"Epistle to Wilberforce"
Hannah More, from "On the Slave Trade" (1790)
Demaria, p. 882
DUE: Weekly Post #10 for England and Wales
Also read the introductory statements for authors in Demaria.
This week we will discuss two poems that clearly advocate the abolition of the slave trade.
More's was initially published in 1790 under the title of "Slavery, a Poem," and Barbauld's
was published in June of 1791 following a parliamentary debate on a motion to abolish
the slave trade (see note below). These poems demonstrate how female poets used their writing
to engage in public and political debate. As you read, notice how each poet addresses certain
audiences and try to identify the strategies -- poetic, rhetorical, or otherwise -- they
use to persuade their readers.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
excerpt from Hannah More's "The Slave Trade"
First of all, identify the poetic form (line length, rhyme scheme, meter, etc.) that
More uses. How is this like or unlike Cowper's poem? What is the effect of this form
on the poem (again, how is this like or unlike Cowper's?)
Note More's emphasis on "feeling" in the poem. What does she write about feeling?
Lines 126-150 emphasize the comparison between the slave traders (and perhaps those who
support or benefit by the slave trade) and the Africans who are enslaved. What is
the basis of comparison for More? What point does she make?
Note the lines: "Let malice strip them of each other plea, / They still are men, and men should still be free" (164-5).
What do the lines mean? Why might this be a radical claim?
In the lines that follow, (165-203), More draws out the implication of a trade in human flesh,
and she emphasizes here the contrast between reason and feeling. How is
feeling compared or opposed with "reason"? Why?
THe final lines of the poem focus on the suffering negro -- what does More emphasize about his
(notably his) suffering?
Lines 222-245 address the slave directly. What is the rhetorical purpose in doing so?
What message does she want the slave to understand? What are the implications of this
message? What is your reaction / response to More's religious assurance?
Barbauld's "Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the rejection of the bill for abolishing
the slave trade" (1791)
Quoted from Anna Letitia Barbauld: Selected Poetry and Prose ed. William Mc Carthy and
Elizabeth Kraft (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2002):
In 1787 Thomas Clarkson and other Quakers formed the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
Their purpose was to lobby Parliament to prohibit British participation in the
international trade in enslaved Africans. In 1789 William Wilberforce (1759-1833),
MP for Hull and an Evangelical conservative, undertook to speak for the Society in the House of Commons. On 18
April 1791 he offered a formal motion on abolition. In a powerful speech he
chronicled the horrors of the trade, leading to the pointed question, "Whilst
... we were ignorant of all these things, our suffering them to continue, might ... be pardoned;
but now, when our eyes are opened, can we tolerate them for a moment, much less sanction them,
unless we are ready at once to determine that gain shall be our god, and, like the heathens of old, are prepared
to offer up human victims at the shrine or our idolatry?" (Debate on a Motion for the Abolition of the Slave-Trade,
Examine the line length, meter and rhyme scheme of Barbauld's poem. Although similar to
More's poem, the sound of the two poems differs. How does it differ? How can you
explain the difference?
Although seconded by William Smith, Charles James Fox, and William Pitt, the Prime Minister, Wilberforce's motion failed
by a vote of 163 to 88. Nevertheless, the abolitionist movement enjoyed strong literary support in the
1780s and 90s, particularly from women poets such as Hannah More (Slavery, 1788), Ann
Yearsley (A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade, 1788), and Helen Maria Williams
(A Poem on the Slave Bill, 1788); Moira Ferguson has studied the connections between feminism
and abolitionism in this literature (Subject to Others).
Barbauld wrote her poem soon after the debate, to which she alludes; its
publication was advertised in The Morning Chronicle on 11 June. She sent a copy to Hannah More, one of the leading
abolitionist writers, who thanked her warmly (LeBreton, Memoir, pp. 67-69). The
novelist Frances Burney thought Wilberforce by far the finest of Barbauld's poems
(Journals and Letters, 4:188); The Monthly Review likened it
to the "vigorous and manly strains" of the Roman satirist, Juvenal (p. 227)" (p. 121-2).
Note that Barbauld employs a number of abstractions in the poem and addresses them as
"he" and "she." For example, beginning in line two, she identifies Wilberforce's "country,"
that is, Britain, as the "she" in the lines that follow. She knows the "sin and stands the Shame!"
The opening stanza (lines 1- 18) addresses Wilberforce and describes the attempts to
make England/Britain take responsibility for the wrongs of the slave trade. What is the tone
of these lines? Describe the "Voice" of the poet here (is it public? moral? stern? private?
coaxing? gentle? sentimental?)
The first part of the following stanza (lines 19-41) describe the parliament's reaction
to Wilberforce's argument. How does Barbauld characterize the debate?
Note: line 40 "To jests unseemly, and to horrid mirth -- " McCarthy and Kraft note: "During the Commons debate, when William SMith recounted an incident
of an African mother's being compelled to throw the body of her child from a ship,
some members laughed (Debate, p. 89).
The lines that follow (41-56) describe the effect of slavery on British slaveholders in
the West Indies. What happens to these people, according the Barbauld? What is the effect
of Barbauld's generalizations?
Barbauld similarly describes the effects of slavery on the West Indian British mistress, in
lines 57-70. How is the effect of slavery on the slaveholder gendered in this picture?
Of this image, Hannah More wrote to Barbauld: "I could not forbear repeating to [Wilberforce]
part of the animated description of the union of barbarity and voluptuousness in the West Indian woman, and
he did full justice to this striking picture" (Le Breton, Memoir, p. 68). William
Turner remarked in later years, "This picture, highly wrought as it is, is abundantly
borne out by the ... evidence on the treatment of slaves, delivered before the committee
of the house of commons" ("Mrs. Barbauld," p. 231) (noted in McCarthy and Kraft, p. 125).
The next stanza describes the contrast between the pastoral images of rural life and the
actual lot of a slave (lines 71-85). What does the contrast suggest? Why would such a contrast
be important rhetorically?
This leads to her compelling description of Britain poisoned by its colonial enterprise -- she
draws in the problems from the treatment of people in East India (i.e. India) in
lines 86-105. Examine and explicate the lines: "By foreign wealth are British morals chang'd / And Afric's sons, and India's,
Examine the final stanza, in which Barbauld returns her attention to Wilberforce. What consolation
does she give him? To what extent can this be consoling? Note the long view of history
she proposes: "While faithful History, in her various page, / Marking the features of this motley age, /
To shed a glory, and to fix a stain, / Tells how you strove, and that you strove in vain." To what extent
does history bear out this truth?
Compare the two works. To what extent is the audience different? To what extent is the
manner of representing slavery different? How would you characterize the overall effect
of these two poems?
In conclusion of our discussion of slavery and truth, consider the representations of slavery
and related issues we have read. What similarities can you find? To what extent are these
"true" representations? How do the authors construct their poems or narratives to convey
a sense of truth? What methods work? What methods strike an artificial ring?
What other ends might the literature have if truth is not achieved? What rhetorical possibilities
do these particular works of literature raise?
Finally, consider the importance of the "Muses" who fly the sounding lash. What are the
implications for poetry (or the arts) in England when it is engaged in debasing institution
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