To the University of Cambridge, in New England

Once again, Wheatley views her enslavement as a fortunate event in her life, allowing her to escape “The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom.” This phenomenon among evangelical slaves (and former slaves) is similar to the medieval idea of the “fortunate fall,” in which Adam’s fall into the bondage of sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden was fortunate in that it allowed him (and his progeny thereafter) to partake of divine grace and salvation. Had he not fallen, he would never have experienced grace; had Wheatley not been a slave, she would never have experienced Christianity. It is a logic that presents considerable difficulties to modern readers, but not completely so in the late eighteenth century. Her admiration of the scholars of Harvard College is understandable, but even their academic prowess does not preclude her pronouncing an ultimate judgment of their worth based upon their religious prowess, one area she, even as a black enslaved woman evangelical, can compete with them on equal terms in God’s sight. In the final stanza of her poem, Wheatley moves from a shared religious experience with the students to a sermonic mode, in which she, the bold “Ethiop,” assumes a prophetic role (one who speaks forth the truth) over the white students and pronounces the judgment to come if they fail to “improve” their “privileges.”

While an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,

The muses promise to assist my pen;

’Twas not long since I left my native shore

The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:

Father of mercy, ’twas thy gracious hand

Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.

Students, to you ’tis giv’n to scan the heights

Above, to traverse the ethereal space,

And mark the systems of revolving worlds.

Still more, ye sons of science ye receive

The blissful news by messengers from heav’n,

How Jesus’ blood for your redemption flows.

See him with hands out-stretcht upon the cross;

Immense compassion in his bosom glows;

He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:

What matchless mercy in the Son of God!

When the whole human race by sin had fall’n,

He deign’d to die that they might rise again,

And share with him in the sublimest skies,

Life without death, and glory without end.

Improve your privileges while they stay,

Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears

Or good or bad report of you to heav’n.

Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,

By you be shun’d, nor once remit your guard;

Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.

Ye blooming plants of human race divine,

An Ethiop tells you ’tis your greatest foe;

Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,

And in immense perdition sinks the soul.

Text: The Poems of Phillis Wheatley (Philadelphia:R.R. and C. C. Wright 1909), pp. 10-11.