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In the Galleries: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley.
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784) was born in Africa and sold into slavery. At the age of seven or eight she was purchased by a Boston tailor, John Wheatley, for his wife. While in the Wheatley household, Wheatley learned to read and write. Within 16 months of her arrival, Wheatley said she could read “the most difficult part of the sacred writings.” She also read extensively from the poetry of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray, as well as classics from Ovid, Horace, and Virgil.

Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and in September 1773, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London. As the title suggests, Wheatley’s collected poems explored a variety of topics, from the well-known “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to elegies on the deaths of loved ones to a poem simply titled “On Imagination.” Two of these poems, “Goliath of Gath” and “Isaiah lxiii. 1-8,” incorporate the language of the King James Bible. This excerpt from “Isaiah” reveals the influence of the King James Version on Wheatley:

“Mine was the act,” th’ Almighty Saviour said,

And shook the dazzling glories of his head,

“When all forsook I trod the press alone,

“And conquer’d by omnipotence my own;

“For man’s release sustain’d the pond’rous load,

“For man the wrath of an immortal God:

“To execute th’ Eternal’s dread command

“My soul I sacrific’d with willing hand;

“Sinless I stood before the avenging frown,

“Atoning thus for vices not my own.”

Like Milton, Wheatley incorporated elements of classical literature into her poetry. Her retelling of the story of Goliath not only reproduced the language of the King James Bible but also followed the conventions of classical epic poetry. Wheatley’s poetry was largely forgotten after her death until abolitionists rediscovered and popularized her work in the 1830s.

Some of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and those of other poets inspired by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, through July 29.