The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Contributor: Melissa Kowalski. Lesson ID: 11465

Do you know many people well-versed in ancient classical Greek and Roman literature? For a female slave, that would seem unthinkable! Learn (and teach!) about Phillis, the first African American poet!


Literary Studies

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Did you know not all slaves in early American society were illiterate? In fact, one became the country's first published African-American poet! Not only was America's first African-American poet a slave, but she was also a woman! Learn about Phillis Wheatley and her extraordinary life!


Phillis Wheatley

Image engraved by Scipio Moorhead, via Wikimedia Commons, is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division (ID cph.3a40394) and is in the public domain.

Very few images of the country's first African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley, exist.

The image shown above is the most famous image of Wheatley and was used as the frontispiece, or picture facing the cover page, of Wheatley's first edition of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773. Amazingly, Wheatley was probably only eighteen at the time; her exact age is unknown because she was kidnapped from Africa and brought to America as a child to be sold into slavery.

To learn more about Wheatley's extraordinary biography, watch the First African-American Poet Former Slave Phillis Wheatley Oct 1, 1775 from Untold Stories of Slavery in America by ANN video (below) and read this biography on Phillis Wheatley: Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) from the Poetry Foundation.

As you watch the video and read Wheatley's biography, write down your answers to the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:

  • Why was Wheatley able to learn to read and write even though she was a slave?
  • What difficulty did Wheatley encounter when attempting to publish her first book and how did she overcome it?
  • What hardships did Wheatley experience as an adult?
  • What topics did Wheatley choose for her poetry?


When you've finished answering the questions, discuss your answers with your parent or teacher.

If you discovered that Wheatley often wrote about famous individuals and death in her poems, then congratulations!

Many of Wheatley's poems were addressed to contemporary individuals of the era, including George Washington and England's King George III. Also, several of her poems address someone's death. These types of poems are known as elegies, or poems that express sorrow at a person's death and also praise his or her life.

In all of her poetry, Wheatley often used Biblical and classical references as imagery. She was well-educated and had studied both the Bible and ancient Greek and Roman classical literature, something that was a rarity for most people in colonial America. It was even more extraordinary that Wheatley possessed this knowledge, because she was both a woman and a slave, two groups of people who had lower literacy rates in this era.

Now that you've learned about Wheatley's life and the techniques and themes she used in her poetry, continue to the Got It? section to practice finding these elements in several of Wheatley's poems.

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