Race and Slavery in Poetry (William Cowper, William Blake, Anna Barbauld)

Categories: William Blake

Cowper, Blake and Barbauld: Noble Savages in a Post-Colonial Context

William Cowper, William Blake, and Anna Barbauld, in their poetry on race and abolitionism, wrote about both the humanity of racialized peoples and the greed and evil of slavery. In post-colonialism, it is important to confront existing systems of racial oppression, as well as interrogate the racist assumptions that are common in progressive circles. I argue that reading poetry to understand racial history is a beneficial exercise that must be practiced through critical thinking, and then applied to contemporary understandings of race and post-colonialism.

Through close reading of William Cowper’s “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce”, William Blake’s “Little Black Boy”, and Anna Barbauld’s “Epistle to William Wilberforce, on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade”, this paper will consider the efficacy of using Romantic poetry in contemporary politics, the relevance of such poems in the 21st century, and what these poems have to offer contemporary readers.

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Sentimentalizing the racialized other is a prominent feature of Romantic writing, most prominently used in the trope of the Noble Savage. While narratives which glamorize racialized bodies are distinct from colonial discourse which portrays the Savage as violent and uncivilized, both narratives are damaging: whether enslaving the Savage or putting him on a pedestal, these stereotypes position the racialized other in relation to the colonizing power, rather than allowing for self-determination. Likewise, these stereotypes dehumanize the Savage, whether in labeling him or her as uncivilized and violent, or angelic and near to nature.

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In the introduction to The Empire Writes Back, authors Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin write that in the expansion of an empire, “the development of the one is intrinsically bound up with the development of the other” (3) in such a way that benefits the colonizer and disadvantages the colonized. From a colonial perspective, the empire stands to gain economically from slavery and land development, and the Savage will gain from Christian teachings; from a Romantic perspective, westerners who have lost touch with the primitive can learn to return to a more pre-historic time and escape the trappings of civilization by becoming more like the Savage. In both circumstances, citizens of the colonizing nation, whether or not they directly support the colonial projects of slavery and extraction, benefit from colonization and the objectification of the racialized other. Poetry and literature are useful tools in deconstructing and arguing against the continued dehumanization of the racialized other. In post-colonial literature, the colonized people write their own narratives about the effects of colonization, effectively humanizing those that imperialism and history have stripped of humanity; the Romantics abolitionist writing offer a historical perspective on how British activists both aided and fell short in fighting for the end of the slave trade.

Although these poems were written in a different historical context than our own, they are politically useful for interpreting and critically engaging with current situations surrounding post-colonialism. Understanding colonial history is necessary to comprehending the post-colonial world of the 21st century. Literature is particularly powerful in revealing to readers the personal and emotional facets of history. While facts are beneficial learning tools, so too are the rhetoric strategies of poetry in engaging readers and exposing the problematic elements of the powers which poets write against. Although historical accounts of colonialism and slavery contain concrete facts about events and numerical figures, poetry and literature grant contemporary readers insight into the real values and biases that individuals held about the systems that existed. A reader’s understanding of factual evidence is supplemented by reading poetry, which provides a more robust awareness of history. From this understanding, readers are then able to draw parallels between past and present. Through understanding the Romantic portrayal of the Noble Savage, readers comprehend the ways in which the same trope manifests in literature and popular culture today. Likewise, poetry is useful for social aims: as Alan Richardson notes, antislavery literature in the late 18th century had a “didactic character” (235) which could render it unappealing; creative works like poetry offer a more enjoyable way of learning moral lessons. Blake, Cowper and Barbauld all use poetic form to express, less explicitly than a pamphlet or speech, the evils of slavery and colonialism. Into the 21st century, this becomes incredibly useful. As audiences are constantly bombarded with online news, poetry’s unique form and human perspective offer fresh perspectives and understandings.

Where Romantic writing differs from the goals of post-colonial writing is the perspective of the author: while post-colonialism gives voice to the colonized, Romantic writing on the same topic is the voice of the colonizer. Cowper, Blake and Barbauld all write from their personal context about their individual viewpoint on slavery, abolition and racial inequity. The Romantics generally believed non-white races, the Noble Savages, to be closer to nature and therefore a purer form of the self, untouched by civilization that alienates the human. Like colonizers, they believed black and brown bodies to be uncivilized; however, for Romantics, this is not a negative label, but an idealistic one. Nonetheless, the designation of Noble Savage strips non-white people of their individuality and agency. While all three writers critically engage with the assumed narratives of race in their time, contemporary readers must also engage critically with texts that can be “particularly problematic” (Henry 67) for readers with contemporary sensibilities and understandings of post-colonial literature. While post-colonial literature emphasizes the voices of the colonized, Cowper, Blake and Barbauld are citizens of a colonizing nation, and therefore write from a different perspective than many post-colonial writers.

Published in 1789 in the Songs of Innocence, “The Little Black Boy” by William Blake offers an ironic and troubling account of how the British understood race/ethnicity and the slave trade. As Alan Richardson writes, Blake used the poem to challenge “the racist and colonialist attitudes informing most antislavery literature of the period” (234), using irony and lyric form. In examining this poem, it is difficult to determine what Blake means to be taken seriously, and what is intended as ironic. Scholars, like Alan Richardson and Lauren Henry, assert that the poem is “clearly an ironic one” (Henry 85), which explains the paternalistic relationship between the little black boy and his white counterpart, as a rhetorical tool to highlight the patronizing relationship between white abolitionists and slaves, as well as other racialized groups. This relationship is again exposed when the little black boy says he will “shade him [the white boy] from the heat ... and stroke his silver hair” (Blake 25-27). This poem’s revolutionary spirit, in calling attention to the hypocrisy of abolitionists, should be reclaimed and reused as a tool in post-colonial studies, where intellectual understanding of post-colonialism and the effects of institutional racism can lead to paternalism by educated white people, at the expense of the racialized Other. While the ironic tone is useful for calling attention to the patronizing and problematic relationship between the racialized other and white activists, Blake’s poem fails to offer a solution for repairing the relationship, or give any concrete political action. Nonetheless, Blake’s poem offers the reader a deeper understanding of the problematic ways in which the powerful interact with the oppressed.

Written by Cowper in 1788, “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce” is “a satirical song set to a popular tune, placed in the mouth of a slave-trader” (Murdoch 323). Like Blake’s “The Little Black Boy”, Cowper’s poem takes on an ironic tone. In both cases, such a rhetorical device is useful for helping individuals understand the problems and fallacies in certain positions without being didactic. The light-hearted tenner invoked by repetition and rhyme, contrasted to the mention of “supple-jack plenty and store of rattan” (Cowper 14) establishes the ironic rhetoric that Cowper uses to expose the immorality of slavery. Satire is uniquely positioned in that it offers readers a glimpse at the horrors of oppressive systems in an accessible way, because they use humour and, in Cowper’s case, popular tunes. This text in particular is valuable to post-colonial readers because the genre is so popular in 21st century political commentary. More importantly, satire is politically useful for its rhetoric form: by contrasting the horrors of slavery with a sing-song tone, the reader is immediately awakened to just how dire the situation of slavery is, and also portrays the willful ignorance of the colonizer as even more brutal and immoral. In both colonial and post-colonial times, most people are not directly involved in the ongoing oppression of the racialized other, but are implicit in the oppression; Cowper’s poem puts the reader in direct contact with the slave-trader. The word slavery “had multiple meanings for Cowper” (Wyman-McCarthy 311), which include not only the slave trade that he writes about, but also “other situations where an excessive power imbalance resulted in oppression” (311), an understanding of slavery that post-colonial readers can understand in his or her context. Cowper’s tone suggests that colonial readers tacitly support such systems as British citizens, and that is why the slave-trader can speak of his “African ware” (Cowper 27) in such a dehumanizing way. Cowper’s use of contrast is deeply unsettling, making his political message clear: the human trading is an evil we, as either colonial or post-colonial readers, must confront.

Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem “Epistle to William Wilberforth”, published in 1791, takes a more forthright approach than Cowper and Blake to issues of race. The epistle form Barbauld employs “creates a sense of immediacy and active engagement” (Watkins 186) that lyric poetry lacks. While Blake and Cowper’s poems are driven by invented characters, Barbauld’s exists in the very real political realm. Barbauld’s form is not inherently better, but it does fulfil a different purpose for abolitionists: rather than evoke emotion through irony, Barbauld’s poem is pragmatic and explicitly political. Like Cowper, Barbauld utilizes rhyme; however, her rhyme produces a much different effect. While Cowper rhymes his lines in order to produce a musical, light tone, Barbauld is rhythmic, creating a beat in her work that resembles political chants. What makes Barbauld particularly important in a post-colonial context is her reading of Africa as the victim of a crime, rather than as an undeveloped, pre-Christian land that needs to be civilized. Although Barbauld’s description of Africa contradicts the colonial narrative about Africa, she still reinforces negative perceptions about Africa that persist until today; her analysis ignores development and strength in Africa, and, when she says “still Afric bleeds” (Barbauld 15), she suggests that Africa is powerless and unable to recover from the effects of colonialism. While Africa has been forever impacted by colonialism, post-colonial literature and events have proven that Africans have not been defined by colonialism. Barbauld’s words ring true to this day, suggesting a prophecy when she says that the British Empire “stamps her infamy to future time” (Barbauld 16), wisely predicting that the effects of colonization are still felt hundreds of years later, and people have not forgotten who colonized so much of Africa. Barbauld was invested in saving “the British imperial ideal from disgrace” (Wyman-McCarthy 321) which places more importance on the legacy of Britain than the preservation of Africa. This implies a continuation of the racial hierarchy that privileges white over black, and civilized over savage. This is an uncomfortable position for post-colonial readers, but it reflects the subtle ways in which systems today still hold white bodies in higher regard than black and brown bodies; Barbauld’s work helps 21st century readers to uncover those biases and confront them. The legacy of colonialism persists to this day, as Barbauld so acutely describes in her letter. The damage done by slavery is ongoing, but few had the foresight that Barbauld had in predicting the condition of a post-colonial Africa.

Reading the Romantics in the context of post-colonial studies is not only desirable, it is beneficial for readers. Analyzing these three texts together offer a breadth of poetic rhetoric: ironic lyric poem in Blake, satire in Cowper, and political epistle in Barbauld. Each poem offers a unique interpretation and means of understanding colonial-era politics and activism. Each poet’s writings allow readers to draw parallels to contemporary post-colonial and anti-racist politics that question master narratives surrounding race, such as the noble savage; hold political leaders accountable; and question the role each individual plays in colonialism. For readers in the 21st century to understand these poems is to understand not only the historical moment of the poems and the ways society has developed, but further, to see the small ways, through racial stereotyping or the modern slave trade in factories overseas, that society is stuck in many of the same racist practices. By reading the work of Blake, Cowper and Barbauld, readers can identify with the political necessity of dismantling colonial systems, and gain political inspiration from these poems. Furthermore, from Barbauld, readers gain an understanding of political pragmatism and the efficacy of direct address and letters. Romantic literature must be read with a critical lens, understanding that which is no longer relevant or politically useful, but internalizing the revolutionary spirit, moral obligation and political action, and filtering those concepts into a post-colonial world.

Updated: Feb 28, 2024
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Race and Slavery in Poetry (William Cowper, William Blake, Anna Barbauld). (2024, Feb 28). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/race-and-slavery-in-poetry-william-cowper-william-blake-anna-barbauld-essay

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