Complete Writings

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In 1761, a young girl arrived in Boston on a slave ship, sold to the Wheatley family, and given the name Phillis Wheatley. Struck by Phillis' extraordinary precociousness, the Wheatleys provided her with an education that was unusual for a woman of the time and astonishing for a slave. After studying English and classical literature, geography, the Bible, and Latin, Phillis published her first poem in 1767 at the age of 14, winning much public attention and considerable fame. When Boston publishers who doubted ...

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Complete Writings

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In 1761, a young girl arrived in Boston on a slave ship, sold to the Wheatley family, and given the name Phillis Wheatley. Struck by Phillis' extraordinary precociousness, the Wheatleys provided her with an education that was unusual for a woman of the time and astonishing for a slave. After studying English and classical literature, geography, the Bible, and Latin, Phillis published her first poem in 1767 at the age of 14, winning much public attention and considerable fame. When Boston publishers who doubted its authenticity rejected an initial collection of her poetry, Wheatley sailed to London in 1773 and found a publisher there for Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

This volume collects both Wheatley's letters and her poetry: hymns, elegies, translations, philosophical poems, tales, and epyllions—including a poignant plea to the Earl of Dartmouth urging freedom for America and comparing the country's condition to her own. With her contemplative elegies and her use of the poetic imagination to escape an unsatisfactory world, Wheatley anticipated the Romantic Movement of the following century. The appendices to this edition include poems of Wheatley's contemporary African-American poets: Lucy Terry, Jupiter Harmon, and Francis Williams.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"What a marvelous edition of Phillis Wheatley's COMPLETE WRITINGS Vincent Carretta has produced for Penguin Classics. Here are all her poems including extant verse not included in her first volume as well as variants of others. Here are also her letters and the important proposals for her volumes of poetry. Additionally, Carretta has added work by her black contemporaries Lucy Terry Prince, Jupiter Hammon, and Francis Williams to help readers contextualize black literary activity in the late eighteenth century. Carretta has also written an illuminating introduction and included suggestions for further read and notes. In short, this is a fantastic edition for the specialist, the student, and the informed general reader. It will be widely used." —Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, Univ of Arkansas at Little Rock

"Vincent Carretta's edition of the works of Phillis Wheatley is the definitive collection of her work. Expertly edited, it is a masterpiece of textual scholarship. Every scholar and student seeking to understand Wheatley's life and work will want to obtain this book." —Henry Louis Gates

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140424300
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Series: Penguin Classics Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 431,245
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Phillis Wheatley(1753?-1784) was born in western Africa, most likely in present-day Gambia or Ghana. Having failed to find an American publisher for a second volume of her works, Wheatley died in Boston largely forgotten and impoverished.

Vincent Carretta is professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the editor of the Penguin Classics editions of the Complete Writings of Phillis Wheatley, Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, and Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings by Ottobah Cugoano.

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Title Page

Copyright Page



















Destined to become the first published woman of African descent, Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 somewhere in West Africa, probably between present-day Gambia and Ghana. She was taken to Boston aboard the slave ship Phillis in 1761 and bought by John and Susanna Wheatley, who employed her as a domestic servant. Encouraged by her mistress, Phillis quickly became literate and began writing poetry that soon found its way into Boston newspapers.

Phillis Wheatley gained international recognition with her 1770 funeral elegy on the death of the evangelist George Whitefield, addressed to his English patron, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, and published in London and Boston in 1771. By 1772 Wheatley had written enough poems to enable her to try to capitalize on her growing transatlantic reputation by producing a book of previously published and new works. Unable to find a publisher in Boston, Susanna and Phillis Wheatley successfully sought a London publisher and Huntingdon’s patronage.

Having spent several weeks in London with her master’s son in 1773 before the publication there of her Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral, Phillis Wheatley returned to Boston to nurse her ailing mistress. Once there, she was soon freed, “at the desire of my friends in England.” Wheatley’s Poems earned the praise of fellow black writers Jupiter Hammon and Ignatius Sancho. Even Thomas Jefferson begrudgingly acknowledged her literary efforts.

The last years of Wheatley’s life were marked by personal and financial loss. On April 1, 1778, she married John Peters, a free black who subsequently changed occupations frequently and was often in debt. They had three children, who all died very young. Having failed to find a publisher for her proposed second volume of poems, Phillis Wheatley Peters died in poverty in Boston on December 5, 1784. She was buried in an unmarked grave with her youngest child on December 8.

Vincent Carretta is a professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. His publications include “The Snarling Muse”: Verbal and Visual Satire from Pope to Churchill (1983); George III and the Satirists from Hogarth to Byron (1990); and Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (1996); Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (1995); Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, An African (1998); and Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery and Other Writings (1999). Professor Carretta has also co-edited and contributed an essay on Equiano to “Genius in Bondage” (2001), a collection of essays on early English-speaking transatlantic writers of African descent.


Published by the Penguin Group

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Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia

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Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:

Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England


First published in Penguin Books 2001



Selection, introduction, and notes copyright © Vincent Carretta, 2001

All rights reserved


CIP data available

eISBN : 978-1-440-67289-7




Born around 1753 somewhere in west Africa, probably between present-day Gambia and Ghana, the little girl who would become Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761, aboard the Phillis, a slave ship commanded by captain Peter Gwin and owned by Timothy Fitch. At the time, approximately one thousand of Boston’s more than fifteen thousand residents were slaves, with perhaps twenty free people of African descent in the total population. About seven or eight years old (her front teeth were missing), the sickly child was soon bought from the slave dealer John Avery by John Wheatley, a prosperous Boston merchant, for his wife, Susanna. Named after her new owners and the vessel that had brought her to America, Phillis Wheatley was taken to the Wheatley home at the corner of King Street and Makerel Lane (present-day State and Kilby Streets) to help the Wheatleys’ few other domestic slaves care for their mistress and master, as well as their eighteen-year-old twins, Mary and Nathaniel. The Wheatleys were members of the New South Congregational Church. Susanna was also an active supporter of the evangelical missions of the Calvinist Methodist minister George Whitefield and others. John was gradually turning over to his son the management of his real estate, warehouse, wharf, and wholesale businesses, and the London Packet, a three-masted schooner, used to trade between Boston and London.

Mainly through the tutelage of Mary Wheatley, the obviously precocious Phillis gained an extraordinary education for a woman of the time, and an unprecedented one for a female slave. According to John Wheatley, within sixteen months Phillis was proficient enough in the English language to be able to read even “the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings.” She was taught English and Classical literature (especially poetry), geography, and history, as well as the Bible, some Latin, and Christianity. Her poems and letters show that she became familiar with works by Alexander Pope (her principal poetic model for the use of heroic couplets), John Milton (her most admired modern poet), William Shenstone, Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Terence, and Homer (the last through Pope’s translations). None of Wheatley’s surviving writings, however, indicates a familiarity with Classical sources that could not have been gained from translations alone.

Phillis’s first known piece of writing, a now-lost letter to the Mohegan minister, Samson Occom, was written in 1765, when she was about twelve years old. A Wheatley family friend, Occom had gone with Nathaniel Whitaker, another minister, to England and Scotland in 1766 to raise money for the education of Occom’s fellow Native Americans in New England. The school that resulted from their efforts was Dartmouth College, named after William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, another of Phillis’s correspondents and the subject of one of her poems. Her first published work, the poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” appeared on December 21, 1767, in a newspaper, the Newport Mercury, no doubt through the support and contacts of Susanna Wheatley. The poem’s combination of Christian piety and Classical allusions anticipates the themes and expression found in most of her subsequent verse. The subscription proposal for Phillis’s first volume of poetry indicates that she was composing poetry as early as 1765. The surviving variant versions of many of her poems demonstrate her desire to improve her verses and her ability to fit them for various audiences. For the next several years, Phillis published a number of occasional poems, that is, poems on recent events, culminating in her 1770 funeral elegy addressed to Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, on the death of her chaplain, Whitefield. Wheatley probably heard Whitefield at least one of the four times he preached at the Old South Church in August 1770, a month before his sudden death in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Since Susanna Wheatley corresponded with the Countess, Whitefield may well have been a guest in the Wheatley house. On August 18, 1771, Phillis was baptized by Samuel Cooper into the Congregationalist Old South Church (not the Wheatley family church).

Phillis Wheatley’s elegy brought her both international fame and the Countess’s attention when it was published in London, as well as in Boston, in 1771. Her reputation was reinforced by the publication of her poem “Recollection,” initially in March 1772, in the London Magazine: Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer, and subsequently in both American and English periodicals. Wheatley’s community of women supporters soon extended beyond her American and English patrons to include her fellow Bostonian poet, Jane Dunlap. In her Poems Upon Several Sermons Preached by the Rev’d and Renowned George Whitefield While in Boston (Boston, 1771), Dunlap mentions Wheatley’s elegy, referring to “a young Afric damsel’s virgin tongue.” In An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlement in America, upon Slave-Keeping (Boston, 1773), mistaking her status and how long she had been “in the country,” Benjamin Rush observed that “[t]here is now in the town of Boston a Free Negro Girl, about 18 years of age, who has been but 9 [sic] years in the country, whose singular genius and accomplishments are such as not only do honor to her sex, but to human nature. Several of her poems have been printed, and read with pleasure by the public.” In France, Voltaire told Baron Constant de Rebecq in a 1774 letter than Wheatley’s very fine English verse disproved Fontenelle’s contention that no black poets existed. Wheatley, however, was neither the first black woman poet, the first published black poet, nor the first black poet to gain international notice in British America. Those honors belong, respectively, to Lucy Terry, whose poetry remained unpublished until the nineteenth century; Jupiter Hammon, who published his first poem at the end of 1760; and Francis Williams, who wrote poetry in Latin. (The poems of Terry, Hammon, and Williams are included in the Appendices to this Penguin edition.) But in contemporaneous and subsequent recognition, reputation, and influence Wheatley far surpassed her black predecessors, whose works she appears not to have known: unpublished, Terry was almost completely unknown until the following century; never published in London, Hammon remained a provincial poet; and unpublished and untranslated, Williams was largely unknown and inaccessible, especially before 1774.

By 1772 Wheatley had written enough poems to enable her to try to capitalize on her growing transatlantic reputation by producing a book of previously published and new verse. Consequently, subscriptions were solicited, probably by Susanna Wheatley, in the Boston Censor on February 29, March 14, and April 18, 1772, for a proposed volume of Phillis’s poems to be published in Boston. Unfortunately, despite Wheatley’s local reputation as a poet, sufficient support for the project was lacking. Having failed to find backing in Boston, Susanna turned to London for a publisher, using Robert Calef, captain of the Wheatleys’ London Packet, to seek out Archibald Bell, a relatively minor publisher and bookseller of primarily religious texts in the City of London, in the fall of 1772. Bell agreed to publish Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, on the condition that the volume be prefaced by a document signed by Boston worthies certifying the authenticity of the poems for an English audience. Through Bell, Wheatley gained the patronage of the Countess of Huntingdon, who agreed to allow Phillis to dedicate the book to her. As Phillis and her mistress knew, Huntingdon had already sponsored the publication of James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s A Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of ... an African Prince, as Related by Himself, published in Bath at the end of 1772. Huntingdon subsequently supported the publication of religiously oriented works by other black authors, including John Marrant’s A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black ... Taken down from His Own Relation (London, 1785), and Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (London, 1789). Gronniosaw, Marrant, and Equiano all knew Whitefield, as well as Huntingdon, having heard him preach, either in England or during one of his seven trips to North America. In a letter Wheatley wrote to Huntingdon during her six-week visit to London, she acknowledges Gronniosaw as her literary predecessor, thus recognizing a tradition of English-speaking writers of African descent, as well as Huntingdon’s role in enabling such writers to gain access to print.

Wheatley went to England to recover her health, to meet her aristocratic patron, and presumably to see her book through the press. She achieved none of those goals. After Susanna Wheatley had written to the Countess asking her advice about finding proper housing for Phillis in London, Phillis left Boston with captain Calef aboard the London Packet on May 8, 1773. They reached London on June 17, just as the publicity campaign for the forthcoming book, coordinated by Susanna Wheatley and Bell, was beginning in the London press. Before she had a chance to meet the Countess, who had retired to her home in Wales for reasons of health, and before her Poems was published, Wheatley left England with Calef on July 26 to return to Boston to nurse her ailing mistress.

Soon after Phillis left Boston for London, a copy of her poem “A Farewel to America” appeared in The London Chronicle, with a cover note to be published with the poem, intended to stimulate interest in the soon-to-be-published volume, and indicating that Phillis was already known to English readers:



You have no doubt heard of Phillis the extraordinary negro girl here [i.e., Boston], who has by her own application, unassisted by others, cultivated her natural talents for poetry in such a manner as to write several pieces which (all circumstances considered) have great merit. This girl, who is a servant to Mr. John Wheatley of this place, sailed last Saturday for London, under the protection of Mr. Nathaniel Wheatley; since which the following little piece of her’s [sic] has been published.


Although advertisements for the book itself began to appear in London newspapers as early as the 6 August notice in The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, Wheatley’s Poems was not registered by Archibald Bell with the Stationers’ Company to protect his copyright until September 10. As the remarkable advertisement in The London Chronicle and The Morning Post and Daily Advertiser attests, Poems, the first book by an English-speaking black writer, went on sale the following day, while Wheatley was still at sea:


Dedicated, by Permission, to the Right Hon. the Countess of Huntingdon. This day, Sept. 11, will be published, Price Two Shillings, sewed, or Two Shillings and sixpence neatly bound, adorned with an elegant engraved like-ness of the Author. A Volume of POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS: RELIGIOUS AND MORAL. By PHILLIS WHEATLEY, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston. London: Printed for A. Bell, Bookseller, Aldgate; and at Boston, for Messrs. Cox and Berry, in King Street. To the Public. The Book here proposed for publication displays perhaps one of the greatest instances of pure, unassisted genius, that the world ever produced. The Author is a native of Africa, and left not that dark part of the habitable system, till she was eight years old. She is now no more than nineteen, and many of the Poems were penned before she arrived at near that age.

They were wrote upon a variety of interesting subjects, and in a stile rather to have been expected from those who, a native genius, have had the happiness of a liberal education, than from one born in the wilds of Africa.

The writer while in England a few weeks since, was conversed with by many of the principal Nobility and Gentry of this Country, who have been signally distinguished for their learning and abilities, among whom was the Earl of Dartmouth, the late Lord Lyttelton, and others who unanimously expressed their amazement at the gifts with which infinite Wisdom has furnished her.

But the Publisher means not, in this advertisement, to deliver any peculiar eulogiums on the present publication; he rather desires to submit the striking beauties of its contents to the unabashed candour of the impartial public.


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Table of Contents

Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Vincent Carretta

Introduction by Vincent Carretta
Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on Money
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
Copy of a LETTER sent by the Author's Master to the Publisher.
To the University of CAMBRIDGE, in NEW-ENGLAND.
To the KING'S Most Excellent Majesty. 1768.
On being brought from AFRICA to AMERICA.
On the Death of the Rev. Dr. SEWELL. 1769.
On the Death of the Rev. Mr. GEORGE WHITEFIELD. 1770.
On the Death of a young Lady of Five Years of Age.
On the Death of a young Gentleman.
To a Lady on the Death of her Husband.
Thoughts on the WORKS of PROVIDENCE.
To a Lady on the Death of Three Relations.
To a Clergyman on the Death of his Lady.
Isaiah lxiii. 1-8.
A Funeral POEM on the Death of C.E. an Infant of Twelve Months.
To Captain H-D, of the 65th Regiment.
To the Right Honourable WILLIAM, Earl of DARTMOUTH, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North-America, &c.
ODE to NEPTUNE. On Mrs. W-'s Voyage to England.
To a LADY on her coming to North-America with her Son, for the Recovery of her Health.
To a LADY on her remarkable Preservation in an Hurricane in North-Carolina.
To a LADY and her Children, on the Death of her Son and their Brother.
To a GENTLEMAN and LADY, on the Death of the Lady's Brother and Sister, and a Child of the Name Avis, aged one Year.
On the Death of Dr. SAMUEL MARSHALL. 1771.
To a GENTLEMAN on his Voyage to Great-Britain for the Recovery of his Health.
To the Rev. Dr. THOMAS AMORY on reading his Sermons on DAILY DEVOTION, in which that Duty is recommended and assisted.
On the Death of J.C. an Infant.
To the Honourable T.H. Esq; on the Death of his Daughter.
NIOBE in Distress for her children slain by APOLLO, from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book VI. and from a view of the Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson.
To S.M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works.
To His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor, on the Death of his Lady. March 24, 1773.
A Farewel to AMERICA. To Mrs. S.W.
A REBUS, by I.B.
An ANSWER to the Rebus, by the Author of these POEMS.
Extant Poems Not Published in Poems on Various Subjects
An Address to the Atheist.
An Address to the Deist - 1767 -
On Messrs Hussey and Coffin.
To the Hon.ble Commodore Hood on his Pardoning a Deserter
On Friendship
On the Death of Mr. Snider Murder'd by Richardson
An ELEGY, To Miss. Mary Moorhead, on the DEATH of her Father, The Rev. Mr. JOHN MOORHEAD.
[To a Gentleman of the Navy.]
The Answer [By the Gentleman of the Navy.]
Philis's [sic] Reply to the Answer in our last by the Gentleman in the Navy.
To His Excellency General Washington.
On the Capture of General Lee
On the Death of General Wooster
To Mr. and Mrs.-, on the Death of their Infant Son
An Elegy Sacred to the Memory of the Rev'd Samuel Cooper, D.D.
An ELEGY on Leaving-.
Variants of Poems Published in Poems on Various Subjects
To the University of Cambridge, wrote in 1767-
To The King's Most Excellent Majesty on his Repealing the American Stamp Act
On the Decease of the Revd Doctr Sewall [variant 1].
On the Death of the rev'd Dr. Sewell [variant 2].
On the Decease of the Rev'd Doctr Sewall, 1769. [variant 3].-
AN ELEGIAC POEM, On the DEATH of that celebrated Divine, and eminent Servant of JESUS CHRIST, the late Reverend, and pious GEORGE WHITEFIELD, Chaplain to the Right Honourable the Countess of Huntingdon, &c &c. [variant 1].
An Ode of VERSES On the much-lamented Death of the REV. MR. GEORGE WHITEFIELD, Late Chaplain to the Countess of Huntingdon [variant 2].
To Mrs. Leonard, on the Death of her Husband.
On the Death of Dr. Samuel Marshall [variant 1].
On the Death of Doctor SAMUEL MARSHALL. [variant 2]
To the Rev. Mr. Pitkin, on the DEATH of his LADY.
A Poem the death of Charles Eliot aged 12 months. [variant 2]
To the Hon'ble Thomas Hubbard, Esq; On the Death of Mrs. Thankfull Leonard.
To the Empire of America, Beneath the Western Hemisphere. Farewell to America. To Mrs. S.W. [variant 1]
To the Countess of Huntingdon (October 25, 1770).
To Abigail May? (November or December 1771).
To John Thornton (April 21, 1772).
To Arbour Tanner (May 19, 1772).
To Arbour Tanner (July 19, 1772).
To the Earl of Dartmouth (October 10, 1772).
To the Countess of Huntingdon (June 27, 1773).
To the Countess of Huntingdon (July 17, 1773).
To David Worcester (October 18, 1773).
To Obour Tanner (October 30, 1773).
To John Thornton (December 1, 1773).
To the Reverend Samuel Hopkins (February 9, 1774).
To Samson Occom (February 11, 1774).
To Obour Tanner (March 21, 1774).
To John Thornton (March 29, 1774).
To Obour Tanner (May 6, 1774).
To the Reverend Samuel Hopkins (May 6, 1774).
To John Thornton (October 30, 1774).
To George Washington (October 26, 1775).
To Obour Tanner (May 29, 1778).
To Mary Wooster (July 15, 1778).
To Obour Tanner (May 10, 1779).
Variant Letters
To the Countess of Huntingdon (October 25, 1770).
To the Earl of Dartmouth (June 3, 1773).
Proposals for Volumes of Poetry
Proposal for Printing by Subscription (February 29, 1772).
Proposals (April 16, 1773)
Proposals (October 30, 1779).
Wheatley's Final Proposal (September 1784).

Appendix A: Possible Wheatley variant of "Hymn to Humanity"; Possible new Phillis Wheatley poem, "The Voice of Freedom"
Appendix B: Lucy Terry Prince: Bars Fight.
Appendix D: Francis Williams: An ODE.

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  • Posted May 2, 2009

    Essential American Poet

    If you are not familiar with this poet, she is an amazing discovery in early American literature! I highly recommend this author. This is a good, definitive edition of her complete works too.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2012


    Havent read yet but im doing a project on her and the book seems good

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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