Introduction | Somerset Case | The Zong Case  | Abolishing the Slave Trade | Ending Slavery | "Time of the Ancient Mariner | Blake's Plates for Stedman | "To Toussaint L'Ouverture"

Wordsworth's "To Toussaint L'Ouverture" & "The Mad Mother"

HaitiHaiti, San Domingo: Toussaint l'Ouverture is Defeated by the French at the Ravine aux Couleuvre . Though Wordsworth supported Toussaint's revolution in so much as it was an attack against tyranny, Wordsworth was not an advocate for abolition. Indeed, Wordsworth couldn't support abolition, as Debbie Lee tells us "Wordsworth depended directly on the slave trade for his living" (Lee 201).
In 1802, William Wordsworth wrote his tribute "To Toussaint L'Ouverture." Toussaint led the first successful slave-led revolution in Haiti (also known as Saint Domingue), and Wordsworth's poem tells Toussaint that despite his imprisonment and impending death, he should take comfort in that he has inspired others to resist and rebel against slavery. While this poem positions Wordsworth as sympathetic to the slave experience, and reads celebratory of Touissant's rebellion - Peter Kitson attributes this to an interpretation of Toussaint as representing a depoliticized and natural force - Wordsworth was not entirely sympathetic to issues of slavery or abolition, particularly as voiced through his relationship with abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. However, another of Wordsworth's poems, "The Mad Mother," perhaps better exemplifies Wordsworth's relationship with slavery.

The poem "The Mad Mother" describes the possibility of a woman who has committed infanticide. Stories of mothers killing their children were prevalent in the period, as abolitionist literature was saturated with images and tales of mothers who would rather kill their children than have them live in bondage. In part, Wordsworth's poem "The Mad Mother," demonstrates the relationship many Romantic poets had with both slavery and abolition, who didn't want to play up to sentimental images which were already prevalent in the market. Within the poem, Wordsworth's mad mother hints at the death of her child, whom she may have killed after being abandoned by the child's father. Debbie Lee interprets this destruction as necessary in order for both the woman and child to avoid enslavement, as the child's dependency upon the mother chains her to family relations.

John Stromski

Select Bibliography

Kitson, Peter. "'Bales of Living Anguish': Representations of Race and the Slave in Romantic Writing." ELH
     67.2 (2000): 515-537. Web. 16 Feb. 2012.

Lee, Debbie. "Intimate Distance: African Women and Infant Death in Wordsworth's Poetry and The History of
     Mary Prince." Slavery and the Romantic Imagination
. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2002.