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Module 1: Politics and Romantic Poetry

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Abolitionist Poetry

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This lesson is devoted to abolitionist poetry, i.e. poetry about abolishing the slave trade and slave itself. Hannah More’s “The Sorrows of Yamba, or The Negro Woman’s Lamentation” represents Yamba as an individual who is primarily bemoaning her victim status. She remains an abject presence throughout the tale. Yamba’s tale also foregrounds African family and domestic life in More’s attempt to humanize them and thereby offers a nominal attempt at equality. More alleviates any possible English anxiety around the angry and vengeful black by presenting the black woman as forgiving and Christian, and with no other thought than peace for all. (Refer Slide Time: 1:24) True of heart, and meek and lowly, Pure and blameless let me grow! Holy may I be, for Holy, Is the place to which I go. “The Sorrows of Yamba” The idea is to communicate to the unfeeling, uncaring English public that here are the slaves, the blacks, the Africans who are human in their sentiment. (Refer Slide Time: 2:01) The black body is sentimental and vulnerable but also cringing and quiescent. The portrayal of the black body as possessing of sentiment does suggest a measure of agency. It could also be read as the reduction of the black to a mass of harmless sentiment, but minus anger or rebelliousness: none of these poems depict angry, ready-to-fight slaves, what we see are only snivelling and weeping-for-comfort black. In More’s ‘Slavery: A Poem’, she begins by proposing that the blacks have the power of rationality. She opens that way but she does not want to project that black as a racial type possessing rational behaviour, rationality, rational thinking and reasoning. So she slowly shifts the characteristic of the black from rationality and reason to passions. Here is an excerpt from Hannah More’s ‘Slavery: A Poem’, it was a very well-known poem. it was used as part of abolitionist gatherings through the early 19th century. …they have heads to think, and hearts to feel, And souls to act, with firm, tho’ erring, zeal; For they have keen affections, kind desires, Love strong as death, and active patriot fires; All the rude energy, the fervid flame, Of high-soul’d passion, and ingenuous shame: Strong, but luxuriant virtues boldly shoot From the wild vigour of a savage root. “Slavery: A Poem” For much abolitionist poetry the blacks and slaves were unthinking men, or therefore implicitly just matter. More sees the problem of slavery and oppression not as a matter that requires deep thought about politics, economy or racial relations. Rather these require feeling and a sentimental response. (Refer Slide Time: 3:54) There needs no logic sure to make us feel. The nerve, howe’er untutor’d, can sustain A sharp, unutterable sense of pain. ----- On feeling hearts she sheds celestial dew, And breathes her spirit o’er th’ enlighten’d few; From soul to soul the spreading influence steals, Till every breast the soft contagion feels. “Slavery” She is not speaking legal reasoning, she is not speaking rational thinking or mathematical thinking or scientific objectivity, she is arguing that in order to respond to the black person’s suffering we need to be sentimental creatures as well as English. In Amelia Opie’s “The Negro Boy’s Tale” (1795), the black boy wishes to go on the ship to England, for then he would be free. The white girl, Anna, wishes she could help, but her father refuses and the boy, desperately trying to get on the ship, drowns and dies. The poem is structured around the boy’s tale, about being separated from his mother, his subsequent slavery, his dreams of returning to his mother, but it is equally structured around the politics of the white girl’s sentiment. The heart of the poem is the boy’s plea to the white girl and the white girl’s request to her father, that she should be allowed one black friend who could, ostensibly, be the object of her charity: (Refer Slide Time: 5:15) ‘I know’, she cried, ‘I cannot free The numerous slaves that round me pine; But one poor negro’s friend to be, Might (blessed chance!), might now be mine’. “The Negro Boy’s Tale” The despairing black slave is at the heart of abolitionist poetry, in what you can think of as a rhetoric of objectification because all we have is a feeling individual, a body as in a material body which feels, not necessarily who thinks. William Cowper therefore building on his argument will advise a slave like this coming up on your slide now. Bid suffer it a while, and kiss the rod, Wait for the dawning of a brighter day, And snap the chain the moment when you may. Nature imprints upon whate’er we see, That has a heart and life in it, Be free! The beasts are charter’d—neither age nor force Can quell the love of freedom in a horse: He breaks the cord that held him at the rack; And, conscious of an unencumber’d back, Snuffs up the morning air, forgets the rein; Loose fly his forelock and his ample mane; Responsive to the distant neigh, he neighs; Nor stops, till, overleaping all delays, He finds the pasture where his fellows graze. Cowper, “Charity” Another example of such poetry, the abolitionist kind is Ann Yearsley’s poem, “A poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade” published in 1788. It constructs a family for the slave object. Why family? The presence of the family humanizes the slave and it is seen as a mode of establishing an equivalence between the Native Americans and the whites. The whites have families and so did the Native Americans. Here is an example from Ann Yearsley’s “A poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade”. He strives to please, Nor once complains, but greatly smothers grief. His hands are blister’d, and his feet are worn, Till ev’ry stroke dealt by his mattock gives Keen agony to life; while from his breast The sigh arises, burthen’d with the name Of Incilanda. Time inures the youth, His limbs grow nervous, strain’d by willing toil; And resignation, or a calm despair, (Most useful either) lulls him to repose. “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade” The attempt as you can see is to show agonized black bodies, but also a nice emotional passionate body. Towards the end of the poem Yearsley calls for a different sentimental response to the conditions of the West Indian rule as she puts it: (Refer Slide Time: 6:57) Thy softest emanations, pity, grief, Lively emotion, sudden joy, and pangs, Too deep for language, are thy own: then rise, Thou gentle angel! Spread thy silken wings O’er drowsy man, breathe in his soul, and give Her God-like pow’rs thy animating force, To banish Inhumanity. “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade” Charlotte Dacre (Charlotte Byrne née King) in “The Poor Negro Sadi” deals with the sufferings of a black man who has been “torn like a wretch from his innocent dwelling” and was forced to leave his wife and cosy domesticity. In England, he is completely abjected: Oh, Britons! So fam’d in the annals of glory, The poor negro Sadi is cast on your plains— Oh, Britons! If just be your fame or your glory, The poor negro Sadi shall bless your domains. “The Poor Negro Sadi” Nobody actually recognizes Sadi, it is invisibility or the invisiblization of the black. Eventually lying down to die in a doorway he is thrown out from the minimal shelter and Sadi eventually dies unaided, alone. Having said all that there are other dimensions to the abolitionist poetry and the rhetoric of objectification of sentimentality. One is what we are about to turn to. The moral contagion of “blood sugar”, (blood sugar is sugarcane and the common phrasing sugarcane actually is connected to the question of slave labour) had seeped into the English constitution in eighteenth and early 19th century abolitionist poetry. (Refer Slide Time: 8:38) Slavery is the source of contagion in abolitionist rhetoric, and England by being involved in slavery, is responsible, in a sense, for its own pathology. Southey and the others would see slavery as England’s greed: For the pale fiend, cold-hearted Commerce there Breathes his gold-gendered pestilence afar, And calls to share the prey his kindred Daemon War. “Sonnet 1”, Southey’s poems on the Slave Trade For many people writing abolitionist poetry slavery is a source of contagion and England by being involved in slavery is responsible for its own pathology. Robert Southey for example would see England's greed as primary. (Refer Slide Time: 9:04) In “To the Genius of Africa” (1795), Southey called upon the African climate to avenge the enslavement of its peoples by infecting European slavers with disease: And o’er the unholy host with baneful breath There Genius thou hast breath’d the gales of Death. What Southey is doing is he saying you people have enslaved the blacks, now whatever has happened will return as a contagion to harm you. So, the metaphor of disease of contagion is central to Robert Southey’s imagination of the slave trade. As you can see, Abolitionist poetry has a wide variety of rhetorical and rhetorical strategies: it sentimentalizes the black, it paints racial relations in tension in contexts but also shows that sentimentality wins, there is often a demand for restitution in the form of a sentimental response rather than a material or legal response. There is a call for the black person's revenge rooted in of course melancholy and mourning to show the English what they have actually done. This is only a partial study of abolitionist poetry. For those of you interested, the volume Subject to Others has a considerable amount of material on abolitionist poetry.