On this day in 1767: Phillis Wheatley’s first published poem appeared in print
Phillis Wheatley, a 13-year-old enslaved African girl, had the first of her many poems published on December 21, 1767. "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin" was printed in the Rhode Island Newport Mercury.
History does not know the real name of the girl kidnapped from Senegal (it is believed) when she was 7 or 8 years old. Phillis is the name of the slave ship that brought her to Boston. Wheatley is the name of the man who purchased her for his wife. The Wheatleys taught Phillis to read and write, unusual for slave holders. They recognized her talents enough to provide her with additional learning and encouraged her writing. Mrs. Wheatley, especially, championed Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, if not her freedom. Wheatley earned widespread recognition with An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine…George Whitefield. Although recognized for her poetry and finally manumitted in 1773 after the death of Mr. Wheatley and toward the end of Mrs. Wheatley’s life, Phillis Wheatley died in poverty. In addition to her poetry, she is remembered for her opposition to slavery on the grounds—and as living proof—that Africans were not an inferior race.
Here is the poem, which she wrote after hearing an account to of the two men’s harrowing adventure.
On Messrs. Hussey and Coffinby Phillis Wheatley
Did Fear and Danger so perplex your Mind,
As made you fearful of the Whistling Wind?
Was it not Boreas knit his angry Brow
Against you? or did Consideration bow?
To lend you Aid, did not his Winds combine?
To stop your passage with a churlish Line,
Did haughty Eolus with Contempt look down
With Aspect windy, and a study'd Frown?
Regard them not; — the Great Supreme, the Wise,
Intends for something hidden from our Eyes.
Suppose the groundless Gulph had snatch'd away
Hussey and Coffin to the raging Sea;
Where wou'd they go? where wou'd be their Abode?
With the supreme and independent God,
Or made their Beds down in the Shades below,
Where neither Pleasure nor Content can flow.
To Heaven their Souls with eager Raptures soar,
Enjoy the Bliss of him they wou'd adore.
Had the soft gliding Streams of Grace been near,
Some favourite Hope their fainting hearts to cheer,
Doubtless the Fear of Danger far had fled:
No more repeated Victory crown their Heads.
Had I the Tongue of a Seraphim, how would I exalt thy Praise; thy Name as Incense to the Heavens should fly, and the Remembrance of thy Goodness to the shoreless Ocean of Beatitude! — Then should the Earth glow with seraphick Ardour.
Blest Soul, which sees the Day while Light doth shine,
To guide his Steps to trace the Mark divine.