To S. M. — A Young African Painter, a poem by Phillis Wheatley
To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works
by Phillis Wheatley
TO show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
And may the charms of each seraphic theme
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!
High to the blissful wonders of the skies
Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.
Thrice happy, when exalted to survey
That splendid city, crown’d with endless day,
Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:
Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.
Calm and serene thy moments glide along,
And may the muse inspire each future song!
Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless’d,
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!
But when these shades of time are chas’d away,
And darkness ends in everlasting day,
On what seraphic pinions shall we move,
And view the landscapes in the realms above?
There shall thy tongue in heav’nly murmurs flow,
And there my muse with heav’nly transport glow:
No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,
Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes,
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,
And purer language on th’ ethereal plain.
Cease, gentle muse! the solemn gloom of night
Now seals the fair creation from my sight.
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784), the first African-American author of a book of poetry, was born in West Africa. She was sold into slavery as a child and taken to North America where she was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who gave her a classical education unusual for girls, and virtually unheard of for an enslaved person. By the age of 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible.
Strongly influenced by her readings of the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace, and Virgil, Phillis began to write poetry. The Wheatleys encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent and took her to England in order to find a publisher. Her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was well received and praised by many, including Voltaire, John Paul Jones, and George Washington, who actually wrote her a fan letter. Soon after the book’s publication, Phillis was emancipated (set free). She married John Peters, a free black man, and they had three children who did not survive.
The artist to whom Wheatley offers tribute has been identified as Scipio Morehead, an enslaved African-American artist working in Boston. None of his work has survived, though the copperplate engraving of Phillis Wheatley (above) that appeared on the frontispiece of her book has been attributed to him.
Read more about Phillis Wheatley and her poetry at the National Women’s History Museum.
Biographical information adapted from Wikipedia and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
The engraving of Phillis Wheatley and the image of her signature are in the public domain in their country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.
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