George Washington Papers

Enclosure: Poem by Phillis Wheatley, 26 October 1775


Poem by Phillis Wheatley

CElestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,

Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.

While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms,

She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.

See mother earth her offspring’s fate bemoan,

And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!

See the bright beams of heaven’s revolving light

Involved in sorrows and the veil of night!

The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,

Olive and laurel binds her golden hair:

Wherever shines this native of the skies,

Unnumber’d charms and recent graces rise.

Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates

How pour her armies through a thousand gates:

As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,

Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;

Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,

The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;

Or thick as leaves in Autumn’s golden reign,

Such, and so many, moves the warrior’s train.

In bright array they seek the work of war,

Where high unfurl’d the ensign waves in air.

Shall I to Washington their praise recite?

Enough thou know’st them in the fields of fight.

Thee, first in place and honours,—we demand

The grace and glory of thy martial band.

Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,

Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!

One century scarce perform’d its destined round,

When Gallic powers Columbia’s fury found;

And so may you, whoever dares disgrace

The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race!

Fix’d are the eyes of nations on the scales,

For in their hopes Columbia’s arm prevails.

Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,

While round increase the rising hills of dead.

Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!

Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,

Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,

With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.

The Pennsylvania Magazine: or, American Monthly Museum, 2 (April 1776), 193. The letter and poem are prefaced with the statement: “The following Letter and Verses, were written by the famous Phillis Wheatley, the African Poetess, and presented to his Excellency Gen. Washington.” GW sent Wheatley’s letter and poem to Joseph Reed in Philadelphia on 10 Feb. 1776, and Reed apparently arranged to have it published in the Pennsylvania Magazine. The letter and poem also appear in John Dixon and William Hunter’s edition of the Virginia Gazette, 30 Mar. 1776, prefaced: “Mess. Dixon & Hunter, Pray insert the enclosed letter and verses, written by the famous Phillis Wheatley, the African poetess, in your next gazette.”

Phillis Wheatley (c.1753–1784) was kidnapped near her African home at the age of seven or eight and was brought aboard a slave ship to Boston, where John Wheatley, a local tailor, purchased her as a personal servant for his wife, Susanna. Tutored in the Scriptures and ancient classics by her mistress, Wheatley began writing poetry about the age of thirteen, and in 1773 John Wheatley’s son, Nathaniel, took her to London, where later that year a volume of her poems was published under the title Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. GW apparently met her at his headquarters in Cambridge sometime in March 1776. See GW to Wheatley, 28 Feb. 1776.

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