By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘On Virtue’ is a poem written by Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84) about that nebulous and wide-ranging quality known as virtue. Wheatley was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties.
‘On Virtue’ is organised into two stanzas. Let’s go through the poem, section by section, and summarise what’s going on before we turn to an analysis of the poem’s meaning.
‘On Virtue’: summary
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.
Wheatley’s speaker begins her poem by addressing something, which she praises as a ‘bright jewel’ which she wants to endeavour to understand. This ‘something’ that she is speaking to proclaims that wisdom is beyond the reach of fools, so she, the poor poet, gives up trying to explore its heights, or its (profound) depths.
It’s something of a mystery whether Wheatley is here addressing a literal jewel (one with an engraved message on it? Is her poem a forerunner to Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’?) or whether she is using ‘jewel’ as a metaphor for the object or quality being apostrophised. However, the main thing is that she is addressing something which has told her that higher wisdom is beyond her understanding. This ‘jewel’ is highly desirable and she is tempted to reach for it, even though she will not understand it.
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.
Next, Wheatley’s speaker turns from this unspecified addressee to something nearer herself: her own soul. She reassures her soul, telling it not to begin despairing at its failure to attain the desired wisdom. The quality known as Virtue is nearby, here personified as a woman who wishes to embrace the poet’s soul and keep guard over her head.
Gladly (‘Fain’) would the poet’s soul speak with Virtue, so that it might woo her for the delight she can offer the poet.
Auspicious queen, thine heavenly pinions spread,
And lead celestial Chastity along;
Lo! now her sacred retinue descends,
Arrayed in glory from the orbs above.
The second stanza of the poem begins with Wheatley addressing Virtue as a queen of good omen, who has wings (‘pinions’) like an angel. She leads another quality, Chastity (that is, sexual purity), who follows with her. Wheatley’s speaker sees Virtue descending from the heavens with this divine following, clad in such glorious finery as only the heavenly stars and planets can bestow.
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!
Wheatley’s speaker concludes the poem by calling on Virtue to attend on her during her years of youth, so that she will not be tempted by ‘false joys’ which are short-lived (or temporal) rather than everlasting. Instead, she wishes to be guided along the path that leads to eternal life and endless happiness in heaven.
She equates Virtue with ‘Greatness’ and ‘Goodness’, and says she will call her by those names (‘appellation’) if Virtue wishes her to. She ends the poem by calling upon Virtue to teach her how to write nobler poems or songs (‘lays’), because Virtue sits on a heavenly throne along with angels or ‘Cherubs’.
‘On Virtue’: analysis
Wheatley’s poem doesn’t just praise virtue as an admirable quality in this poem. She personifies it as a divine and queenlike figure, calling upon ‘her’ assistance so that she, the poet, can write more inspired verse and also resist any temptation which might come her way, especially during her years of youth.
Perhaps her youth is relevant here because young people are viewed as more innocent, and thus prone to temptation and being led astray, than older, wiser people. Note here that the poet disavows any claims to possessing any wisdom herself, early on in the poem. However, another interpretation might focus on the fact that young people have more opportunities to be tempted to ‘sins of the flesh’ (as they used to be called). Wheatley was writing in a Christian culture and her poem bears the stamp of a religious understanding of the world.
Of course, it’s also worth remembering that Wheatley was very young when she wrote her poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was perhaps still as young as twenty.
Much of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry can be analysed as an example of Augustan poetry. Augustan poetry was verse written in the eighteenth century which looked back to the age of the great Roman emperor Augustus and consciously echoed its style and values. Such poetry is concerned with order and balance, not just in the world but in the poetry itself. It is also urbane, decorous, and ‘proper’: stately and formal, and often invoking figures from classical mythology.
This is why the heroic couplet – rhyming couplets written in iambic pentameter – was the preferred form for neoclassical or Augustan poets of the eighteenth century. The rhythms are decorous, stately, and grand: the form is known as the ‘heroic couplet’ because this was the verse form of choice when poets translated the classical epics – poems of heroic deeds such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid – into English.
This is the verse form which Wheatley utilises in ‘On Virtue’. We can see this more clearly by focusing on the opening couplet:
O THOU bright JEW-el IN my AIM I STRIVE
To COM-pre-HEND thee. THINE own WORDS de-CLARE
Here, the capitalised, underlined syllables carry the heavy stresses and the lower-case ones carry only light stresses. Note that ‘jew-el’ is pronounced as having two syllables.
It’s also worth noting that poems written after the Augustan fashion often end with an extended last line, which has six feet instead of five (so hexameter rather than pentameter). This is known as an alexandrine. Wheatley ends ‘On Virtue’ with such a line:
O THOU, en-THRONED with CHE-rubs IN the REALMS of DAY!
This closing alexandrine concludes the poem with a more decisive flourish.