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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 17 -- SLAVERY AND SHADES OF TRUTH --

Reading Assignment:

    William Cowper, "The Negro's Complaint" (1789)
    Demaria, p. 827

    Olaudah Equiano, from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789)
    Demaria, p. 871

Recommended reading:

    William Blake, "Little Black Boy" (1787),
    Demaria, p 912

DUE: Weekly Post #9 for Scotland and Ireland

Also read the introductory statements for authors in Demaria.



The issue of slavery is brought to the forefront by William Cowper's poem and the biographical narrative of Olaudah Equiano, both published in 1789. Because these were published a century after Behn's story, Oroonoko we ought to ask how the representations of slavery have changed. What has remained the same? What is the stance on slavery? How are the arguments made?

Although the pieces differ widely in form -- a lyrical poem vs. a long prose narrative -- they share similar strategies. Both are primarily concerned with demonstrating the subjectivity of the slave, and in particular the highly sensitive and rational humanity of the slave. Also, both are concerned with the themes of economics and spirituality.



Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:

"The Negro's Complaint" (1789)

1.
Whose voice does Cowper construct in this poem? What is the significance?

Observe the form of the poem. What is the meter? What is the rhyme scheme? Line length? Stanza form? What is the significance of this choice?

The symbolism of gold is significant in this poem. How does if function in the first stanza? Compare this with the phrase "slaves of gold" in the final stanza. The last phrase refers to the slave-traders. What are the implications of the reversal?

At stake in this poem is the capacity of human feeling. How does the poem convey the ideal of human "affection"? Where does the human race fail in fulfilling human affection? Note the "broken heart" of line 48, and the closing exhortation.

What is the significance of sugar in this poem? Compare this with Equiano's view of sugar.

Stanzas four and five address Christianity. What problems does the speaker find with Christians? What explanation does he offer for the tornadoes and hurricanes of the West Indies? Does the poem attack Christian virtue? How might speaker's notion of virtue be reconciled with Christianity?

What arguments does the speaker make against racism in the final stanza?


Olaudah Equiano (1789)

2.

This is the first text we have read by an Anglo-African. In what important ways does it differ from the novella by Behn and the poem by Cowper?

The opening paragraphs of the selection describe Equiano's religious sentiments. What does he believe? How does his Christian belief affect his condition as a slave? How does this differ from Oroonoko? From the slave of Cowper's poem?

As in the poem by Cowper, explore how this narrative establishes the sensitive nature of the slave's consciousness. What does Equiano tell us about the state of slavery? How does this affect his mind? his emotions? his sense of the future? his value for himself? Also, how does he convey the sensitivity of other slaves he has met?

Equiano has a certain amount of gratitude toward his former master, Mr. King, calling him among other things "a man of feeling." Based on this description, what makes a good master?

Again, the importance of sugar is raised. What role does it play in the slave trade? How does Equiano represent it?

Equiano seems particularly incensed that the right for Africans to work for their own wage is denied them in a state of slavery. Equiano seems to stress that the Africans can earn and save and even purchase their own boats or freedom, except when they are cheated or exploited by white men. What is the point of this particular emphasis? What does Equiano achieve by this?

These passages also form a catalogue of the abuses Equiano has witnessed among other slaves. What other forms of abuse does he describe? How does the condition of the female slave differ from the male? What role does physical health play in the lot of the slave? What role does mental soundness play?

When Equiano asks a slave trader how he would answer to God for the lives of those slaves he has abused, the trader replies: "Answering was a thing of another world; what he thought and did were policy" (1126). What does this mean? What are the ethical implications for this separation between act and responsibility? What does this imply about the motivations of slave-owners/traders? How might a text like Equiano's answer this widespread perception?


3.

Throughout Equiano has recourse to many biblical and Miltonic allusions. Examine some of these in detail. What impact do these two sources have on his text? What are the implications? Specifically examine the parallels between the scenes of hell described by Milton and the state of slavery. What might the parallel suggest to the eighteenth-century reader? What do the parallels suggest to you?

"But is not the slave-trade entirely a war with the heart of man?" (879). "Such a tendency has the slave-trade to debauch men's minds, and harden them to every feeling of humanity" (879). Why does Equiano stress the state of men's hearts? What is he appealing to in these lines (and others like them)? How does this compare with Cowper's poem?

Equiano also insists on rights in a way that directly calls to mind Locke's Essay Concerning...Civil Government" (1690). Reread the section on Slavery, p. 216. Compare Equiano's statement that slavery "violates that first natural right of mankind, equality, and independency; and gives one man a dominion over his fellows which God could never intend!" (879).

Examine Equiano's argument. What does he borrow from the discourse on rights? How does he use this to support the abolition of slavery?

In this final section of the excerpt, Equiano addresses the Planters. What does he tell them? How does he aim to help the lot of slaves? What role does economics play? What role does sentimental humanity play?

Note the commonplace assumptions about Africans that Equiano argues against in the last paragraph. What stereotypes does he invoke? How does he counter them here? How does his project of writing the narrative counter these stereotypes?


4.

Having read literature of and about men and women from different social classes and races, comment on the representations of truth and virtue. Who defines virtue? Who has access to virtue so defined? How do political ideas of government affect notions of virtue? Who has the right to govern? What is virtuous behavior for the governed? What role does God play in this literature? How does one's social position affect his or her relationship to God? Finally, what role does this literature play in conveying these truths?


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