Featured Poem: On Virtue by Phillis Wheatley

On Virtue by Phillis Wheatley

This week’s Featured Poem is ‘On Virtue’ by Phillis Wheatley, chosen by The Reader’s Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin.

The title gives us a lot to think about before we’ve even got into the poem.

What do we think of when we consider ‘virtue’ or being virtuous? It seems to be more than black and white, something complex, difficult to fully understand and perhaps set on a higher level than mere mortals can achieve, at least in everyday life.

Is it unrealistic to have virtue? Do we possess elements of it in ourselves and draw upon it when needed, or do we have it only in relation to certain events, mindsets or states of being?

A lot to get to grips with in that one word alone! The idea that virtue is something out of reach, an aspiration or even perhaps unattainable appears to be evident straightaway as we begin to read:

O thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.

I love the sort-of contradiction here between the ‘bright jewel’ which I can picture as a sparkling diamond, extravagant and precious, and ‘in my aim’. I’m thinking of how different it would be to substitute the word ‘aim’ for ‘reach’ – the person speaking seems to recognise that they might not be able to get to or obtain this bright jewel but it hasn’t put them off striving for it.

Not just that, but to ‘comprehend’ it. That seems really important. How many times do we look at something on the surface, physical or an idea or ambition, thinking that we really want it and that if we only had it then all of our problems would be solved, only to be disappointed when we get a closer look, realising we haven’t understood it completely or have made it bigger and better than it really is – and then, it’s onto the next thing that catches our eye.

‘Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach’ – that is a huge statement to try and unpick. Does it mean we shouldn’t try to aspire to things that are above our ‘level’? Is it foolish to have ambition, and is having knowledge of our own boundaries and the things that we can more comfortably achieve wiser in the long run? The trouble is, we can often underestimate what we’re capable of, so I’m not quite sure what to make of that.

Leading on, ‘I cease to wonder, and no more attempt/Thine height t’explore, or fathom thy profound’ unsettles me in some respects. It feels like a good thing to keep exploring and wondering – especially when it comes to Shared Reading! – so to make a conscious decision to stop doing this feels like a sad circumstance.

It’s taking me back to the idea of wisdom, though; some concepts are so big and require so much of our energy that perhaps it’s a good thing to take several steps back in order to gain a fresh perspective. The line immediately following does provide some uplift and optimism, and then we get onto:

Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.

It feels comforting to think of a human presence rather than an unknowable concept. For some reason I’m picturing Virtue as a person in white or silver, glowing and ethereal – a lot like the ‘bright jewel’ in many ways.

The lines that follow carry on the idea of a higher being, with words like ‘heaven-born’, ‘queen’, ‘celestial’, ‘sacred’ and ‘glory’, but I can’t get away from the idea of this human embodiment of virtue being a guiding light, someone to turn to in times of despair rather than someone we would idolise or even be in fear of.

Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.

The direct address in the above lines reinforces this initial feeling. I’m intrigued here by ‘thro’ my youthful years’ – is it only when we’re young that we need someone to attend us? Do we ever get to an age or stage where we can trust ourselves enough to be our own guide through life? Maybe it’s a question of self-confidence. Also what are ‘the false joys of time’, and can we ever really expect to have ‘endless bliss’? I feel like ‘Goodness’ is a better thing to hope to achieve than ‘Greatness’ in one’s self, and indeed we could spend a long time in trying to break down what these concepts, seemingly similar on the surface, mean.

Something to leave hanging in the air to ponder, I think – hopefully not too far out of our reach.

On Virtue

O thou bright jewel in my aim I strive
To comprehend thee. Thine own words declare
Wisdom is higher than a fool can reach.
I cease to wonder, and no more attempt
Thine height t’explore, or fathom thy profound.
But, O my soul, sink not into despair,
Virtue is near thee, and with gentle hand
Would now embrace thee, hovers o’er thine head.
Fain would the heaven-born soul with her converse,
Then seek, then court her for her promised bliss.

Auspicious queen, thine heavenly pinions spread,
And lead celestial Chastity along;
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,
Arrayed in glory from the orbs above.
Attend me, Virtue, thro’ my youthful years!
O leave me not to the false joys of time!
But guide my steps to endless life and bliss.
Greatness, or Goodness, say what I shall call thee,
To give an higher appellation still,
Teach me a better strain, a nobler lay,
O Thou, enthroned with Cherubs in the realms of day!

by Phillis Wheatley

Would you like the opportunity to read this or other poems in a Shared Reading group?

If you like the idea of listening along to a story or poem, why not come along to a Shared Reading group? We run groups across the UK, you can find one near you here.

If you can’t find a group in your local community, why not help us bring Shared Reading to your area by becoming a volunteer?

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