The First African-American Poet and Her Love of Ancient Greece

By Nana Coupeau

In 1761, Phillis Wheatley, a young West African girl, was captured and brought to America on a slave ship. There Susanna Wheatley, wife of prominent Boston businessman John Wheatley, bought her at an auction to serve as lady’s maid.

The “gap-toothed girl wrapped in nothing more than a quantity of dirty carpet” would soon rise from her humble beginnings, to become the first African-American poet. One with a penchant for the Ancient Greek language and mythology.

Phillis Wheatley: from slave girl to published poet

In his preface to her first published volume of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Morals, her master John Wheatley wrote:

PHILLIS was brought from Africa to America, in the Year 1761, between Seven and Eight Years of Age. Without any Assistance from School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her Arrival, attained the English Language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult Parts of the Sacred Writings, to the great Astonishment of all who heard her.

As to her WRITING, her own Curiosity led her to it; and this she learnt in so short a Time, that in the Year 1765, she wrote a Letter to the Rev. Mr. OCCOM, the Indian Minister, while in England.

She has a great Inclination to learn the Latin Tongue, and has made some Progress in it. This Relation is given by her Master who bought her, and with whom she now lives.


  Boston, Nov. 14, 1772.

What occurred next was stuff of legend amongst the African-American slave community and 18th century literati in America. For at that time, it was unheard of for a slave to read or write, let alone in Latin and Ancient Greek. Something that those against educating slaves, found themselves unable to believe.

Years later, William Slanders would publish his Greek language book and further prove the naysayers wrong. In his footsteps followed fellow philhellene James Williams, who also proved his love for Greece by fighting alongside his adopted brotherhood in the Greek War of Independence.

Despite any disapproval they may have faced, the prodigy’s exceptional talent for learning and languages impressed the Wheatley family enough, to provide her with a classical education. She was therefore able not only to understand, but also to use Ancient Greek and Roman forms, as evidenced in her early and late poetry.

Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley. Public Domain

Ancient Greece as inspiration

Wheatley was not alone in her admiration of Ancient Greece. Indeed, many Americans and African-Americans, as mentioned above, looked to it for inspiration.

One of the African-American poet’s most famous works is To Maecenas, written in 1773. Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (c.70 BC-c. 8 BC) was a Roman politician and patron of the poets Virgil and Horace. His name was synonymous with ideal literary patronage in the 18th century – Wheatley’s time.

In a paper entitled ‘Phillis Wheatley’s Poetic use of Classical form and Content in Revolutionary America, 1767 – 1784’, Sydney Vaile points out how it “demonstrates the concept of Horatian ode and Virgil’s subversive pastoral technique.” Furthermore, the ways in which “her praise for Maecenas mirrors that of Horace in his Odes, and the inclusion of the Roman slave Terence creates a link over time between two enslaved poets”.

According to Vaile, even the title reflects the fact that she “was versed in Horace’s Odes and his poetic conversations with Maecenas, his patron. Both Horace and Wheatley praise Maecenas—Horace to his patron, and Wheatley in pure admiration”.

The “reference to the laurel in Wheatley’s poem” she states, “reflects Horace’s mentioning of the ivy wreath in his Odes. Maecenas’ smile implies that he is welcoming her into the realm of literary prominence”.

Works such as “On the Death of a Young Girl Five Years of Age,” and letters to Occom, for example, also reveal Wheatley’s ability to mimic the voices of Horace, Virgil, and Aristotle, according to Vaile. An aesthetic ode to Greek and Roman mythology that appeared throughout the volume.

To others, Ancient Greek mythology for Wheatley was a subversive means of telling the tale of enslavement and revolt. Whatever the reasons, her love of Ancient Greece and Ancient Greek mythology is one translated through her work across both differing cultures and times.

To Maecenas

MAECENAS, you, beneath the myrtle shade,
Read o’er what poets sung, and shepherds played.
What felt those poets but you feel the same?
Does not your soul possess the sacred flame?
Their noble strains your equal genius shares                                          
In softer language, and diviner airs.
While Homer paints lo! circumfus’d in air,
Celestial Gods in mortal forms appear;

Swift as they move hear each recess rebound,
Heaven quakes, earth trembles, and the shores resound.                    
Great Sire of verse, before my mortal eyes,
The lightnings blaze across the vaulted skies;
And, as the thunder shakes the heav’nly plains,
A deep-felt horror thrills thro’ all my veins.
When gentler strains demand thy graceful song,                                    
The length’ning line moves languishing along.
When great Patroclus courts Achilles’ aid,
The grateful tribute of my tears is paid;
Prone on the shore he feels the pangs of love,
And stern Pelides tenderest passions move.

Great Maro’s strain in heav’nly numbers flows,
The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows.
O, could I rival thine and Virgil’s page,
Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;
Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn,
And the same ardors in my soul should burn:
Then should my song in bolder notes arise,
And all my numbers pleasingly surprise;
But here I sit and mourn a grov’ling mind,
That fain would mount, and ride upon the wind.                                     .

Thy virtues, great Maecenas! shall be sung
In praise of him, from whom those virtues sprung:
While blooming wreaths around thy temples spread,
I’ll snatch a laurel from thine honour’d head,
While you indulgent smile upon the deed.

As long as Thames in streams majestic flows,
Or Naiads in their oozy beds repose,
While Phoebus reigns above the starry train,
While bright Aurora purples o’er the main,
So long, great Sir, the muse thy praise shall sing,
So long thy praise shall make Parnassus ring:
Then grant, Maecenas, thy paternal rays,
Hear me propitious and defend my lays.

Originally published on The Greek Reporter

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