Who was Mrs. W?
The poetess Phillis Wheatley wrote the poem Ode to Neptune. The question is not what this poem is about, but why was a certain Mrs. W. important enough to include her in the subtitle of this poem?
Remember, at the time that Phillis Wheatley lived, a trip from the United States to England wasn’t without danger. Therefore, she wrote about the dangers on the sea. To tempt the sea god Neptune for a safe passing.
Mrs. W. was the mistress of Wheatley: Susannah Wheatley. She was married to John Wheatley, who bought her as a slave. She was sold on a slave market in Boston in the year 1761. From then on, her name was Phillis – after the ship Phillis she arrived on. As she was now property of the Wheatley family, she took on their last name. Wheatley travelled by boat from Africa to the United States. She experienced how wild the sea could be.
As she was only seven years old, Wheatley was one of the younger ones on board of this ship. She was first noticed by Susannah, who convinced her husband to make the deal. Unthinkable these days: humans sold as property. This was because Susannah saw an ad in a local newspaper, advertising this girl as a slave.
There was a good reason, that Susannah convinced her husband to buy Phillis. She was about the same age as their own daughter, who died nine years before Phillis set foot on US soil. She wasn’t treated as a slave, but as part of the family. She was educated, just as the eighteen-year old twins Mary and Nathaniel.
In the light of these events, this is the Mrs. W. that Phillis Wheatley refers to. Still, a Mrs. for this former slave, not really described as being her mother.
Ode to Neptune
On Mrs. W—–‘s Voyage to England.
WHILE raging tempests shake the shore,
While AElus’ thunders round us roar,
And sweep impetuous o’er the plain
Be still, O tyrant of the main;
Nor let thy brow contracted frowns betray,
While my Susanna skims the wat’ry way.
The Pow’r propitious hears the lay,
The blue-ey’d daughters of the sea
With sweeter cadence glide along,
And Thames responsive joins the song.
Pleas’d with their notes Sol sheds benign his ray,
And double radiance decks the face of day.
To court thee to Britannia’s arms
Serene the climes and mild the sky,
Her region boasts unnumber’d charms,
Thy welcome smiles in ev’ry eye.
Thy promise, Neptune keep, record my pray’r,
Not give my wishes to the empty air.
– Phillis Wheatley