The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Advanced Placement United States History Study Guide

Period 3: 1754-1800

Phillis Wheatley’s poem on tyranny and slavery, 1772

“To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth” by Phillis Wheatley, in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, London, 1773, page 73. (GLC06154)Born in Africa, Phillis Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery as a child. She was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston in 1761. The Wheatleys soon recognized Phillis’s intelligence and taught her to read and write. She became well known locally for her poetry. Through the Wheatley family, Phillis came into contact with many prominent figures.

In October 1772, Thomas Woolridge, a British businessman and supporter of William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, asked her to write a poem for Legge, who had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies. Entitled “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” the poem reflects the colonists’ hopes that Dartmouth would be less tyrannical than his predecessor. Wheatley then declares that her love of freedom comes from being a slave and describes being kidnapped from her parents, comparing the colonies’ relationship with England to a slave’s relationship with a slave holder:

 

 

    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?

This poem was printed in her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in London in 1773. With this book’s appearance, Wheatley became the first English-speaking person of African descent to publish a book.

Click here to read the complete poem. 

Excerpt

    . . . No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shall thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’enslave the land.

    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?

Discussion

liz_m wrote 28 weeks 5 days ago

Are there any important themes or symbols in the poem?

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