Phillis Wheatley, America’s first black poet, was a woman who was sold at age 7 and brought from Senegal to Boston in 1761 to serve as the slave of John and Susannah Wheatley. Her intelligence and gifts were undeniable, and the Wheatleys were undeniably enlightened. Phillis (she carried the name of the slave ship that took her from her native land, The Phillis) was educated alongside their own children. She became the first African American to publish a book, one of the first women in America to earn her own living from writing, and was possibly the first inspiration for women to band together to have a book published (Mrs. Wheatley, Mary Wheatley, and Selina Hastings financed Poems, the first volume of her work).
Though her poems were largely elegiac, here, in “A Rebus” (“A Puzzle”), we see her having some fun with her readers and displaying her far-reaching command of history and politics.
By Phillis Wheatley
A bird delicious to the taste,
On which an army once did feast,
Sent by an hand unseen;
A creature of the horned race,
Which Britain’s royal standards grace;
A gem of vivid green;
A town of gaiety and sport,
Where beaux and beauteous nymphs resort,
And gallantry doth reign;
A Dardan hero fam’d of old
For youth and beauty, as we’re told,
And by a monarch slain;
A peer of popular applause,
Who doth our violated laws,
And grievances proclaim.
Th’ initials show a vanquish’d town,
That adds fresh glory and renown
To old Britannia’s fame.
An Answer to the Rebus
by the Author of These Poems
The poet asks, and Phillis can’t refuse
To show th’ obedience of the Infant muse.
She knows the Quail of most inviting taste
Fed Israel’s army in the dreary waste;
And what’s on Britain’s royal standard borne,
But the tall, graceful, rampant Unicorn?
The Emerald with a vivid verdure glows
Among the gems which regal crowns compose;
Boston’s a town, polite and debonair,
To which the beaux and beauteous nymphs repair,
Each Helen strikes the mind with sweet surprise,
While living lightning flashes from her eyes,
See young Euphorbus of the Dardan line
By Manelaus’ hand to death resign:
The well known peer of popular applause
Is C—-m zealous to support our laws.
Quebec now vanquish’d must obey,
She too much annual tribute pay
To Britain of immortal fame.
And add new glory to her name.