Romanticized Slavery, Enslaved Romanticism
Though slavery was a problem on both sides of the Atlantic during the Romantic era, England eliminated slavery early in the 19th century, abolishing the slave trade in 1807, and ending slavery in 1834. In England during this time period, images and discussions of slavery were prevalent within the public imagination, particularly through court cases and abolitionist literature and pamphlets. The Romantic poets, though, often dealt with issues of slavery in more oblique ways, desiring not only to distinguish themselves from the Abolitionist movement, but to discuss and portray slavery in ways not laden with sentimentalism.
Indeed, while much contemporary Abolitionist literature at the time revolved around sentimental appeals, Romantic poets invoked images of slavery in order to bring the issue closer to the minds of the English people, making them think less about an evil and morally wrong institution, but more about the different ways the system perpetuated and fostered those evils. Early in the Romantic movement, court cases such as the Somerset Case—erroneously, though popularly, thought to be the first case to abolish slavery in England—and the Zong Case—a case where the Zong’s owners (Gregson) were refused payment for insurance claims of over 100 slaves drowned at sea—would also popularize the issue. These court cases, however, were never about human rights, but rather concerned discrepancies over property rights. What these court cases demonstrated – particularly to the Romantics – was how slavery was perceived within the legal system as being merely a matter merely about chattel property and economic prosperity. The depiction of slaves as mere pieces of chattel (movable pieces of property) would persist throughout the era of slavery.
Because the Romantics would utilize the concept of slavery in various ways and for different purposes, scholars have attributed several possible reasons to the Romantics for doing so. James Walvin argues that the issue of slavery, as portrayed by the Romantics, was ultimately an attempt to oppose tyranny and to advocate economic reform. Debbie Lee argues that the aim of the Romantics was to present, through images of slaves, the concept of alterity, meaning that one recognizes the selfness, or consciousness, of an other, and thereby reinforces one’s own self-consciousness and moral sensibilities.
In part, the ways in which the Romantics described and depicted slavery is largely in reaction to how it was portrayed within sentimental literature, which was favored by abolitionists. Oftentimes when abolitionists would enlist sentimental literature to spread their anti-slavery message, the literature would provide images which were meant solely to appeal to the reader’s emotions, arguing that slavery is an evil institution because of the unspeakable horrors it commits, and trying to make the reader share in outrage over those horrors. Beyond an emotional appeal though, much of this literature did not contain - or at least was not thought to - deeper messages.
Three Romantic poets who utilize the issue of slavery are William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth. William Blake created a number of plates for Stedman, which forced the viewer to see images of slaves in juxtaposition with similar pictures of English people, questioning the relationships and differences between the two races. Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” questions the relationships between English guilt, disease, and the slave trade. And William Wordsworth’s poems “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” & “The Mad Mother” displays people associated with slavery in order to instill empathy within the reader.
Even though slavery is often not directly addressed within Romantic poetry, and though Romantic poets did not often come out directly in favor of abolition, the topic, issue, and discussion of slavery underscored much of their writing. One common characteristic which all these poems share though is that they invite—often force—the audience to look upon the the individual slave, and then question what that slave’s relation is to the reader, and how the two are similar.
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