How do words move us from Point A to Point B?Phillis Wheatley’s lines embody transit. Stolen from around present-day Gambia at seven years old, she came to America on the ship that tendered her name, the Phillis. Genteel Bostonians John and Susan Wheatley purchased the young slave and let her read. Phillis showed an aptitude for poetry. Her odes and death-bed tributes caught the attention of John and Susan’s white friends. Poems traveled the abolitionist circuits. Phillis Wheatley journeyed to London in 1771, and two years later, upon her return to Boston, her signature book appeared, Poems on Various Subjects, Various and Moral.
This volume marks the gap between worlds, the distance between Point A and Point B, the ocean between private thoughts and public authorial persona. Was it a nice day, June Jordan once asked. Behind the conventions, students long for–but never quite get–the honest, authentic voice they expect of post-romantic writers. Her frequently anthologized “On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA” opens with the jarring, “‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land ….” What mercies she experienced aboard the slave ship Phillis remain lost to us, leading students to read the line as sarcastic. To do so, however, undersells the promise of Redemption that threads throughout her work, the prospect of Christian reward that fused Methodist revivalism with progressive reform. Power in the spirit gave Wheatley a voice, and eighteenth-century readers who caught the bound irony in “mercy” also had to measure the long journey–spiritually, literally–that Wheatley’s words traveled.
Nearly every one of the 39 poems in Wheatley’s signature volume holds some allusion to transit, travel or flight. The poet is never far from a visual prospect, some point of moral elevation pointing readers to a realm beyond slavery and sin. An ode to Scipio Moorhead, an African painter living in Boston, speaks from one black artist to another. The poet directs her colleague’s inspiration to the heavens:
Calm and serene thy moments glide along,
And may the muse inspire each future song!
Still with the sweets of contemplation bless’d,
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!
Seraphs and pinions, angel wings and heavenly flight. The unjustly overlooked “To S.M.” deserves particular attention because Moorhead provided our one image of Wheatley, what became the frontispiece of her book. A proposed Boston edition was not to include “To S.M.” but when the book did appear in London, critic Kirstin Wilcox notes, additions such as “To S.M.” ramped up the volume’s “emancipatory dimension.”
In Moorhead’s illustration, Wheatley holds a feathered quill in her right hand. The frontispiece has words encircling her image, a semantic chain that seems to contain her: “Phillis Wheatley Negro Servant of Mr. John Wheatley of Boston.” John Wheatley’s influence shows in the caption (the word “servant,” instead of slave, softens her condition) but the image itself suggests otherwise. The quill serves as more than mere convention; alongside the ode to Moorhead, the plumed pen outlines a plan of spiritual escape.
The poet gazes upward. For inspiration? Or to Heaven? The book on her table casts an improbable shadow, as if levitating. A breeze ruffles the corner of one page. Wheatley is posed to rise. Her wingback chair puns as angel wings, “balmy” pinions that free the artist from slavery and sin. Moorhead doubles Spirit and freedom. The poet can all but slip beyond the verbal chain of servitude that encircle her. Two hundred years later we find her still, quill poised in mid-verse, with promise for America, an eternal ethereal presence, ready to fly away.