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Saturday, September 24, 2011

On Virtue

(Frontispiece and title page of Poems on Various Subjects,
Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant
to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, published in 1773)

As we continue our look at romance or Eros, we take a moment to clear up a common misunderstanding.

There is an important difference between celibacy and chastity.

Celibacy is a commitment or discipline, in which a person by free choice abstains completely from sex.

Chastity, by contrast, is a virtue, part of the virtue of temperance or moderation in accord with a particular state of life. For example, according to the dictates of traditional religions, single people are called to both chastity and celibacy and married couples to conjugal chastity but not to celibacy.

But why be celibate or chaste? In the verse below, the poet explores virtue and the steps that virtue leads us to take on the road to “endless life and bliss.”

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was a remarkable woman. When she was only seven, she was captured in West Africa for the slave trade. Purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, she was taught how to read and write and study classic books like the Bible and the works of Milton, Ovid, Homer, and Virgil. Mrs. Wheatley also encouraged her to publish a volume of her verses. Her poems won her the admiration and respect of persons like George Washington and John Hancock in America, and Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, and other people fighting for the Abolitionist cause in England.


O though 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!

~ Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), American poet

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