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
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
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:
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:
Maecenas, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o'er what poets sung, and shepherds
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
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?
Divine Humanity behold,
What wonders rise, what charms unfold
At his descent to earth!
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,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
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?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
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.,
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
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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