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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Reading Assignment:

    Anna Barbauld, "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, p. 40).

    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).

    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?

    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, smile aveng'd."

    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 of slavery?

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