J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Phillis Wheatley Writes about Christopher Seider

Both in the 1770s and now, one of the most famous inhabitants of Revolutionary Boston was Phillis Wheatley. Sold into slavery in West Africa, she arrived in Massachusetts in 1761 at the age of about seven (to judge by the baby teeth she was missing). The tailor John Wheatley purchased the little girl as a servant for his wife Susannah, who renamed her Phillis. She learned to read so quickly that the family started to provide more lessons and books. In 1767 Phillis published her first poem in a Newport newspaper. In 1773 the Wheatleys legally emancipated her, after the publication of a collection of thirty-seven of her poems in London.

Wheatley wrote a lot of her verse in response to events of the day: the death of the Rev. George Whitefield, the death of someone’s child, the Boston Massacre, &c. She wrote odes to famous men, from the Earl of Dartmouth, Britain’s Secretary of State, to George Washington, commander of the army that opposed Dartmouth. She wrote lots of pious pronouncements. This wasn’t a period for introspective, personal poetry, and Wheatley wasn’t a particularly introspective, personal poet. (Her letters are more revealing.)

Among the subjects Wheatley chose was the boy Christopher Seider, killed by a Customs officer on 22 Feb 1770. That poem didn’t appear in the 1773 collection, probably because it was too tied to Boston events for a wider audience and perhaps because it was too controversial. But a manuscript remained, and it was published in The New England Quarterly in 1970. It now appears in Wheatley’s Collected Works.

On the death of Mr Snider
Murder’d by Richardson

In heavens eternal court it was decreed
How the first martyr for the cause should bleed
To clear the country of the hated brood
He whet his courage for the common good
Long hid before, a vile infernal here
Prevents Achilles in his mid career
Where’er this fury darts his Poisonous breath
All are endanger’d to the Shafts of death.
The generous Sires beheld the fatal wound
Saw their Young champion gasping on the ground
They rais’d him up. but to each present ear
What martial glories did his tongue declare
The wretch appal’d no longer can dispise
But from the Striking victim turns his eyes
When this young martial genius did appear
The Tory chiefs no longer could forbear.
Ripe for destruction, see the wretches doom
He waits the curses of the age to come
In vain he flies, by Justice Swiftly chaced
With unexpected infamy disgraced
Be Richardson for ever banish’d here
The grand Usurpers bravely vaunted Heir.
We bring the body from the wat’ry bower
To lodge it where it shall remove no more
Snider behold with what Majestic Love
The Illustrious retinue begins to move
With Secret rage fair freedoms foes beneath
See in thy corse ev’n Majesty in Death
Wheatley spelled the boy’s name “Snider,” as it appeared in some newspapers (but not in the family baptismal records). The praise for Seider as a martyr also came right out of the newspapers, and even the phrase “martial genius” reflects their comment on what was found in the boy’s pockets. All in all, it’s a remarkably overblown bit of verse.


Robert S. Paul said...

It's amazing that she had such a grasp of the language even as a freed slave. Far better than many college-educated people today, even ones born with silver spoons in their mouths.

J. L. Bell said...

It's quite clear from what the Wheatley family wrote about her that Phillis Wheatley was a genius with a prodigious understanding of language. To their credit, they encouraged and enabled her talents when she was growing up instead of feeling threatened.