Poems by a prodigy and a slave

One of the first American women to become a published author, Phillis Wheatley was both a prodigy and a slave.

Captured in her native Senegal at the tender age of seven and named after the ship that transported her to Boston in 1753, Phillis landed in the household of Susanna and John Wheatley. The Wheatleys recognized the intellectual abilities of their tiny domestic servant, who they discovered writing letters in chalk on the wall. They taught her to read and write and exposed her to a wide range of educational material.

Though they never excused her from her household duties, the Wheatleys did support her gift and, with their encouragement, she published her first poem in 1767, becoming the first African American and only the second female published author in the United States.

She achieved fame as a poet throughout New England and overseas and published an anthology called Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral in 1773.

The Wheatleys eventually freed Phillis, who continued to write poetry but struggled to support herself and her family. Though she died destitute in 1784, her poetry lives on.

In honor of both Ms. Wheatley and Juneteenth, here is one of her lovely poems.

A Hymn to the Evening

Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.

Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev’ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!

Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.

Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.

With the support of the Wheatleys, she published her first book of poetry in 1773.

Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread! But the west glories in the deepest red:

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