Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period. 8 volumes. General Editors, Peter Kitson and Debbie Lee. London: Pickering & Chatto Publishers, 1999. 3,200pp (chiefly facsimile). £595.00/$950.00 (Hdbk; ISBN: 1-851-96513-0).
University of Colorado at Boulder
Few political movements can have spent so much energy worrying about the relationship between literature and other kinds of materials than the British antislavery movement, or invested so much faith in their forceful interaction. In the course of "Slavery. A Poem" (1788), for example, Hannah More undertakes an investigation of the power of poetry alongside her indictment of British slavery. She calls upon not only "Liberty" and "Freedom," for inspiration, but also upon the author of the dramatic version of Oroonoko, Aphra Behn's narrative of slave rebellion: "O, plaintive Southerne! whose impassion'd strain / So oft had wak'd my languid Muse in vain! / Now, when congenial themes her cares engage, / She burns to emulate thy glowing page[.]" More thus implies that her poem's political efficacy will spring from its ability to carry the emotional impact of a play. A few lines later, however, she rejects the affect of "bright invention": "For no fictitious ills these numbers flow, / But living anguish, and substantial woe; / No individual griefs my bosom melt, / For million feel what Oroonoko felt." Even here, though, it seems as if the millions of actual slaves merely mimic the feelings of the fictional hero. The poem suggests that an understanding of "real" suffering depends on the powers of representation, even as its narrator insists on the primacy of experience: "Rhetoric or verse may point the feeling line, / They do not whet sensation but define." In this way, More, along with many in the antislavery movement, implicitly celebrates print culture, and the inherent value of the written record. Of abolition, she says "What page of human annals can record / A deed so bright as human rights restor'd? / O may that god-like deed, that shining page, / Redeem OUR fame, and consecrate OUR age!"