Trial by Poetry: Phillis Wheatley and her Classical Inheritance

Thou who did'st first th' ideal pencil give,
And taught'st the painter in his works to live,
Inspire with glowing energy of thought,
What Wilson painted, and what Ovid wrote.
Muse! lend thy aid, nor let me sue in vain,
Tho' last and meanest of the rhyming train!
(Phillis Wheatley, Niobe in Distress)

Although little read today, the poems of Phillis Wheatley have commanded strong feeling through much of their history – from their initial publication in 1773, through the abolition of slavery during the nineteenth century and into the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and ’70s in America.

As the first African-American poet published in English, Wheatley’s work has been adopted as a symbol of anti-slavery sympathies, as well as vilified as the embodiment of voluntary submission to cultural imperialism, through imitation of Western literary forms. Only in the past few decades have scholars begun to read Phillis Wheatley as a poet in her own right, rather than as a representative for resistance to, or collaboration with, the culture of European and American slave-owners.

Born in Senegal in about 1753, Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped or sold in early childhood, and transported to Boston on a ship called the Phillis. On arrival she was purchased by the Wheatley family as a domestic slave and a companion to her mistress, Susanna Wheatley. Unusually for an African-American slave at this period, Phillis soon learned to read and write, and even studied a little Latin. At just thirteen years old she came to the attention of the Bostonian upper crust, when her poetry began to appear in local publications, and by the time she was fifteen Susanna Wheatley had collected Phillis’ work for publication. It was at this point that eighteen members of the aforementioned upper crust – clerics, poets and officials connected with Harvard University – assembled to determine whether Phillis was in fact the genuine author of her collection. The stakes were higher than this one girl’s merits as a poet: at the heart of this trial was the question, is an African slave sufficiently human to write poetry?

The attitude that poetry and intellectual accomplishment were characteristics of a certain level of humanity – one not open to non-European peoples – was widespread at this period. Thus the infamous declaration attributed to the American politician John C. Calhoun: “Show me a nigger who can parse a Greek verb, and I’ll admit he’s a human being.” Wheatley challenged such racial and artistic restrictions not simply by writing poetry, but by immersing herself in Western literary tradition, demonstrating her knowledge of Classical authors such as Virgil, Ovid and Homer, as well as an astute ability to imitate neo-Classical English poets of an earlier generation, most prominent among them Alexander Pope.

Most notable as an illustration of her Classical learning is Wheatley’s To Maecenas, an ode ostensibly addressed to the celebrated art patron of ancient Rome, Maecenas.  This poem is typical of neo-Classical verse in its dense allusion to Classical literature: Wheatley describes Virgil’s verses as “heav’nly numbers” – a metonymic reference to poetry by its metre, familiar from ancient authors (see especially the poems in Ovid’s Amores 1) – and begs inspiration from the Nine Muses, who dwell on “tow’ring Helicon.”

The entire poem is a request to Maecenas, asking him to “hear me propitious, and defend my lays.” In making her request, Wheatley adopts the stance typical of Roman poets in relation to their patrons, as a submissive and inferior poet begging her master for his favour and artistic support. The first half of the poem evokes Homer as “Great Sire of verse,” and then Virgil as “Mantuan Sage” and favourite of the Muses of poetry. In the second half, our poet returns to herself: unlike her addressee and the Roman poets, she “cannot raise the song,/ The fault’ring music dies upon my tongue.” Yet, she then asks, why is it that Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, an African-Roman playwright of the second century BCE) should “alone of Afric’s sable race” be recognised as a poet and integrated into the Western literary tradition?

The “grov’ling” posture of the poet was an important theme in Roman literature. The earliest remembered Latin authors (Ennius, Livius Andronicus, Plautus and Terence) were thought to be slaves or freedmen, often captured from foreign cities and imported to Rome as teachers of Greek literary culture. By the fall of the Roman Republic in the first century BCE, many Latin writers were freeborn, but in poems addressed to the patrons who sponsored them they often adopted the persona of a slave. During the early years of imperial autocracy (particularly the first century CE), the emperor took over much of the power that had previously been shared among Roman senators, so that members of the nobility (previously the patrons) increasingly engaged in literary pursuits, while the emperor himself became chief artistic patron. Thus the significance of the poet-patron relationship subtly altered to reflect the new political hierarchy.

For most eighteen-century poets, the language of slavery traditional in the poet’s description of his gratitude toward his patron was more a matter of convention than political statement. In general, poets were of European descent, and therefore could not be enslaved. Slaves, meanwhile, were of African descent, and therefore could not become poets – until, that is, the rise to fame of Phillis Wheatley. As both poet and slave, Wheatley’s adoption of the Classical metaphor of poet-slave took on a particular, haunting resonance, and drew scathing critique from African-American authors of the twentieth century, who accused Wheatley of voluntarily assenting to her servile status.

This poetic judgement is, as scholars have more recently argued, anachronistic, because it demands that Phillis Wheatley conform to the political and artistic values of the later twentieth century. In an era characterised within many African-American literary circles by resistance to the Western literary tradition, Wheatley’s imitation of neo-Classical poetics, and the poet-slave metaphor that she inherited as part of this tradition, branded her as “white-washed”, and her poetry as “mockingbird verse”. It has only been over the past few decades that scholars have returned to Wheatley’s verses and wondered if the young poet, while “not a black nationalist,” might not have been more subtly engaging the Classical tradition “to express her frustration with her race-based subordination,” or at least seeking to mediate between her native, African heritage and the European literary inheritance into which she had been sold.

We can never know for sure whether Wheatley deliberately intended to resist ideas of racial and cultural hierarchy through her poetry. What we can say with a fair degree of certainty, however, is that in her appropriation of neo-Classicism and her open allusion to Classical authors, Phillis Wheatley challenged the assumption that, as a slave, a woman, an African and a child, she could not, or should not, use Classical literature as a source of inspiration and a medium for her own poetic voice.

To Read
Phillis Wheatley, To Maecenas, Niobe’s Distress and Ode to Neptune
(All Wheatley’s poems can be found at

Anne Applegate (1975), ‘Phillis Wheatley – her critics and her contribution’ in Negro American Literature Forum 9: 123-126.
Henry Louise Gates Jr. (2003), The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters With the Founding Fathers.
R. Lynn Matson (1972), ‘Phillis Wheatley – Soul Sister?’ in Phylon 33: 222-230.
Eleanor Smith (1974), ‘Phillis Wheatley: A Black Perspective’ in The Journal of Negro Education 43: 401-7.