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The Sublime Turn Away from Empire: Wordsworth's Encounter with Colonial Slavery, 1802

  • Mary Kelly Persyn

…plus d’informations

  • Mary Kelly Persyn
    Independant scholar

Corps de l’article

In 1802, the Haitian general Toussaint l'Ouverture languished imprisoned in the fort de Joux in France. Across the English Channel, William Wordsworth, the formerly ardent supporter of the French Revolution, advised him to look beyond Nation to Nature for hope:

Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind. [1]

The poignancy of Wordsworth's lines is only increased by the fact that the English public had no clear idea of exactly where l'Ouverture was, nor of what judgment Napoleon might pass upon him, during the spring and summer of 1802. [2] Yet, although the poem plays upon the traditions of sentiment and sensibility at the center of the late-eighteenth-century sonnet revival as it encourages sympathy for the captured Haitian general, Wordsworth's turn to Nature manages to turn away from the facts of History by metaphorically sacrificing Toussaint. In his sonnet, Wordsworth eventually sublimates not only the fact of l'Ouverture's captivity, but also the violent 1793 slave revolt in Haiti, the French and British campaigns against the island, and even the presence of colonial slavery itself. [3] The "sublime turn," which had established itself as normative in Wordsworth's poetry since the 1798 "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," is here deployed as a reaction to the frightening, complex, and finally illegible facts of colonial slavery and revolution.

In this essay I argue that during the years 1792-1802, William Wordsworth's development of the concept of the sublime was affected not only by the French Revolution, as is commonly known, but also by the 1793-94 revolution in Haiti and particularly by Toussaint l'Ouverture's eventual arrest and deportation to France in 1802. [4] During these years, Wordsworth develops an approach to the empirical sublime that makes use of it to rewrite the experience of loss by turning to Nature for consolation. While the 1798 "Tintern Abbey" uses the sublime as a recompense for vaguely cited "burthens" (burdens which have, nonetheless, specific biographical referents), by 1802 Wordsworth is using it to rewrite and to repress specifically political and historical burdens. The perceived "burden" that concerns me most is that of slavery, seen by Wordsworth as incidental to French tyranny—a perception that already elides English responsibility for slavery in the West Indies. [5] Because Wordsworth finds both slavery and the Black race "illegible," a claim to which I will return later in this essay, the poet formulates his sublime turn in part as a turn away from the active recognition of material slavery and bondage and toward an imaginative freedom nationed specifically English. Further investigation into Wordsworth's awareness of and relationship to the question of Haiti will reveal that the problem of slavery played an important role in the paradigmatic sublimation of obstacle into triumph, blindness into insight, despair into hope, that has been so thoroughly explicated by his critics. I therefore follow Alan Liu in seeing Wordsworth's development of Imagination as finally both a sublimation and a recognition of the specter of History in the form of Napoleon. [6]

I begin by returning briefly to 1794. As the Terror raged on an ocean away, the Caribbean was the site of a furious battle between Haitian Blacks and the British navy. Thus a concealed struggle was taking place between France, who retained a marginal claim to the colony, and England, who was attempting to reconquer what was then known as St. Domingue and to re-establish slavery there. In retaliation, the French Convention issued a decree freeing all slaves in their colonies on 4 February 1794. [7] The Haitian revolution continued for five long years until it was ended by Britain's withdrawal in 1798; the 1802 Paix d'Amiens ceded the colony back to semi-independence as a possession of France. Its status was challenged, however, by Napoleon, whose lust for colonization led to the 19 May 1802 decree re-establishing slavery in St. Domingue. [8] Resistance to the decree, which was immediate and violent, was led once again by General Toussaint l'Ouverture, the governor of St. Domingue, who had led the 1793 revolution that destroyed a British navy and stunned the world. But not three weeks after Napoleon's decree, l'Ouverture (or Toussaint, as he was known in France and England) was arrested for treason and deported to France, where he was to die in prison less than a year later.

During these years, Wordsworth was engaged in his contradictory and complex experience of the French Revolution. His trips to France in 1790 and 1792 resulted first in infatuation with and then in rejection of the Revolution, a progression detailed in The Prelude books 6, 9, 10, and 11. Forced to leave France in 1792 because of the Terror, Wordsworth also had to leave behind a young family—Annette Vallon, whom he never married, and their newborn daughter Caroline. Back in England in 1793, Wordsworth had a breakdown, recovered, and made his first trip to Tintern Abbey. During the ensuing years, he met Coleridge, published the Lyrical Ballads, and moved to Grasmere. He began what was to become The Prelude in 1799 but then fell into an artistic slump from 1801-1802. The inability to create was to form the basis for the poetic collaboration with Coleridge that Paul Magnuson has called the "Dejection Dialogue." [9] In the midst of these years, Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy made a trip to Calais in 1802 to settle the affair with Annette Vallon and prepare the way for his impending marriage. At the same time, Napoleon was consolidating his empire in the midst of what Yves Benot calls a "démence coloniale," and had launched a flotilla of ships bound for the West Indies in December 1801. This campaign, which brings us back to the 1802 re-establishment of slavery, was undertaken with the tacit consent of the British. Nevertheless, the conflict unsettled the already unsteady relations between the two countries and probably played a part in the outbreak of war in May 1803.

Written in the midst of personal loss and international turmoil, Wordsworth's 1802 sonnets are thus imbricated in a complex web of domestic, national, and personal events that cluster around this momentous year. [10] In these poems, Wordsworth invokes the constitution of nation and of national identity even as he attempts to elide the presence of race. In a metaphorical chain of relations sustained throughout the sonnet sequence, Wordsworth's constant tendency to turn toward the empirical or natural sublime associates nature, native (that is, English) soil, natural rights, and freedom. France, once the site of the blissful dawn and "golden hours" of The Prelude, is hateful, violent, dark, and finally unnatural. In attempting to separate l'Ouverture and the "Negro lady" of the second sonnet from France, Wordsworth both deracinates and renationalizes them by associating them with Nature (and natural sublimity) first, England second. Still in the process of negotiating his complex turn away from the French Revolution and toward the natural sublimity of England, Wordsworth sidesteps the issue of slavery by replacing the former slaves with the concepts of freedom, nature, and natural rights. Perhaps most importantly, in associating l'Ouverture and the "Negro lady" with nature, he seems to elide the issue of slavery by implying that the sublime turn can offer a recompense for physical bondage. [11]

Wordsworth accomplishes his argument in part by identifying Napoleon with tyranny and Toussaint with resistance and liberty—but a "liberty" that is heavily qualified by the poet's recommendations of submission. Wordsworth clearly sees Napoleon as heroic and even sublime, even if misguided and overly rapacious. At the same time he presents Toussaint as the defeated chieftain of a subject race, doomed to submission but able to call on sublimity to help him figuratively to "escape" his fetters. Within the first ten sonnets of the "Poems Dedicated to National Independence and Liberty," the opposition between bondsman and tyrant yields another interesting association: the French have lost their liberty—and thus are in effect slaves—to the all-powerful Napoleon. Inasmuch as Toussaint is nominally French, he is doubly enslaved. But if he can put off his identification with France and turn toward the natural world—implicitly and explicitly identified as English—he will be truly (spiritually) free, even if he remains materially enslaved.

Wordsworth's juxtaposition of French slavery to English liberty begins in the first sonnet, which is addressed to the "fair star of evening" that hangs over England. He writes of England from Calais, where, you will remember, he has come to make a final break with Annette Vallon and their child. At least to some extent, this trip must represent for him the repudiation of his earlier love affair not only with Vallon but with the French Revolution itself. Doggedly patriotic, the sonnet closes by noting that the poet is stuck in France, "among men who do not love her" (that is, England). [12] The second sonnet figuratively turns from the English shore to look at France, and the contrast is stark: here he sees servile men who, the poet believes, are prematurely bowing in worship of Napoleon. To Wordsworth, they seem naturally or essentially willing to forfeit liberty. At the volta of the poem in line 8, he begins to address the subject Frenchmen by calling them "men of prostrate mind," accuses them of supporting Napoleon too quickly, and closes the poem by rebuking them: "shame on you, feeble Heads, to slavery prone !" [13] Wordsworth sees their loyalty to Napoleon as slavery, thus drawing no real distinction between loyalty, bound servitude, and ownership. Moreover, he plays on the word "prone" by using it to indicate both a tendency and a bodily position: earlier in the poem he had noted that the French approached the "new-born Majesty" by kneeling (lines 6-7).

Wordsworth continues the narrative of the "Poems" in sonnet 3 by referring back to the Federal Day of 1790 that marked his first arrival in Calais. Twelve years earlier, faith had been pledged to "new-born Liberty"; now, the greeting of a French citizen sounds like "a hollow word, / As if a dead man spake it!" [14] The hollow words that the poet hears constitute the emblematic greeting of the French revolution: "Good morrow, Citizen!"(11). Its grammar of revolution emptied out by slavery to tyranny, the French citizenry has deprived the motto "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" of its signifying power, making it hollow and effectively dead. Wordsworth, however, is not touched by despair (12-13)—one surmises that this is so because his English identity guarantees him an essential liberty.

The next sonnet fills out the background of lost liberty by addressing "Buonaparté's" absolute power. Wordsworth grieves for Bonaparte, oddly enough, although the poem never clarifies why grief is the appropriate response. [15] Rather, the sonnet's goal is to highlight Wordsworth's definition of the proper (that is, non-Machiavellian) education of princes: not only militant thoughts, but also "thoughts motherly, and meek as womanhood" must be included, along with "books, leisure, perfect freedom" and talk with one's fellow man. [16] The fifth sonnet points out that, in contrast to this kinder, gentler rule, Napoleon now holds "an established sway—consul for life." [17] Again the poet remembers the festivals of July 1790, commenting that "the senselessness of joy was then sublime" (11). The joy of liberty is associated with the sublime; the worship of established power is associated with slavery; the first is naturally English, the second naturally French. Wordsworth's essential oppositions are in place.

The sonnet to Toussaint deploys these oppositions by purportedly allying the fallen general to English liberty and sublimity while condemning French tyranny. The revolution in Haiti therefore gives the poet another way to imagine Englishness. However, even though Wordsworth's sympathetic attention to Toussaint apparently stands alone among the English Romantics, his recommendation that Toussaint submit to Napoleon anyway reveals that he is not exempt from the contemporary lack of consensus about the appropriate relationship between the Haitian revolution, European colonialism, and slavery. At the time, as David Geggus notes, "While it was normal for contemporaries and particularly abolitionists to see the slave rebellion as an act of divine justice, few concluded that slave revolution, or even emancipation, was desirable" (145). In effect, English observers preferred to conceptualize the Haitian revolution in terms of a challenge to Napoleon rather than as a challenge to colonialism itself. As Yves Benot explains, some sectors of English opinion supported control of Toussaint because suppression of him would protect European colonial interests:

Il est vrai qu'à Londres, et même dans les cercles abolitionnistes, l'élimination de Toussaint rencontre un certain accord. Le Journal de Wilberforce signale, par exemple, un dîner chez un autre abolitionniste influent, James Stephen, où tout le monde—sauf Stephen et Wilberforce—est du côté de "Buonaparte" et souhaite sa victoire sur Toussaint parce que c'est le seul moyen d'éviter un empire noir dans les Indes occidentales. [18]

In a time of imperial struggle, the direct conflict between English imperial interests, abolitionist interests, and the need to oppose successfully the French led to a certain amount of confusion within English popular opinions about Haiti. Here I do not mean to suggest that Wordsworth was pro-slavery. [19] Rather, I contend that the complexity—and perhaps what seemed the insolubility—of the problem contributed to his tendency to sublimate material or physical slavery into transcendental liberty.

Indeed, this is the trajectory that he takes in book 10 of The Prelude, which contains the only clear allusion to slavery in the epic. In that book, Wordsworth recounts his second return to London and remembers hearing about the defeat of the 1792 abolition bill, which he describes as "a strong levy of humanity / Upon the traffickers in Negro blood." [20] Wordsworth here displays a tendency to reduce the Black individual to a metonymy: the slave trade is not traffic in humans, but in blood or, more accurately, in race. Wordsworth admits that this debate failed to inspire sorrow in him, because, as he explains,

  [. . .] I brought with me the faith
That, if France prospered, good men would not long
Pay fruitless worship to humanity,
And this most rotten branch of human shame,
Object, so seemed it, of superfluous pains,
Would fall together with its parent tree.


Wordsworth thus identifies slavery as only one branch of the larger "tree" of tyranny; should tyranny fall, he reasons, so will slavery. His subsumption of slavery under tyranny in effect sublimates its physical and material reality, as I have previously claimed, and may be evidence of the conflicted attitudes toward slavery within the English populace at the time. More importantly, however, it organicizes slavery by making it part of a natural process. This naturalizing act opens slavery to the consolations of the natural sublime; nature thus ostensibly lessens the pain of slavery by promising its (eventual and naturally evolving) elimination.

In the case of Wordsworth's sonnet to Toussaint, such conflict is apparent within the poem's trajectory, which in fact erases l'Ouverture's captivity from the poem and replaces it with Nature, with the sublime, and with English liberty. The substitution is accomplished by counseling submission to French authority—the very thing condemned six sonnets earlier in the sequence. While Wordsworth elsewhere in the sequence urges his countrymen to defend liberty to the death, declaring that England is far dearer to him than life, [21] Toussaint's situation warrants no such resistance. It seems that while English death for English soil is a sublime sacrifice, l'Ouverture's most noble act according to Wordsworth is to stay alive and submit to his capture. Wordsworth counsels him to "die not; do thou / Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow / Though fallen thyself, never to rise again" (6-8) and describes for him the powers that are "at work for him," serving as surrogates for the warrior's duty:

Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There's not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man's unconquerable mind.


Wordsworth here uses the Italian sonnet form to create a volta in line 9, and characteristically he chooses to turn the poem in the center of the line at the new sentence. He follows the initial trochee, which stresses "Live," with a spondee urging Toussaint to " take com fort." He then splits the next foot so that he can stress "thou," beginning the concluding sestet with an exhortation that continues in the metrically irregular line 10. This line begins with a spondee and contains only three unstressed syllables, which has the effect of lengthening the line and marking it as the longest and most stressed of the poem. Wordsworth thus stresses the powers that will work in Toussaint's place, and they are the powers of nature—powers that know no politics, but nevertheless are nationed English and allied eventually to "man's unconquerable"—and sublime—mind.

Again we see the alliance of nature and the sublime in Wordsworth's simultaneous acknowledgment and denial of slavery's very real power. As I turn to my claim that Wordsworth sublimates empire and race in favor of nature and nation, I will proceed in two stages. The first will demonstrate that Wordsworth's use of this progression from empire to nature as a coda to the sonnet repeats his previous use of the same progression to describe the location of the sublime in "Tintern Abbey." The second will explore Laura Doyle's recent claim that Wordsworth's is a specifically racial sublime which allies "man's unconquerable mind" with a specifically English liberty.

The poem popularly known as "Tintern Abbey" was written in 1798 to mark Wordsworth's second visit to the Wye Valley, the first one having occurred in 1793 not long after his disastrous return from France. [22] As Wordsworth turns to nature for help in erasing the pain and loneliness of the intervening years, he formulates the turn as a search for recompense within memory and the "mind of man," which he imagines as boundless. [23] Here he establishes the progression that I have cited within the sestet of the sonnet to Toussaint:

  [. . .] And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man [. . .] [24]

The sublime interfuses the powers of nature emphasized in line 9 of the sonnet to Toussaint and also rolls through the "unconquerable mind of man" cited in line 14. The disturbing presence of the sublime arrives in direct response to worldly loss; it is, as the poet explains earlier in "Tintern Abbey," a "blessed mood, / In which the burthen of the mystery, / In which the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world, / Is lightened" (37-41). The worldly forces of pain, deprivation, and perhaps of war, unintelligible and illegible to the poet but nevertheless heavy to the point of tyranny, are lightened by the imagination—by the mind of man—and its ostensible ability to turn to unity with nature to elide material loss and to affirm plenitude. The sublime turn also depends upon the superiority of spirit to body, as "we are laid asleep / In body, and become a living soul" (lines 45-46). [25] This turn from body to soul and from worldly burdens to the natural world is also key to the sublimation of slavery in the sonnet to Toussaint as Wordsworth counsels him to "wear a cheerful brow" despite his imprisonment and to turn to the natural world for comfort. I would argue that this formulation recalls "Tintern Abbey," in which the sublime mood erases the harsh realities of the Terror, of an abandoned family, and of national disgrace. This general tendency of sublime theory to elide historicity, materiality, and particularity has been well noted by critics of Romanticism and carries a particularly strong explanatory power when placed alongside Wordsworth's poetry.

More recent work on the sublime has pointed to its additional tendency to valorize race in the sense of ancient or original national heritage. The sublime thus constitutes the turn back to nature, to self, and to natural race rather than to political nation, now a source of discontent for the disillusioned Wordsworth. Laura Doyle's contention that "the Romantic sublime is importantly constituted [. . .] by its function to transform a revolutionary racial discourse into a hegemonic one" is particularly applicable in Wordsworth's case as the domestication of the sublime by the action of his own imagination served as a process preferable to the unpredictable violence of revolution (26). In Doyle's formulation race precedes and takes precedence over nation because it is allied more closely to roots, soil, land, and nature and is also allied to the shift of power from monarchy to constitution, king to Parliament. Doyle further cites Wordsworth's "late myth of the poet who—via immersion in and subsumption of a racialized nature—transforms warring impulses into a reasoned poetry" (Doyle 35). In the sonnet to Toussaint, Wordsworth deploys this transformation by recommending that the "miserable Chieftain [. . .] / Wear rather in [his] bonds a cheerful brow" (5, 7). Wordsworth stops short of turning Toussaint into a poet, partially identifying him with the powers of Nature and with "man's" unconquerable mind but finally relegating l'Ouverture the man to silence. In effect, Wordsworth makes the sublime turn in Toussaint's place.

The elision of the facts of slavery and race becomes even stranger and more obvious in the sonnet that follows the poem about Toussaint. The object of the poem is a woman traveling on their boat back from Calais; the woman is an African, probably a former slave, who has been ejected from France by Napoleonic decree. The language that Wordsworth uses to talk about the woman is strangely fragmented and antiquated, seemingly reflecting the poet's inability to speak easily about the subject—or perhaps about the person. In the course of the poem, the woman becomes split into fragments of body and clothing, her parts metonymically representing freedom and restraint, wildness and domestication, richness and poverty, Europe and Africa. Wordsworth's inability to speak about her as a whole person eventually succumbs to a call on the heavens and earth to help the woman's "afflicted race." Wordsworth thus repeats the turn towards nature and organic evolution (rather than towards politics and violent revolution) of the sonnet to Toussaint.

The "female Passenger" is "a white-robed Negro" who is both "like a lady gay" and "yet downcast as a woman fearing blame." [26] I will return to the startling contrast that Wordsworth sets up between "white-robed" and "Negro." For now I want to pay attention to the double simile of these lines, which compare the lady's state of mind to two opposite poles, as though she herself were unreadable or illegible. The resemblance to a "lady gay" may well come from her white dress only; her manner is clearly downcast. But why compare her to someone who feels blame? The answer may lie in Wordsworth's subconscious belief that the woman really is hiding something; he comments that she "on all proffered intercourse did lay / A weight of languid speech, or to the same / No sign of answer made by word or face" (7-9). The absence of both audible speech and legible sign renders the woman herself a signifier without a signified, her meaning or significance unavailable to the poet. That being the case, he isolates a feature of her face and detaches it from her mind or subjectivity, rendering it an independent signifier of her identity and joining it to her dress:

Yet still her eyes retained their tropic fire,
That, burning independent of the mind,
Joined with the lustre of her rich attire [. . .].


In the midst of an unreadable face, her eyes—in the old cliché, the portals of the soul and therefore the most immediately personal facial feature—become generalized signifiers of the tropical "passion" typically ascribed to Africans by those within the imperial metropole. In his act of defacement, Wordsworth literally detaches her eyes from her face by stating that they burn independently of her mind, as though tropical passion is impersonal and outside the bounds of individual control. He then detaches her "attire" from her as well, identifying the tropic fire with the luster of the white garments that she wears. Here Wordsworth's dissection of the woman's image becomes particularly strange because he joins the fire of the tropics to the cool purity of white muslin—the European woman's garment of the day—and, in effect, mixes the metaphors that he chooses to describe the Lady. He uses exactly the same image to cap a description of racial varieties on the streets of London in book 7 of The Prelude[27] In these lines, Alison Hickey argues, the white dresses symbolize the presence of empire, as

delicate material such as light muslin was the essential fabric of the new mode of dress for European ladies; the preferred color was white [. . .]. In Wordsworth's image, muslin—a product of the emporium, and perhaps of the labor of black slaves—is, ironically, worn by black women who have apparently joined, or who seek to join, European upper-class circles.


The implication is that the women wear the sign of their own subordination—that as subalterns, they both mirror and transform the face of the metropole. In the case of Wordsworth's sonnet to the "Negro lady," the "tropic fire" of her eyes burns dangerously close to the bright white of her dress—producing, perhaps, a frightening image of miscegenation in the eyes of the poet. In Hickey's treatment of the image in The Prelude, she claims that the striking contrast of black and white betrays "the uncomfortable proximity of European fashion [. . .] to its supposed dark opposite and suggesting that the paradoxical endpoint of imperialist high culture may be 'going native'"(Hickey 290). It may be that the frightening mix of European and native, empire and colony, causes Wordsworth's final turn to the heavens and away from the unreadability of the imperial paradox embodied in the African women who confronts him on the boat from Calais.

I will conclude my remarks by thinking about the illegible "Negro lady." My account of the metaphor of the unreadable or illegible within Wordsworth's work originated with "Tintern Abbey"; the weight of the world's sorrow is there "unintelligible." Wordsworth continued to use this figure as he composed the great transcendental passages of The Prelude in 1804. The episodes centering on the crossing of the Simplon Pass in book 6 and the ascent of Snowdon in book 14 make use of a Kantian formulation to construct the sublime turn: the impact on the mind of the utterly infinite and literally unimaginable necessitates what Kant calls a "subreption." The faculty of reason—which Wordsworth defines as imagination in its most elevated mood—rises up and transcends the illegible or unintelligible object facing the observer. The emptiness that confronts Wordsworth at the height of his expectations must be conceptualized, must be filled; fragmentation must be unified and made whole. At the moment when he finds that he has crossed the Alps unknowingly, Wordsworth calls on Imagination, the "awful Power" which "rose from the mind"s abyss"—the power of recuperation emerging from the site of loss. The poet imagines his sublime turn taking him, finally, to infinity:

Our destiny, our being's heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, a hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.

1805: 6.604-608

The space of potentiality is not empty, but rather filled to plenitude with futurity—a fullness that recompenses present loss. Similarly, the "hoary mist" that "usurps upon" the Atlantic in the Snowdon episode of book 14 is no match for the "ethereal vault," Wordsworth's objective correlative for the Imagination: "encroachment none / Was there, nor loss" (14.50-51). [28]

But Wordsworth's advance from the natural or empirical sublime to the transcendental sublime of book 14 was too late for the 1802 sonnets, which are still governed by a belief in organicism and a natural process that would inevitably erase slavery from the earth. In sonnet 9, Wordsworth, quite literally finding himself in the face of unutterable loss in the person of the "Negro lady," tries and fails to embody that loss, producing only metonymies and the paradox of eyes which, burning independently of the mind, mock their own face. Unable to name her, he essentializes her into the (capitalized) "Outcast" of Europe, the unfaceable image, the insoluble problem. The "sublime turn" to the heavens with which he ends the poem, like the turn with which he resolves the sonnet to Toussaint, marks clearly the significant impact made upon him by the irresolvable paradoxes of empire, slavery, and race in 1802.

Parties annexes