Phillis Wheatley’s Revolution

She had words,

from a birth language, spoken by a birth family, who gave her a birth name.

Thieves tore almost everything from her, endeavoring to replace the originals with cheap imitations—like the new name they chose for her, from the boat that abducted her (The Phillis) and the family that enslaved her (Wheatley).

But they couldn’t sever her words.

And she mastered new ones (English, Latin, Greek)—

Revolutionary words:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?1

Transcendent words:

ARISE, my soul, on wings enraptur’d, rise
To praise the monarch of the earth and skies,
Whose goodness and benificence appear
As round its centre moves the rolling year,
Or when the morning glows with rosy charms,
Or the sun slumbers in the ocean’s arms:
Of light divine be a rich portion lent
To guide my soul, and favour my intend.
Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!

Ador’d for ever be the God unseen,
Which round the sun revolves this vast machine,
Though to his eye its mass a point appears:
Ador’d the God that whirls surrounding spheres,
Which first ordain’d that mighty Sol should reign
The peerless monarch of th’ ethereal train:
Of miles twice forty millions is his height,
And yet his radiance dazzles mortal sight
So far beneath—from him th’ extended earth
Vigour derives, and ev’ry flow’ry birth:
Vast through her orb she moves with easy grace
Around her Phoebus in unbounded space;
True to her course th’ impetuous storm derides,
Triumphant o’er the winds, and surging tides.2

Her words,

revolutionary and transcendent,

gifted to a world that tried—but failed—to keep her.

 

For more on Phillis Wheatley and her words, click here.

1 From “To the Right Hon. William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for North-America.” For the complete poem, click here.

From “Thoughts on the Works of Providence“ in Phillis Wheatley’s book, Poems On Various Subjects, Religious & Moral. Notably published in England where Wheatley traveled, hers was the first book published by a black American. For the complete poem, click here.

*Her Voice, Her Story image created by Sakura for The Mudroom.

Nichole Woo
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