On Virtue

Image: Frontispiece and Title Page, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Engraving attributed to Scipio Moorhead, 1773. Imagination Gallery B. American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Rare Book & Special Collections Division
What does Wheatley mean by virtue? Where does she expect to find it, and what does she expect will be her reward?
Does Wheatley seem preoccupied by either her race or her gender in this poem? How might she respond to a later author such as Grimké or Chisholm?

Phillis Wheatley was captured in Africa as a young child, and brought to Boston, Massachusetts. There, she was sold as a slave to John Wheatley, who was immediately impressed by her intellect. Wheatley encouraged Phillis to learn to read English so that she might study the Bible. “As to her WRITING, her own Curiosity led her to it,” he later recalled.

In this poem, Wheatley confronted the tangle of the popular eighteenth-century characterization of virtue as a woman, as well as the complications of her own status as an enslaved woman. While Wheatley silently presumed that she would be able to approach Virtue, and eventually salvation, on equal terms with anyone else in evangelical Christian circles, this assumption would surely have challenged some of her readers, who likely viewed both women and persons of African descent as inferior. Although she did not expressly challenge the institution of slavery or social conventions regarding gender, her bold claim to the equality of all people in the eyes of God can be viewed as an attempt to undermine the racial and gendered construction of power in eighteenth-century American society.

—Sarah A. Morgan Smith

Source: Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773).

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!

For Further Reading on this Topic:

A War Among Women?

The Black Mammy Monument

An Address on Female Suffrage

Appeal to Christian Women of the South

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