Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

When the Rare Book Room was first set up in Trinkle Library in 1964, one of the factors influencing its creation was the number of valuable and historic books in the open circulating stacks that needed to be moved to a safer location. Today in our Rare Books Collection, you can quickly spot those early “stacks” volumes as their covers display chalky-white Dewey Decimal call numbers. “Rare” is also distinctly marked on their front covers in the same white ink. Such practices make librarians shudder today but were commonplace fifty years ago when the focus was on making sure that each book would be duly returned to its rare collections designation.

Phyllis Wheatley. Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, 1816

Among the group of books moved for safe-keeping is notably Phillis Wheatley’s, 1816 edition of Poems, on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Wheatley, the first female African- American poet to be published, was born in West Africa and sold early in her life into slavery. She was sent to North America and sold to a Boston merchant and his wife, John and Susanna Wheatley. The Wheatleys permitted Phillis to learn and receive an education in Latin and the classics.

Title page

Copy of John Wheatley’s letter sent to the publisher.

Simpson Library’s copy of Wheatley’s poetry is actually the third New England printing of her book, preceded by the 1802 Walpole and 1804 Hartford editions. The book’s first printing was in London in 1773 and not reprinted in Philadelphia until 1785. Our 1816 copy lacks the famous frontispiece of Wheatley present in earlier volumes.

Portrait of Phyllis Wheatley by Scipio Moorhead in the highly collectible 1773 edition. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

It does, however, sport an early library card pocket inside its back cover, stating wisely: “To get what you want – Ask the Librarian.”  Sage advice!

Remember April is National Poetry Month so stop in Special Collections and see this wonderful volume of verse.

Source Consulted:

Shields, John C. and Eric D. LaMore, eds. New Essays on Phillis Wheatley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2011.

April 14, 2017