A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

WITS Voices: The Tale of the Eloquent Sixth Graders

By Laura Gamache, WITS Writer-in-Residence

Good writing depends on the author or poet knowing far more about what they are writing than what they put down on paper, and the same probably goes for teaching.

I have worked with Marianne Clarke and her 6th grade Language Arts students at TOPS K-8 for several years. She is terrific to work with, a master teacher who is game for her students to connect with the ancient world through my poetry experiments. As an 11-year-old, I was thrilled by the mysteries of hieroglyphics, mummification, and whatever else might yet be found in the pyramids of ancient Egypt—and it so happens, Marianne also teaches these kids Social Studies, and they are currently studying ancient Egypt.

Richard Parkinson reading a papyrus in context.

Years ago, I bought a book of stodgy translations of ancient Egyptian poems, but recently I spent some time on Google looking for livelier revisitings, and I found “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” a long-form poem from the Middle Kingdom, around 4,000 years ago.

The finder was Richard Parkinson, British Egyptologist and academic who teaches at Queens College, Oxford, and curated the Department of Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum up until 2013. He made a YouTube video entitled, “The Queen Shrieks: The Shock of Ancient Egyptian Poetry,” which was, sadly, tedious. His ideas are good, though, and he retranslated “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.” I used the document of his process, from hieroglyph to language sound to English, for our writing time.

We watched the final five minutes of “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant,” made in 1970 by Egyptian filmmaker Shadi Abdel Salam and recently remastered. But first, I summarized the story:

A peasant is taking his goods to market with his two donkeys, when he is accosted by a soldier who robs him of everything. Ancient Egypt valued justice and equality under the law, and the wronged peasant went to the Pharaoh’s local authority to ask for justice. He spoke beautifully, and the authority made him return again and again to hear his fine speeches.

I got it a little bit wrong. I thought the man who stole from the peasant was a soldier (he was a vassal of the high steward Rensi). I also thought the pharaoh was the one who listened to the peasant’s nine calls for justice (it was the high steward who judged). Pharaoh had heard of the perfect speeches of the peasant, and scribes wrote each down for his enjoyment, adding another level of injustice and insensitivity.

Even with my mistakes, the relative societal positions were clear. I asked the kids to watch for how the different characters looked and behaved, and to notice whether justice was eventually given to “The Eloquent Peasant.” I also asked them to listen for the sounds in Arabic we don’t have in English. The film is in Egyptian Arabic, with closed captions in French (watch it here).

After watching the film, we talked about justice, and how the peasant, despite being lower on the social ladder than the man who wrongfully stole from him, demanded and finally received reparations through his perseverance and gift of language.

The writing portion of our time was based on the fifth of the peasant’s nine speeches, using this translation (see the bottom of page 53 through page 54). The speeches are the only part of the Tale, set as poems, which emphasize their eloquence.

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (excerpt)

The belongings of a pauper are his breath,
to take them away is to stop up his nose.
You were appointed to hear cases,
to judge between litigants,
and to punish the robber.
But look, what you are doing is supporting the thief.
You are trusted, yet you have become a transgressor.
You were appointed to be a dike for the pauper,
so take care that he doesn’t drown!
But look, you are the lake that pulls him under.

After I read this fifth pleading aloud, we talked a little about the Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799 at El Rashid (Rosetta), buried in a trench by the French army. Since the French read ancient Greek, they saw that the stone had Greek, another language that turned out to be Egyptian Demotic Script, and Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, and saved it. (See Richard Parkinson’s video here).

The breakthrough in translating from Greek to hieroglyphs happened in 1822, and within six months, 3,000 years of written culture were available to modern people, allowing us to connect our own humanity with theirs down through all that time. Here was a place I could make use of the twine we threw between us on the first day.

“Remember how we connected physically with each other with that twine on Tuesday?” I asked them. A few kids nodded. “Now imagine we can toss it back to the writer of this poem, to include that person in our community.” I paused. They sat there. “Does anybody else think this is incredibly cool?” More nods, and several kids raised their hands.

We went over definitions, beginning with “eloquent” and “peasant,” and continuing through “dike,” a seawall (nobody knew the story of The Little Dutch boy who saved Holland by putting his finger in a leaking dike).

The time was right to write!

On their handouts, below the poem, was a second version:

The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant (excerpt)
(write your lines between these 4000-year-old ones!)

The belongings of a pauper are his breath,


to take them away is to stop up his nose.


You were appointed to hear cases,


to judge between litigants,


and to punish the robber.


But look, what you are doing is supporting the thief.


You are trusted, yet you have become a transgressor.


You were appointed to be a dike for the pauper,


so take care that he doesn’t drown!


But look, you are the lake that pulls him under.



Those blank lines, I said, are for you to fill in. With the poem under the document camera I asked for suggestions for that first blank. My notes show:

The belongings of a pauper are his breath      (line one of translated poem)

necessary as lungs.                                         (suggestion for an original second line)


Marianne and I walked around as the kids wrote, to offer help to those kids still at sea about the project, and to keep writers humming along in their boats.

The final writing stage was to copy only the lines written by 21st century 6th graders and give the poems titles. I told them it didn’t have to make sense or be coherent, and that they could change their lines some if they wanted. I was nervous to discover what connections the 6th graders would make. Here are some of the poem titles:

Under the Water
His Words
The Devil Inside Your Head
The Regrets of a Judge
Bad Decisions
The Fate of One
The Thief
A Viper in the Grass
Justice (five people)

Would they play with figurative language, as this ancient poet had?

P.C.’s poem, “When Justice is Called For,” begins:

the belongings of a pauper are as connected
to him as his limbs, to steal
them equals dismemberment…

L.C. added this metaphor: “his lungs are his life.”

K.X. added more metaphorical language in “Help for the Peasant”:

The feelings of a pauper are his heart,
to destroy them is to clog his throat.

Many kids wrote variations of “He can’t breathe” for a first line, which immediately calls to mind Eric Garner, a Black man who died during arrest for selling bootlegged cigarettes, gasping, “I can’t breathe” as a police officer held him in an illegal chokehold in 2014. Injustice continues, racism and preferential treatment for the powerful are part of our culture 4,000 years on, but outrage, courage, exposure of evil, perseverance, and voicing truth have continuing and change-inducing influence, too.

We can feel the stir of eloquence and outrage in M.A.’s poem, “The Downfall,” as he writes:

But why have you chosen wrong over right?
You have earned trust, yet you have taken advantage.
You were trusted to help the poor and weak,
and to keep his case afloat!

In “Something to Fight For,” after urging the judge not to be “fighting/against your own strength,” J.M. continues:

There is still
a chance to help. Therefore
keep your head above the water.

I.S-R, too, urges the judge, with his enormous ocean-like dominance, to do the right thing:

yet you are unable to listen
to distinguish right from wrong
and to pull the pauper up from
beneath the waves.
Pushing the pauper back under
you have forever lost his trust
yet you have become the tide and
the waves, pushing him down.
Take care that you don’t stoop down
and become an equal of the thief.

In “The Wrong,” M.M.’s effective use of the contemporary phrase, “that will be on you” makes the poem:

the food of a pauper is his life,
to take his food is to kill him.
You were supposed to listen to us all,
to choose your people’s fate,
and demolish all wrong.
Look whose fate you’re actually choosing.
You are respected, but you are evil.
You were supposed to listen.
Make sure he doesn’t fall,
for that will be on you.
Look, you are the wrong.

The last two lines of H.M.’s poem admonish the judge, with the authority of a mother speaking to a naughty child:

by H.M.

to take a pauper’s belongings
is like taking a child from
the mother. You were chosen to
protect, to put right to
wrong, to leave the child
safely in the mother’s arms,
but you did the opposite.You might as well be
the thief. You are the seawall
so do your job.

Though I don’t quite understand the last line of this next poem, it has real authority, and I really like the shift from third to first person narration:

“Truth and Lies”
by L.G.

His pride like a candle
a gust of wind snuffing out the light
the balance of truths and lies.
Fiddling life between your fingers
when you drop it to the floor
because your biases have weighted down
the balance,
stealing my breath and snuffing my candle.
To separate the lies from the truth
because the lies flood in
and you are blinded by the truth.

Poet and teaching artist Laura Gamache earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Washington, where she directed the Writers in the Schools MFA Internship Program for 10 years. She has published two chapbooks: “Never Enough.” in 2017. and “Nothing to Hold Onto,” in 2005. Her poems and teaching essays have appeared in many print and on-line journals and anthologies, including WA129 in 2017. She has had the privilege of writing and reading with students as a WITS writer since 1997.

Posted in Writers in the Schools2018/19 Season