ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan. 17, 2023) — A University at Albany professor has discovered the earliest known full-length elegy by famed poet Phillis Wheatley (Peters), widely regarded as the first Black person, enslaved person and one of the first women in America to publish a book of poetry.
English professor Wendy Raphael Roberts found the elegy, titled “On the Death of Love Rotch” and dated 1767, in a Quaker commonplace book at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania while conducting research into Wheatley’s life and legacy. While the elegy was never claimed by the poet, it was attributed to her by a trustworthy manuscript witness embedded in Wheatley’s network and local poetry scene.
The discovery expands Wheatley’s canon at a time of growing interest in and scholarship around the poet, and provides new evidence for her presence and influence in Nantucket; New Bedford, Mass.; and Newport, R.I.; which were home to early abolitionist movements in the U.S.
“We don’t know much about her early life, we really don’t,” Roberts said. “We have scraps here and there, and there’s a lot of good work happening right now, but we don’t know where she went, what her daily life might have been like, and this gives us one more piece.”
Wheatley was believed to be around 7 years old when she was kidnapped from West Africa and sold to Susanna Wheatley, the wife of wealthy Boston merchant John Wheatley.
Though unusual for an enslaved person in America, Wheatley was taught to read and write and quickly demonstrated intellectual prowess. She began writing poems from a young age, with her earliest work appearing in print while she was still a teenager. Her work included elegies for prominent people, and touched on themes of theology, slavery, abolition, politics and America.
Hoping to publish a book of poems but confronting a racist press, Wheatley’s book was prefaced with an attestation of her authorship and poetic capabilities by prominent male citizens of Boston. Facing continued resistance in the U.S., Wheatley traveled to London with Susanna’s son, Nathaniel Wheatley, and won support for her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Published in 1773, it was met with acclaim and she quickly became celebrated across the British Empire. Her work, which included letters to George Washington and other high-ranking Americans, served as a catalyst for the early antislavery movement, with abolitionists touting her as proof that Black people could be artistic and intellectual equals to whites.