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No. 620:
Phillis Wheatley

Today, we meet a Colonial prodigy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's 1772. We show an 18-year-old girl into a room for an oral examination. Boston's most prominent citizens sit in a circle. Among them are the governor of Massachusetts and John Hancock, who will soon sign the Declaration of Independence.

The girl is Phillis, a slave of John Wheatley. Wheatley bought her nine years ago to be a companion for his wife. She tutored Phillis. By the age of 12, Phillis had mastered English, literature, the classics, and more. Then she took up poetry.

Now, six years later, she's finished a book of poetry. That seems so unlikely that Boston's elders have gathered to see whether she really is the author. Phillis Wheatley passes the exam solidly. The elders write an affidavit for her book. It says,

We whose names are under-written, do assure the world that these poems ... were written by Phillis, a Negro girl, who was but a few years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa ...

And there sits that John Hancock signature we all know so well.

Some Phillis Wheatley scholars have treated her as an accident of nature. Others make her part of the civil rights cause. Some activists call her an Uncle Tom. She was none of the above.

She was simply a teenage prodigy. She loved the classics. She loved learning. She loved the cadences of Alexander Pope. Here she writes to Maecenas, a famous Roman patron of the arts:

Maecenas, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o'er what poets sung, and shepherds play'd.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?

She makes a muted bid for human rights in her Hymn to Humanity. It's not a frontal attack, but then she is still a slave:

Divine Humanity behold,
What wonders rise, what charms unfold
At his descent to earth!

Phillis's poetry was good. It certainly wasn't great. It was typical of the best from our Colonial outback in those days. But she was 18, and who writes great poetry at the age of only 18?

In 1773 Wheatley's son Nathaniel went to London on business. He took Phillis along to see to the publication of her book. The Wheatleys also freed her from slavery that summer.

She came back to America and married in 1774. Her three children all died before she did, and she lived only to the age of 31. Her last days were hard. Her last poem has the hard edge we missed in her youthful book. It begins,

O DEATH! whose sceptre, trembling realms obey,
And weeping millions mourn thy savage sway;
Say, shall we call thee by the name of friend,
Who blasts our joys and bids our glories end?

So ends Phillis Wheatley's short flight in the sun. She leaves us wishing we could have watched that mind ripen and mature -- in real freedom.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Mason, J. D., Jr. The Poems of Phillis Wheatley. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Wheatley, P., Phillis Wheatley (Phillis Peters), Poems and Letters (Chas. Fred Heartman, ed.). Miami: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., Inc., 1969.

Wheatley, P., The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (John C. Shields, ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


From the frontispiece of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. 1773