The young girl who was to become Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped and taken to Boston on a slave ship in 1761 and purchased by a tailor, John Wheatley, as a personal servant for his wife, Susanna. She was treated kindly in the Wheatley household, almost as a third child. The Wheatleys soon recognized her talents and gave her privileges unusual for a slave, allowing her to learn to read and write. In less than two years, under the tutelage of Susanna and her daughter, Phillis had mastered English; she went on to learn Greek and Latin and caused a stir among Boston scholars by translating a tale from Ovid. Beginning in her early teens she wrote exceptionally mature, if conventional, verse that was stylistically influenced by Neoclassical poets such as Alexander Pope and was largely concerned with morality, piety, and freedom.
Wheatley’s first poem to appear in print was “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” (1767), but she did not become widely known until the publication of “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine…George Whitefield” (1770), a tribute to Whitefield, a popular preacher with whom she may have been personally acquainted. The piece is typical of Wheatley’s poetic oeuvre both in its formal reliance on couplets and in its genre; more than one-third of her extant works are elegies to prominent figures or friends. A number of her other poems celebrate the nascent United States of America, whose struggle for independence was sometimes employed as a metaphor for spiritual or, more subtly, racial freedom. Though Wheatley generally avoided the topic of slavery in her poetry, her best-known work, “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (written 1768), contains a mild rebuke toward some white readers: “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain / May be refined, and join th’ angelic train.” Other notable poems include “To the University of Cambridge, in New England” (written 1767), “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” (written 1768), and “On the Death of Rev. Dr. Sewall” (written 1769).