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(Feeling) at Home in America with Phillis Wheatley

This week, as the first in a five-part series of blog posts, Camille Dungy explores a poem by Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784).

On Being Brought from Africa to America

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

—Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley is a reasonable starting place especially when you’re trying to develop a concept of home. Her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773, was the first book by a black woman writing out of the Americas. Hers is actually the first book by a black person published in English. Start from the start, I like to say.

What it might help to know about Phillis Wheatley before we go any further is that she was kidnapped from her home on the West Coast of Africa and eventually sold to the Wheatley family in Boston. The sale took place in 1761. She was about seven at the time. Her age was judged by the fact that she was in the midst of losing her front teeth, just as my daughter and her 1st and 2nd grade classmates are all doing right now. Also, it is likely that she was brought to Boston because she was too small and weak to be of practical use in some of the more physically demanding plantation ports along the way. She landed in the home of the Wheatleys because Susannah Wheatley took pity on the frail child and insisted her husband, John, purchase her. They taught her alongside their own children. She learned to read and write not only English but also Greek and Latin. The situation was not perfect, as the circumstances of her manumitted adult life will reveal, but there could have been many much less satisfactory outcomes for her early years, the possibilities of which young Phillis could not have helped but to have been aware. I keep these things in mind when I think about Phillis, because they help me see her as a human being, a little girl who came of age in a position that was both tortured and privileged. It breaks my heart to think of little gap-toothed Phillis passing through one terror to another and then ending up in the home of the Wheatleys—who would recognize her intellect and take steps to encourage it. All of these complicated and conflicting realities contextualize the poems of Wheatley’s we have in very important ways.

The poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” follows the Neoclassical model: concerned with order, structure, reason. We see this in the rhyme (aa, bb, cc, dd), in the meter (rigid iambic pentameter but, perhaps, for one moment I’ll point out later), in its controlled organization (there are an orderly series of four heroic couplets), and also in its logic. There are the requisite nods to Christian ideals rendered via allusion (a literary technique that depends on a shared pool of knowledge that may lead to a shared moral code). There is also a logical progression from observation to declaration. In the mode of her time, Wheatley’s poem appears to be nearly perfect.

However, Wheatley uses the apparent order of the poem to reveal an entirely different line of reasoning than what might be evident at first glance. In the stressed feet of the iambs (in bold) there is practically a secret code inside this poem.

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

The Save in Savior is stressed. The Christ in Christian and the word “black” are both stressed in the penultimate line, as is the word “join” at the poem’s end. The word “die” at the end of a line about the supposed “diabolic” skin tone of black people is stressed along with the “di-“ in “diabolic,” and both syllables are in close enough proximity to create a shocking internal rhyme. It’s a joy to read through the otherwise lockstep iambic pentameter in this way, and to understand in doing so the playfulness that’s possible within such a formal constraint. This all has something to do with English itself, with where stresses naturally fall in particular words, but the way that these words are put together in Wheatley’s poem decides whether and how we attend to them. Wheatley knew this. She uses the logic of the structure of metrical verse as a means towards revelation and resistance.

I mentioned that I would say something about the place where the iambic might seem to falter. The last line, “May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train,” is the only place in the poem (aside from the “’Twas” of the first line) where Wheatley uses this kind of archaic elision. We still use the contractions we see in the two “there’s” in “That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too” of line three but even in this example, where Wheatley uses elision to force her lines into the iambic pentameter structure of the language and poetic mode she has been forced to call her own, she is also writing about models of conformity. In order for the refinement into the angelic train to happen successfully, a few things have to be trimmed away. This pulling in and shaving off can work officially— these lines are rendered successfully in iambic pentameter— but you see the mark of that work.

Everywhere in this poem Wheatley uses the logic of the structure of the language itself, and variations on that logic—in her use of punctuation, in her rare enjambment, in the ways she plays with allusions, and the homonymic potential of the English language—as a means towards further revelation and resistance. I will never cease to wonder at her play on the word Cain to indicate the potential for refinement (and, therefore, exalted status) of the darker of the two sons of Adam and Eve, as well as the expected refinement (and, therefore, salvation) of the sugar cane (and sugar cane workers) at the center of the slave trade. This is happening in a sentence where she plays with punctuation just enough to unsettle a reader.

Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Is that a serial comma in the penultimate line, or the kind of comma that separates clauses, or both? The logic of the entire sentence suggests the commas are the sort of commas that separate subordinate clauses from the body of the sentence (a concept that Wheatley, trained in Latin, would have understood), but for a moment there is confusion about whether or not there ought to be a hierarchical reading of the sentence. Throughout this poem, in too many instances to recount here, Wheatley revels in the ways that something can appear to have one conclusion and, also, another. She moves from one home to another, and she doesn’t let us rest easily in what that might mean.

This poem, written by an enslaved young woman barely out of her teens, is rebellious even as it appears to follow all the rules. This Neoclassical poem, about the complicated blessing of being kidnapped from her home and sold into slavery in a new home, where she is able to learn about the order and structure of Western traditions (including Christianity, a tradition that extends to her a promise for redemption that she’s not actually able to fulfill for a whole lot of reasons), this poem has at its heart words, phrases, and lines that can be read (completely logically) in a number of ways. At every turn, Wheatley undermines and complicates the logic to which she and her poem are bound.

This blog post is based on Camille T. Dungy’s talk “(Feeling) At Home in America,” given at Poets House in fall 2017, as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season in which six poets were asked to provide close readings of five seminal poems (6 x 5 = 30).


Camille T. Dungy’s debut collection of personal essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (2017), winner of the Colorado Book Award. Her other poetry collections are Smith Blue (2011); Suck on the Marrow (2010), winner of the American Book Award; and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). In addition, Dungy is the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009). She has received fellowships from the NEA in both poetry and prose, and she is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.

Posted In: Close Readings