War and the Muses - To His Excellency George Washington
While commanding the newly formed American Army at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1775-1776, George Washington was bombarded with gifts, petitions, and a surprising amount of generally terrible poetry. Given that he was extremely busy at the time, what with trying to cobble together a proper force from the mass of militiamen who’d flocked to the colors following Lexington and Concord, for the most part the general just ignored the stuff, usually sending polite notes. But one piece caught his attention,
To His Excellency George Washington|
Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light,
Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write.
While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms,
She flashes dreadful in refulgent arms.
See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan,
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!
See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light
Involved in sorrows and veil of night!
The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,
Olive and laurel bind her golden hair:
Wherever shines this native of the skies,
Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise.
Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven's fair face deforms,
Enwrapp'd in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish'd ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refluent surges beat the sounding shore;
Or thick as leaves in Autumn's golden reign,
Such, and so many, moves the warrior's train.
In bright array they seek the work of war,
Where high unfurl'd the ensign waves in air.
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou knw'st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honours,—we demand
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam'd for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
One century scarce perform'd its destined round,
When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found;
And so may you, whoever dares disgrace
The land of freedom's heaven-defended race!
Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales,
For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails.
Anon Britannia droops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide.
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.
The poem so moved Washington that in February of 1776 he penned a personal note inviting the poet to visit his headquarters, at Cambridge. Thus it was that Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), America’s first published woman poet, visited Washington in March of 1776, shortly after the British had evacuated Boston.
Wheatley had been born around 1753, in the Gambia region of West Africa. Kidnapped by slavers when she was seven or eight, she was brought to Massachusetts, where she was bought by John and Susanna Wheatley on July 11, 1761, as a companion for their children. She proved a very apt student, learning to read and write in Latin as well as English, and by the age of 12 was composing poetry good enough to be published in local newspapers. On September 1, 1773, a volume of her work, titled simply Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London with the help of influential friends. Just a few weeks later, on October 18, 1773, Wheatley was freed, though she continued to live with her former masters.
During the Revolutionary War, Wheatley wrote several poems supporting the Patriots’ cause, such as “On the Death of General Wooster.” Meanwhile, she married a free black man who ran a grocery business. With her husband, Wheatley had three children. But the marriage did not prosper. Two of the children died, then her husband abandoned her. She died in poverty in 1784, and her last surviving child died soon afterwards. At the time of her death she was working on a second volume of poems, but these have been lost. Her surviving works amount to fewer than 75 poems, plus a handful of letters.