UAlbany Professor Finds New Poem by Famed Early American Poet Phillis Wheatley
By Bethany Bump
ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan. 17, 2023) — A University at Albany professor has discovered the earliest known full-length elegy by famed poet Phillis Wheatley (Peters), widely regarded as the first Black person, enslaved person and one of the first women in America to publish a book of poetry.
English professor Wendy Raphael Roberts found the elegy, titled “On the Death of Love Rotch” and dated 1767, in a Quaker commonplace book at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania while conducting research into Wheatley’s life and legacy. While the elegy was never claimed by the poet, it was attributed to her by a trustworthy manuscript witness embedded in Wheatley’s network and local poetry scene.
The discovery expands Wheatley’s canon at a time of growing interest in and scholarship around the poet, and provides new evidence for her presence and influence in Nantucket; New Bedford, Mass.; and Newport, R.I.; which were home to early abolitionist movements in the U.S.
“We don’t know much about her early life, we really don’t,” Roberts said. “We have scraps here and there, and there’s a lot of good work happening right now, but we don’t know where she went, what her daily life might have been like, and this gives us one more piece.”
Wheatley was believed to be around 7 years old when she was kidnapped from West Africa and sold to Susanna Wheatley, the wife of wealthy Boston merchant John Wheatley.
Though unusual for an enslaved person in America, Wheatley was taught to read and write and quickly demonstrated intellectual prowess. She began writing poems from a young age, with her earliest work appearing in print while she was still a teenager. Her work included elegies for prominent people, and touched on themes of theology, slavery, abolition, politics and America.
Hoping to publish a book of poems but confronting a racist press, Wheatley’s book was prefaced with an attestation of her authorship and poetic capabilities by prominent male citizens of Boston. Facing continued resistance in the U.S., Wheatley traveled to London with Susanna’s son, Nathaniel Wheatley, and won support for her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.
Published in 1773, it was met with acclaim and she quickly became celebrated across the British Empire. Her work, which included letters to George Washington and other high-ranking Americans, served as a catalyst for the early antislavery movement, with abolitionists touting her as proof that Black people could be artistic and intellectual equals to whites.
Roberts first became interested in Wheatley in graduate school while taking a course on early American literature focused on writers of the Black Atlantic. She published a book that examined some of Wheatley’s work in 2020 titled, Awakening Verse: The Poetics of Early American Evangelicalism.
During research for the book, she came across a poem about Wheatley by a white woman in Boston and grew curious about how Wheatley’s poems were first circulated.
“I earmarked that for later because I started to think, wait a second, we know so little about how (Wheatley’s) manuscripts circulated,” Roberts said. “At the time, that was predominantly the way that women writers would be published and circulated — they would be in coteries and networks — but we knew very little about it.”
“On the Death of Love Rotch,” the poem that Roberts attributes to Wheatley, showed up in a commonplace book 15 years after it was penned. Commonplace books — a collection of writings, quotes, ideas and more — were often kept by poets and scribes and included works by other authors of whom they were fond.
The book containing the Love Rotch poem was kept by Mary Powel Potts (Jones), who was embedded in the poetic manuscript networks of the Delaware Valley and closely connected to Quaker teacher and minister Rebecca Jones and her teaching and life partner Hannah Catherall, who assigned early Wheatley poems for their students to copy, including at least one that was never published.
Roberts said scholars have always assumed that Wheatley’s poems would be marked with her name, even though it wasn’t common practice for the time.
“In the 18th century, even well-known writers would take on cognomens — a kind of variant of a pseudonym that their network and poetic coterie would know them by,” she said. “They all knew who the actual writer was, but it was very common at the time not to put your name to a poem, both in print and in manuscript.”
Roberts was combing through commonplace books from the time Wheatley was active when she came across the Love Rotch poem, attributed only to “A Negro Girl about 15 years of age.”
“As soon as I saw that I knew this was a Wheatley poem because there was no other 14- to 15-year-old Black girl writing poetry like this at the time,” she said.
Written in 1767, the poem laments the death of Love Macy Rotch, a member of the powerful Rotch family of Nantucket and mother to Joseph Rotch, Jr., who was the subject of a published Wheatley poem.
The only thing that didn’t make sense to Roberts was the copyist’s claim that Love Rotch was the poet’s mistress, since it was widely known that Susanna Wheatley held that role.
In an upcoming article in the journal Early American Literature, Roberts theorizes that Potts may have known more about Wheatley’s first years in America than print publications cared to highlight at the time.
“Print performed particular work for those supporting Wheatley’s publications,” she wrote. “What incentive would there be for the Wheatley family while showing off their genius enslaved poet to highlight times when she was hired out or taught by others? It would not be out of the question for Wheatley’s enslavers to have loaned her out to the Rotch family for a time, especially to provide comfort and company or to serve as an amanuensis for an ailing Love Rotch.”
Roberts provides other theories as well, but notes that Rotch’s exact relationship to the poet need not be confirmed to confidently attribute the poem to Wheatley. A combination of external factors — such as the close connection between the copyist and Wheatley’s known networks — and internal evidence such as the poem’s subject, style and language — led her to confidently claim Wheatley as the author.
The discovery places Wheatley in Nantucket, which may help explain why her earliest published poem appeared in New Bedford and not Boston, where Wheatley is known to have lived.
“New Bedford is right across from Nantucket, and Nantucket is a hotbed through the 19th century for abolitionist thought,” Roberts said. “So all of a sudden she’s there at the very beginning when Quakers are starting to really think more seriously about their abolitionist sensibilities. So part of the argument that I want to make is that she’s influencing them — that her presence there matters.”
Roberts found another anonymous poem in the Potts book that she believes Wheatley wrote but can only speculatively attribute to her. Titled “The Black Rose,” it mourns the death of a Black woman named Rose and uses theology to critique a society that refused to mourn the enslaved and oppressed. It would be the only known elegy Wheatley wrote for a Black woman.
Roberts will detail her discoveries at an upcoming talk on Jan. 26. The Library Company of Philadelphia is hosting the free and virtual discussion as the first event of a yearlong celebration marking the 250th publication anniversary of Wheatley’s book.
Renewed interest in the poet has led to a flurry of discoveries in recent years that have helped fill in gaps on her life and death. Roberts’ discovery is the first full-length Wheatley poem to be discovered in 20 years. Her efforts recently earned her a 2023 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, which will support her continued research into Wheatley and a second book.
“She’s kind of coming into her own at this moment,” Roberts said. “There’s real interest in the whole field and among Wheatley scholars right now in trying to rethink what we know about her and the limits of what we know, and I think there’s going to be a lot more discoveries.”