January 31, 2023

A University at Albany professor has discovered the earliest known full-length elegy by the famous poet Phillis Wheatley Peters.

Wheatley Peters is widely credited as the first black person, enslaved person, and one of the first women in America to publish a book of poetry.

Wendy Raphael Roberts was browsing through a collection of manuscripts at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia last January when she discovered a 1767 elegy to a Nantucket Quaker woman. The work was described as “a few lines written by a Negro girl of about 15 about the death of Love Rotch”. The particular attribution was similar to others related to Wheatley Peters’ poetry, leading Roberts to conclude that it belonged to her.

“People would go crazy if we found a new Shakespearean sonnet,” she said. “Phillis Wheatley is a major American poet. Another poem of hers is a treasure in transatlantic and English literature.”

She was believed to be around 7 years old when she was abducted from West Africa and sold to Susanna Wheatley, wife of Boston merchant John Wheatley. Although unusual for her status, she was taught to read and write and began writing poetry at an early age. Roberts said scholars often refer to her by her husband’s last name.

“Because she chose that name,” she explained.

UAlbany English Professor Wendy Roberts is photographed at UAlbany's ME Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives on Friday 13 January 2023.  dr  Roberts recently discovered a new poem by Phillis Wheatley, the first black poet to be published in the U.S. The discovery of the 1767 poem in a Quaker everyday book of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania makes this the earliest known poem by Wheatley.  (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

UAlbany English Professor Wendy Roberts is photographed at UAlbany’s ME Grenander Department of Special Collections & Archives on Friday 13 January 2023. dr Roberts recently discovered a new poem by Phillis Wheatley, the first black poet to be published in the U.S. The discovery of the 1767 poem in a Quaker everyday book of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania makes this the earliest known poem by Wheatley. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

Photo courtesy of the University at Albany

Roberts, an associate professor of English at the University of Albany, had previously published a book on early American evangelical poetry and included a chapter on Wheatley Peters’ involvement in the church. She had been trying to find out more about Wheatley Peters and her work, including reviewing letters and collections of manuscripts known as ordinary books, when she came across the elegy.

The particular collection belonged to a Quaker girl. At the time, it was a common form of education to have middle-class girls write the poetry of others; Wheatley Peters’ poetry was often circulated on this particular network, Roberts said.

Roberts said this is probably not the only work by Wheatley Peters that has been lost. While her most famous poem today may be “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” an elegy to the Reverend George Whitfield and other poems written for white patrons were far better known in her lifetime, she said. In the years following her release, she and her husband, John Peters, dealt with poverty as they attempted to get their later poetry published. Wheatley Peters died on December 5, 1784.

“As far as we know, all these white women who were all her patrons and girlfriends kind of disappeared,” Roberts said. “From what we saw, no one helped her.”

Wheatley Peters was also influential in abolitionism, as well as the Quaker community’s reappraisal of their own attitudes towards slave ownership, Roberts said.

Roberts, a staff member at the Library Company of Philadelphia, will share her discoveries in a free, virtual discussion hosted by the organization, the first event as part of a celebration of the 250th anniversary of Wheatley Peter’s book. Those interested can register at librarycompany.org.

“She’s really having her moment,” Roberts said. “As she should.”

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