After she had achieved international fame, Phillis Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free Black man. In this deeply romantic pair of poems, Jeffers imagines their relationship starting with a sweetly imploring letter from Peters, who begs her to seriously consider his suit and wishes out loud that he could seek permission from her father to court her in the African way. The character of Phillis responds by teasingly calling him a pretty boy, questioning his work ethic, and wondering whether he can ever truly hold a candle to her father’s memory. The character of Phillis is filmed here in the balcony at the Old South Meeting House in a nod to John’s reference in the poem of admiring Phillis as she sat there, while the character of John speaks from a balcony on the building’s spire overlooking downtown Boston.
In 1778, amid the loss of employment as a result of the deaths of John Wheatley and his daughter Mary, Phillis Wheatley found herself truly on her own. A free woman, she married John Peters, a free Black man, in that same year. How or when the couple met is unclear. Historians speculate the two had children, and if they did, all of them predeceased the couple.
Accounts of John Peters as a “man of notoriety” are largely unsubstantiated, but have fueled interpretations of him as a villain in the poet’s life that led her to financial ruin. Those who have sought to cast him as such point to his imprisonment for debt on multiple occasions and his name appearing in various legal documents and court cases. However, these cannot serve as a true indication of his character. At this time, involvement in court cases was not unusual since legal petitions were the only recourse for recovering disputed monies or obtaining sales licenses. Moreover, it is highly likely that the Peterses, like so many others, were swept up in the financial depression that followed the American Revolution, a time when promises of payment for goods were indefinitely disrupted.
Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.
In this letter, Phillis Wheatley asks Obour Tanner to send any correspondence to John Peters’s residence as, at this point in time, she was preparing to reside with Peters.
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The poet signs this letter Phillis Peters. Though she was an authoress who had published under Phillis Wheatley, she chose to adopt this married surname, the first time she would have been able to choose her name since arriving in Boston as an enslaved girl.
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In Phillis’s Words
Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.
“...Confess Iscarius, let they words be true
Nor let me find a faithless Bird in you...
Saw you not Sire, a tall and Gallant ship
Which proudly scims the surface of the deep
With pompous form from Boston’s port she came
She flies, and London her resounding name…
And thus the victor takes my life away…”
Links to additional resources.
- Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage By Vincent Caretta
- Was Phillis Wheatley’s husband a crook or dreamer? By Vincent Caretta
- How Phillis Wheatley was Recovered Through History By Elizabeth Winkler