Abolitionist Poetry

The 1807 abolition of slave relations of production within the British Empire may have been very progressive for its time, but one wonders if these same authors would have been so jovial if they could see the way leading capitalists have lined up to contrast the modern marvel of “free trade and labor” with slavery.

The collection of essays I had the opportunity to read accurately reflects the trends of the British abolitionist movement of the nineteenth century (with all the trappings one would assume), particularly their eloquent use of parody to convey the sufferings of slaves to the public. William Cowper’s Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce is a prime example of this method, whereby a narrator talks to the reader in darkly sarcastic tones. The poem itself comes in a form similar to a bar song, though it graphically discusses torture, whippings and mutilation of “negroes,” each stanza ending with the unsettling refrain, “which nobody can deny,” a line that begins to take on the double meaning—the ‘undeniability’ of the agony of slavery. Meanwhile, Robert Southey’s epic The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade keeps to the visceral and rapturous in terms of feeling, but ends up being more ironic than the author perhaps intended. At the end, the narrator (a preacher) tells him that God will forgive his sins if only he prays and asks, in the process giving the sailor a convenient vehicle with which to cope with the continuance of his trade.

The poem hereby implies that the sailor’s religion will be used to encourage, not stop the sailor’s behavior, while at the same time it may be said that the narrator is showing the sailor a new (abolitionist) way free of the sin of slave trading. This odd duality certainly leaves the work open to debate, and shines a light on how traditional doctrines of morality, such as Christianity, can be used to justify both progressive and reactionary forces. Hannah More, on the other hand, throws subtlety to the wind with her work Slavery, a Poem, in which she seems to shout in thunderous language at the very heavens, crying for any force of justice to rain fire down upon this wicked world. Much of the same can be said about Cowper’s other major work in this section, On Slavery. Both simply state in powerful yet plain language the experiences of the abducted and colonized races. In my opinion, by far the most disturbing of the bunch is The Sailor, not only because of its abrupt twist ending but because of its outrageous uncertainty.

Ann Yearsley’s A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade not only far surpasses its simple title in rich content, but also manages to carve out effective imagery in the text in order to force the reader into the place of an individual slave, making it a personal favorite. Hardly anything is said about the character of Luco as an individual, but the scenes of the mourning of his family at his abduction and his heroism in the face of the horrendous tortures he endures develop his character far more than simple dialogue ever could. When Luco is enraged at being blinded by a whip and kills his master with his hoe—a symbol of his oppression—the reader is made to feel his wrath. When afterwards he faces the fate of burning alive rather than live as an animal or beast, the reader himself is filled with righteous anger. The poem shows above all the millions of individual dramas that lay behind hollow statistics such as tallies of slave figures.

Written in a different style but showcasing the same sort of detached and analytical cynicism, Anna Barbauld’s On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade is written almost like a letter to William Wilberforce, shows how the ruling class lackeys and the clergy have given the black man false hope that he might be free through peaceful, parliamentary means. Without knowing it, the text reinforces the belief in the utter futility of ruling class politics and implies the only way an enslaved people will be, or has ever been, freed is through armed struggle, such as the slave uprisings that were happening in the British colonies at the time. It also exposes (perhaps meant in a mocking manner) the worship of Wilberforce as the “great man of history,” the white liberal at the head of the abolitionist movement. Throughout, her account of his exploits and ideological fights read like propaganda. One can only hope she meant to display the hypocrisy in placing a white reformist writer (who foolishly sought peaceful means to emancipation) on the grand pedestal of admiration instead of the black slave organizers of revolts themselves, who risked their lives to gain freedom.

Wordsworth’s sonnet To Toussaint Louverture does not have the same intention as Anna Barbauld’s poem—to criticize a figurehead of the abolitionist movement and to undermine his cult of personality or taking of excessive credit—but rather gives focus to a genuine revolutionary hero who was instrumental in a slave uprising. Wordsworth clearly had an admiration for the man, though the poem itself goes into no great detail about why Louverture should be so revered. This is most likely to avoid charges of sedition or treason by the British government, since Louverture was the leader of the Haitian slave uprisings that uprooted the colonialists. Ultimately Wordsworth says that his story will be heard around the globe to inspire other oppressed peoples, though he fails to mention if too much focus on reformism of the Wilberforce type will be promoted by the ruling classes.

The Little Black Boy seems to be one of William Blake’s more “innocent” poems in the Songs of Innocence, disturbingly so. The narrator, the little black boy in question, seems to unhesitatingly absorb what is told to him by the dark figures of authority in the poem, such as his mother or God. It demonstrates the role of the church in the creation of the slave trade by implying that the Jesus figure favors the little white boy. Even his mother seems complicit in the boy’s ultimate fate in becoming a slave, since he is completely dependent on her for information regarding the world. The last stanza is obviously meant to be sarcastic, showing the tendency in society for the lower classes to aspire to and imitate the habits of the higher ones, no matter how reprehensible.

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