age of 14.  She drew the favourable attention of both British and American leaders of both politics and thought, having audiences with the Lord Mayor of London and George Washington.  Thomas Paine published her work in the Pennsylvania Gazette, and she drew favourable commentary from Voltaire.

Things went sour for Phillis, after her master died.  Though she was freed, under the terms of his will, and married a Free African-American grocer, John Peters, the prevailing view of society was not favourable towards African-Americans.  The Peters’ struggled financially, John was imprisoned, in 1784 and Phillis, along with their infant son, died shortly thereafter, she being only 31.

Here is a sample of her poetry, which drew on both Christian and animist influences, as well as ancient Greek and European Enlightenment thought.

“On Virtue”

O Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
Thine height t’ explore, or fathom thy profound.
But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
Fain would the heav’n-born soul with her converse,
Then seek, then court her for her promis’d bliss.

Auspicious queen, thine heav’nly pinions spread,
And lead celestial Chastity along;
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,
Array’d in glory from the orbs above.
Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee,
To give me an higher appellation still,
Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay,
O thou, enthron’d with Cherubs in the realms of day.[9]

Phillis had conflicting feelings about slavery, recognizing, on one level that it was the cruelest of institutions, while simultaneously expressing the view that captivity had served her well, by bringing her to Christianity.

In any event, I see Phillis Wheatley as the first great African-American woman, in public life.

9 thoughts on “Portrait of the Poet

  1. Interesting to me how you can be living amidst deep injustice and question right and wrong yet I believe this is true. When I’m in the middle of something, I always question my perceptions. Honestly, I had never applied that to slaves. Of course, it would seem true that it wasn’t always clear what was happening. This complicated by PTSD and blaming the victim. Fascinating, Gary.

    • I first learned of Phillis during a survey course on American Literature Before 1850, when I was a student in a community college. Her story fascinated me then, and now. I envision a biopic, in which she is played, as a child by Quvenzhane Wallis, and as a woman by Kerry Washington.

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