Although the Wheatleys were not abolitionists (they enslaved several people and separated Phillis from them), they recognized Phillis’ talents and encouraged her to study Latin, Greek, history, theology and poetry. Inspired by Alexander Pope and Isaac Watts, she lay awake at night, writing heroic verses and elegies to notable figures by candlelight. She published her first verse, in the Newport Mercury, at 13 years old.
While many New Englanders took note of the poet’s gifts, no American printer would publish a book by a black writer. Poems on Various Subjects was eventually funded by Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, and published in London. At the age of 19 in 1773, Phillis traveled to the city, escorted by the Wheatleys’ son. She was an instant sensation. His celebrity, along with England’s criticism of a new nation that simultaneously subjugated him while likening his own relationship to the Crown to slavery, led the Wheatleys to free him in 1774.
A keen observer, Phillis frequently wrote about important moments in America’s struggle for independence, carefully walking a fine line between being overtly political or critical of the colonial government as a black woman. At the age of 14 in 1768, she praised King George III in the poem To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty for the repeal of the Stamp Act. Two years later, in On the Death of Mr. Snider Murder’d by Richardson, she commemorated the murder of 12-year-old Christopher Snider by a Massachusetts-born Loyalist during a protest against imported British goods.
Shortly thereafter, in 1770, a skirmish between settlers and British soldiers broke out outside the Old State House, not far from where Phillis lived on King Street, culminating in the Boston Massacre. Today, a circle of granite cobblestones, its age-tarnished bronze letters and thousands of footsteps, mark the spot where the blood was shed. Following the incident, Phillis was inspired to write the poem On the Affray in King Street on the evening of March 5, 1770.