University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Remarks on the Acquisition of Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773"

Volume XXXVI ·  1983 
Remarks on the Acquisition of Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1773

I am much honored to have been asked to say a few words this afternoon about the first book acquired by the University of Rochester on its journey toward its three millionth volume. I am especially touched because this book is given in memory of my good friend, Bernard Harkness (who died two years ago this month), by his wife, Mabel Harkness, also my dear friend.

I encourage each of you to take a close look at this little book, for its message, although "writ small," is very clear. Phillis Wheatley was a black slave, probably born in what is now Senegal and sold at the age of eight to John Wheatley of Boston. In 1773, when she was only 20, she published a remarkable volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, while she was in London trying to improve her health. Her book is the first published literary expression of a black woman and the Rochester copy is a particularly fine one, complete and in a good contemporary binding. The book also preserves a small engraved portrait of its frail author.

The accomplishment of this poet can be seen in two lights. While Phillis Wheatley greatly admired the eighteenth-century heroic couplets of Pope and wrote in that form, her accomplishment does not look its best when compared with the work of the master. One is tempted to say, as Samuel Johnson did of women preaching: It "is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." While Johnson's wit can focus our despair in trying to find couplets of the highest order in Phillis Wheatley's poems, his remark also brings us inevitably to the achievement of her work. Her poems are a landmark of the victory of the human spirit against incredible odds. She came to these shores at the age of eight as an illiterate, unEnglished slave. She mastered our language, our literary forms, our religion, and our culture sufficiently to do what very few of us manage in a lifetime; by the age of 17, she began to publish poems about her own feelings, about her salvation, and about her joy in the world around her. The publication of this volume and her sojourn in England, however, did not solve her health problems. Although she married John Peters, a freedman, eight years later, and bore him three children, she died early, in 1784 at 31. Her education between the ages of eight and 17 is a marvel, not so much for the tutelage given her (although that surely must have been of the most skillful order) as for her receptivity. Throughout history, there must have been few students with the eagerness, the thirst for information and cultivation, which Phillis Wheatley showed. Her life exemplifies a triumph of human love and joy over the worst degradation which man can visit against his brothers and sisters. Her affirmation is one we eagerly want to share, not only to give ourselves just a pinch of her conviction of salvation, but also to give ourselves hope that perhaps even we, with all our so-called advantages of time, place, prosperity, and freedom, might have even a measurable fraction of Phillis Wheatley's powers to absorb the world around us and find in it joy.

Many of you who knew of Bernard Harkness and his remarkable accomplishments as a botanist, and especially as a taxonomist, may well wonder how Phillis Wheatley's Poems could be an appropriate memorial for him. His many articles on plants and their flowers show the range and depth of his knowledge; his Seedlist Handbookshows his mastery of the infinite varieties of that part of nature which he studied. But joy in a seed, a plant, a flower is implied rather than stated in these books and articles; however, in his Letters from Hsingching, which he published in 1975, he lets us know his total delight in finding rare and beautiful plants in China and also his humanitarian concerns for the people he met there. These letters were not written to be published, but his mother saved them and, because of their preservation, he himself ultimately saw parts which he could share with others. Even in these informal communications, he is the scholar. He knew what distinguished seeking from learning from knowing from guessing from ignorant babbling. He wrote to his mother of an unusual "light-colored cake. . . it had about the sponginess and character of a popcorn ball; I don't know what it could have been." He identified the unknown and then laid out his lack of knowledge in no uncertain terms; he was not even willing to guess: "I don't know what it could have been." He also wrote his mother of his interest and concern for a vigorous old man who could push him in a wheelbarrow for miles without a sign of fatigue, for a lonely but serene young monk who tended an extremely remote temple, for old women whose feet had been bound in childhood, for scholars who had maintained their studies without any support from society. Throughout, he revealed the relationship he knew between his search for knowledge about the natural world and his love and concern for his fellow man. What book can exemplify this relationship more clearly and more fully than Phillis Wheatley's Poems. . .? No book can point more decisively to that miraculous tie between the rapacious search for knowledge and the affirmation of life in all its variety, in all its contradictions, frustrations, and rewards. Bernard Harkness knew about these connections. Indeed, his knowledge has always reminded me of Robert Frost's memorable couplet, "The Secret Sits":

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.1

For those who knew him, Bernard Harkness was a secret. Many of us can easily remember him waiting, listening, and knowing. Only the knowledgeable or the privileged can remember him telling.

The acquisition of two million volumes makes a clear record that the University of Rochester has come some distance. The registration of a two million first volume shows that we all know we have some way to go. What book could be a more fitting memorial for a man who knew so well where he had come from and also where he was going? Phillis Wheatley's Poems. . . in memory of Bernard Harkness; Meliora.



  1. From The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1942 by Robert Frost. Copyright (c) 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Copyright (c) 1970 by Lesley Frost Ballantine. Reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers.


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