Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784)
O Thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
Thine height t’ explore, or fathom thy profound.
But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
Fain would the heav’n-born soul with her converse,
Then seek, then court her for her promis’d bliss.
Auspicious queen, thine heav’nly pinions spread,
And lead celestial Chastity along;
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,
Array’d in glory from the orbs above.
Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee,
To give me an higher appellation still,
Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay,
O thou, enthron’d with Cherubs in the realms of day.
Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal, then taken as a slave to the United States at the age of eight (1761). There she was purchased by a Boston tailor, John Wheatley, whose daughter taught Phillis to read English, Latin, and Greek. Her first and only book of poetry, a compilation of thirty-nine poems, was entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), and published in London. Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book of poetry, and the first woman of any race to publish a book in America. She died in Boston in extreme poverty at the age of thirty-one.
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