Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Poem by Phillis Wheatley, A Slave in the 1700s

by Phillis Wheatley

WHILE an intrinsic ardor prompts to write,
The muses promise to assist my pen;
'Twas not long since I left my native shore
The land of errors, and Egyptian gloom:
Father of mercy, 'twas thy gracious hand
Brought me in safety from those dark abodes.
Students, to you 'tis giv'n to scan the heights
Above, to traverse the ethereal space,
And mark the systems of revolving worlds.
Still more, ye sons of science ye receive
The blissful news by messengers from heav'n,
How Jesus' blood for your redemption flows.
See him with hands out-stretcht upon the cross;
Immense compassion in his bosom glows;
He hears revilers, nor resents their scorn:
What matchless mercy in the Son of God!
When the whole human race by sin had fall'n,
He deign'd to die that they might rise again,
And share with him in the sublimest skies,
Life without death, and glory without end.

Improve your privileges while they stay,
Ye pupils, and each hour redeem, that bears
Or good or bad report of you to heav'n.
Let sin, that baneful evil to the soul,
By you be shun'd, nor once remit your guard;
Suppress the deadly serpent in its egg.
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you 'tis your greatest foe;
Its transient sweetness turns to endless pain,
And in immense perdition sinks the soul.


Phillis Wheatley arrived in America in 1761 as a slave child from Gambia. Her first name comes from the name of the ship, and her last name from her master's family, who educated her well. She became an accomplished poet, was the first African American to publish a book, and appeared before George Washington in 1776. In 1784, she died free but in poverty. You can find out more at Wikipedia article on Phillis Wheatley.


The 7th/8th grade students in our home school co-op are doing a history report over the next two weeks, and one of their topic options is Phillis Wheatley. Their history teacher and I are trying to integrate some of the material in our two classes, so it is a joint writing project. She will evaluate it for historical content, while I will grade for grammar, punctuation, spelling, and organization. I will also go over this poem with them on Monday and talk about Phillis Wheatley's life as part of my Great American Communicators series. I want to especially point out the lines "Improve your privileges while they stay, Ye pupils, and each hour redeem..." since I have been constantly encouraging them to make the most of their education, to THINK THINK THINK beyond the bare minimum, and to pay close attention to spiritual and social justice themes in their studies.

It's going to be a busy class on Monday. We need to talk about how to plan and organize their history report and do our regular literature study. We will also start to rehearse Patrick Henry's "Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death" speech, which I have split up into 15 paragraphs so each student can recite several lines. I want them to practice speaking clearly and with expression, as well as to learn the pronunciations and meanings of several of the longer words. They will have a week to work on it at home before we attempt to present it as a group in the next class. I think we'll skip grammar this week! Do you think they'll complain too loudly about that?


Virginia Knowles

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