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"The Sorrows of Yamba," by Eaglesfield Smith and Hannah More: Authorship, Ideology, and the Fractures of Antislavery Discourse

  • Alan Richardson

…plus d’informations

  • Alan Richardson
    Boston College

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This essay pursues two questions: who wrote "The Sorrows of Yamba," and what difference does it make? The first question might seem trivial or even impertinent. Published in 1795 by Hannah More in her Cheap Repository Tracts series, "The Sorrows of Yamba" became one of the most popular and frequently reprinted antislavery poems of its time and has been described as a "prototype" for later antislavery texts (Ferguson 372). Nevertheless, the poem (which More left unsigned) long remained anonymous, receiving little in the way of scholarly or critical notice. Moira Ferguson abruptly revived the slumbering question of its authorship in 1992, when she stated in Subject to Others, her important study of women's antislavery writing, that More had written "The Sorrows of Yamba" "from scratch" (218). Following Ferguson, a number of editors and anthologists have since listed Hannah More as author in reprinting "The Sorrows of Yamba," which has again become a popular poem, at least as a college-level teaching piece. Robert Hole includes the antislavery ballad in his 1996 edition of More's Selected Writings, and the poem also appears under More's name in Isobel Armstrong and Joseph Bristow's Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (1996) and in Andrew Ashfield's Romantic Women Poets: 1788-1848 (1998). In attributing it to More in the second edition of Romanticism: An Anthology (1998), Duncan Wu notes the ballad's "typical" combination of "the desire to evangelize with Hannah's [sic] anti-slavery convictions" (28). Peter Manning and Susan Wolfson also reprint the poem under More's name in the first edition (1999) of the Longman Anthology of British Literature, noting, however, that "More's authorship is debated" (2: 174). [1] As well it might be. For twenty-two stanzas of the poem as published by More in variant Cheap Repository versions—the stanzas that establish Yamba's character and tell the core narrative of her capture, enslavement, and suicidal despair—are largely the work of an obscure Scottish poet named Eaglesfield Smith.

Why should the question of authorship make a difference? The tradition of antislavery writing, after all, would seem to lend itself especially well to approaches that largely or wholly ignore the author to operate instead at the level of discourse, ideology, or even "culture." Studies such as Subject to Others, in fact, have restored antislavery writing to critical interest by concentrating on what Foucault calls the "functional conditions of specific discursive practices" (114), as in Ferguson's influential delineation of "Anglo-Africanism" as a "colonial discourse" that operates throughout eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century antislavery texts (5). In separating out the works of "British Women Writers" for critical scrutiny, however, Ferguson implies that at least one important dimension of authorial identity—the writer's gender—qualifies what might otherwise seem a homogeneous "discourse." Anne Mellor has also argued that "gender played a significant role" in shaping antislavery rhetoric, singling out a number of elements in the literary and polemical writings of women abolitionists that strike her as distinctive and attributable to a recognizably "female" ethical culture ("‘Am I not'" 315-16). The significant role of a male poet in shaping the core stanzas of the Cheap Repository versions of "The Sorrows of Yamba," extensively altered though they are by More, would seem in itself justification for reexamining the issue of its authorship. (It might also provoke rethinking of the poem's inclusion in anthologies of women's poetry.)

The difference in gender, however, is only one of a number of equally salient differences—in politics, in morality, in religion, as well as in poetic voice, genre, and intended audience—that introduce so much friction and fracture into the ballad as it appears in the Cheap Repository. Once its dual authorship has been fully appreciated, in fact, the poem can be read in terms of a contest between two distinctive "structures of feeling" representing discrete political and esthetic aims. [2] Ironically, whereas Foucault worried that the notion of authorship "serves to neutralize the contradictions that are found in a series of texts" (128), here the neglect of the authorship question has occluded the significant contradictions found within a single text. Studying those contradictions can serve to reopen the larger question of whether a concept as amorphous as "antislavery discourse" remains useful, especially in relation to a period when abolitionist writers could find themselves on opposite sides of debates on politics, morality, empire, and "race."

In what follows, then, I will establish the dual authorship of the Cheap Repository "Sorrows of Yamba" on the basis both of external evidence (including new evidence that I discovered in the course of preparing a collection of British antislavery poems) and internal evidence. [3] Indeed, a crucial part of the argument—for the priority and relative integrity of Smith's version of the poem—depends almost wholly on internal evidence, but of an unusually persuasive kind. As I make this case, however, I will also be underscoring the larger ideological and esthetic conflicts that lie behind the fractured character of the Cheap Repository versions. "The Sorrows of Yamba" reemerges from this analysis as an exemplary instance, not of the coherence of British antislavery discourse, but of its tensions and contradictions.

The first clue that "The Sorrows of Yamba" was not written by More alone has long been available to scholars in a 1942 study that predates the widespread ascription of the poem to More by half a century. In Guinea's Captive Kings, his groundbreaking study of eighteenth-century antislavery writing, Wylie Sypher includes a brief mention of "the lurid ‘Sorrows of Yamba' by E. S. J." as a poem published in the Universal Magazine for 1797, adding parenthetically that it was "reprinted in the Cheap Repository Tracts" (209). "Reprinted" cannot be quite right, because both of the Cheap Repository versions of "The Sorrows of Yamba"—issued by More first in a 40-stanza broadside format and then in a 47-stanza pamphlet or "chapbook"—were in print by 1796. [4] Nevertheless, textual comparison supports Sypher's hunch that the version signed by "E. S. J.," or an earlier draft very like it, was written first; most likely, it was supplied in manuscript to More and then significantly augmented and revised by her. The differences between the two Cheap Repository versions—the broadside (abbreviated below as CR40) and the chapbook (CR47)—do not significantly affect the comparison of either with the Universal Magazine text (UM). CR47 includes all forty stanzas of CR40 with only a few, minor changes; the seven additional stanzas in the chapbook do not alter the basic narrative trajectory established in the broadside, but amplify it with further detail and commentary. [5] Early issues of both the broadside and pamphlet carry no signature (More used the initial Z to sign the tracts she wrote entirely on her own). Although various Cheap Repository texts were included in collected editions of More's works published during her lifetime—as one would expect, the tracts she signed "Z"—"The Sorrows of Yamba" never features among these and More's editors, biographers, and critics never speak of it as hers before the 1990s. [6]

Two quite different voices and styles can be readily detected in the Cheap Repository versions of "The Sorrows of Yamba" even without knowledge of the Universal Magazine text. When I teach the poem, using a text based on the Cheap Repository chapbook, I ask students to look for awkward transitions, inconsistencies, or unexpected shifts in tone before mentioning the existence of an alternate version. Invariably, students locate some of the sutures that mark More's presumed additions to the shorter poem by E. S. J.—sometimes before being asked to look for them. In an undergraduate seminar held at Boston College in Spring 2002, for example, a number of students noted discontinuities in CR47 in their reading journals, written prior to class discussion of the poem and unprompted by any special instructions for reading. Here are the relevant comments by four different students: "I felt very disappointed when the poem turned into a conversion narrative because the author seemed to abandon the effective antislavery style she had been using to humanize the slaves"; "But then the tone slips into a different sort of dialect, a ‘lower' tone of voice that stereotypes black speech. All of a sudden, Yamba is using the word ‘me' at obviously wrong times [. . .]"; "I feel as if this poem has many contradictions [. . .]. Yamba's position on Christianity seems to change"; "Furthermore, I was surprised by the conversion story incorporated into this poem [. . .]. I was really struck by it and not sure what to make of it." The sense of disjunction, surprise, and of something "incorporated" into the poem expressed by these students testifies to the astuteness of their readings and finds ample justification in a comparison of More's text with the one signed by E. S. J. The poem as published in the Universal Magazine says nothing about Yamba's conversion, omits any reference to Christianity, makes no use of dialect terms, and shows a relative uniformity of style and tone that More's additions patently disrupt.

That sense of disruption is nowhere more blatant than in the transition from stanzas 19-20 (17-18 in CR40), which show only minor differences from the corresponding stanzas (17-18) in UM, to stanza 21 (19 in CR40), evidently More's work and with no counterpart in E. S. J.'s poem:

Mourning thus my wretched state,
 (Ne'er may I forget the day)
Once in dusk of evening late
 Far from home I dared to stray;

Dared, alas! with impious haste
 Towards the roaring Sea to fly,
Death itself I longed to taste,
 Long'd to cast me in and Die.

There I met upon the Strand
 English Missionary Good,
He had Bible book in hand,
 Which poor me no understood.

CR47, stanzas 19-21; 17-19 in CR40

The change in tone and style is so jarring that one wonders how readers ever miss it. The standard English diction and syntax of the first two stanzas, approximating colloquial educated speech with the exception of a few poetic elisions and inversions, suddenly gives way to a childlike, ungrammatical, pseudo-West Indian dialect. For eighteen stanzas (21-38) in CR47 (sixteen [19-31] in CR40), More develops the sub-narrative of Yamba's providential meeting with the English missionary, who arrives seemingly out of nowhere in time to prevent her suicide, admonishes (in CR47) and comforts her, and eventually oversees her Christian conversion and baptism. None of this material appears in UM. This section also includes some of the stanzas that strike my students (and, presumably, many other readers) as most out of harmony with earlier and later sections of the poem. In stanza 29 (25 in CR40), Yamba's earlier, outspoken condemnation of the cruelties of colonial slavery gives way to Christian forgiveness of slave masters:

O, ye slaves whom Massas beat,
 Ye are stain'd with guilt within;
As ye hope for Mercy sweet,
 So forgive your Massas' sin.

In stanza 32 (28 in CR40), Yamba, who begins the poem by bitterly lamenting her separation from Africa, now expresses gratitude for being brought into contact with a Christian culture:

Now I'll bless my cruel capture,
 (Hence I've known a Saviour's name)
Till my grief is turn'd to rapture,
 And I half forget the blame.

CR47 stanzas 39 and 40 (32-33 in CR40), however, which correspond closely (though with a few, highly significant changes) to stanzas 19 and 20 of UM, reassert Yamba's connection with, regret for, and political identification with Africa:

But tho' death this hour may find me,
 Still with Afric's love I burn;
(There I've left a spouse behind me)
 Still to native land I turn.

And when Yamba sinks in death,
 This my latest prayer shall be,
While I yield my parting breath,
 O, that Afric might be free.

italics in original

In E. S. J.'s version of "Yamba," the corresponding stanzas are followed by two more, which conclude the poem in a manner that underscores British hypocrisy (caustically alluding to James Thomson's "Rule Britannia") and imagine an Africa free from British incursions:

Ye that boast the rule of waves,
 Bid no slave ship sail the sea:
Ye that never will be slaves,
 Bid poor Afric's land be free.

Thus, where Yamba's native home,
 Humble hut of rushes stood,
Her happy sons again may roam,
 And Britons seek not for their blood.

More, however, having introduced Yamba's gratitude for her captivity and the conversion it makes possible, needs to add yet more material to ease the tension between Yamba's "rapture" at Christian captivity and her reasserted longing for Africa. The result is a rather ingenious, though again awkward, expansion of Yamba's reference to her spouse that generates another sub-narrative, in which Yamba wishfully imagines her husband's own encounter with an English missionary:

Thus, where Yamba's native home,
 Humble Hut of rushes stood,
Oh, if there should chance to roam
 Some dear Missionary good;

Thou in Afric's distant land,
 Still shalt see the man I love;
Join him to the Christian band,
 Guide his Soul to Realms above.

Beyond the first two lines, these two stanzas (45-46 in CR47, 38-39 in CR40), correspond with nothing in the poem signed by E. S. J. His concluding lines ("Her happy sons again may roam, / And Britons seek not for their blood") do not appear in either Cheap Repository version, jarring as they do against More's familiar Anglo-Africanist ethos of "colonization, Christianization, and commercialization" (Lyons 52). Instead, both versions of the Cheap Repository "Yamba" advocate missionary activity as a benign replacement for the incursions of slave traders:

Where ye once have carried slaughter,
 Vice, and Slavery, and Sin;
Seiz'd on Husband, Wife, and Daughter,
 Let the Gospel enter in.

CR47, st. 44; CR40, st. 40

More's final stanza offers Yamba a deferred, heavenly reward, displacing the Afrocentric sentiment of E. S. J.'s conclusion with one last dose of Christian consolation:

There no Fiend again shall sever
 Those whom God hath join'd and blest;
There they dwell with Him for ever,
 There "the weary are at rest."

With More's additions, "The Sorrows of Yamba" fits well with comparable evangelizing antislavery works such as More's own Slavery, A Poem. The version signed "E. S. J.," in contrast, fits more readily with a secular, radical tradition in antislavery poetry represented by such poems as Thomas Day and John Bicknell's The Dying Negro and Robert Southey's "To the Genius of Africa."

The notable differences between "The Sorrows of Yamba" as published by the Universal Magazine and by More in the Cheap Repository can be summarized as follows: eighteen extra stanzas (thirteen in CR40) interpolating the story of Yamba's conversion; five and a half further stanzas urging Britain to undertake African missionary efforts in place of the slave trade and imagining the conversion of Yamba's husband in Africa; the two concluding lines that appear only in UM; two extra stanzas (in CR47 only) that amplify material present in UM with further description (st. 11) and lamentation (st. 14); and the presence in the Cheap Repository versions of a number of dialect terms and instances of broken syntax. This pattern of changes in itself suggests that the Universal Magazine version (or a close analogue) must have been written first. It is nearly impossible to imagine another poet starting with either one of More's texts, stripping it of its conversion story and other Christian and missionary references, standardizing dialect terms and corrupt syntax, and then publishing the result (in defiance of More's copyright) in a reputable journal, even under a pseudonym. Moreover, it would be difficult to account for the inconsistencies and awkward transitions that leap out at readers of the Cheap Repository texts if they indeed had been written by More "from scratch" and not on the basis of an earlier version with significantly different aims.

Conversely, one can readily imagine More taking a version of "Yamba" close to that in the Universal Magazine and introducing just such changes in order to fit it to the Cheap Repository ethos, for this is how More herself describes her editorial practice. As More outlined it to one potential patron, her plan was to displace the "indecent" songs and "penny histories" sold to lower-class readers by chapmen and pedlars with inexpensive tracts that might "strike on the affections, and help to give them a right tendency" (Chatterton 1: 266-68). Although she complained of the "trash" sent to her "weekly in prose and verse from all parts of the kingdom for the Repository" (Chatterton 1: 294), at least on occasion More proved willing to revise an unsolicited submission rather than rely solely on her own creative efforts and those of her few regular contributors. But the work of revision could be laborious: "Almost every piece has, not only to be abridged and the style made familiar, but the phraseology to be changed [sic]" (Chatterton 1: 274). Narrative lines had to be "altered and improved" as well, with More "carefully observing to found all goodness in religious principles" (Roberts 1: 457). Since the absence of documentary records have made the authorship of the fifty-one tracts unclaimed by More "now almost impossible" to trace (Spinney 310), it remains conceivable that an intermediary took the poem by "E. S. J.," altered it, and then submitted it for inclusion in the Cheap Repository. But the "altered and improved" version fits readily with More's stated editorial practice and reflects the values found throughout her acknowledged antislavery writing.

The distinct impression of More's altering hand at work grows even stronger when some of the less obtrusive changes are noted. The first two stanzas of the Cheap Repository versions, for example, resemble those in the Universal Magazine text almost word for word, but the order of the stanzas is inverted. Instead of beginning, "Come, kind death, and give me rest," More's versions begin: "In St. Lucia's distant isle." The transposition might at first seem a matter of esthetic taste, but its effect is to distance the poem from the "slave suicide" genre typified by Day and Bicknell's Dying Slave[7] A change later in the poem—from "But tho' death this hour I find" (UM, line 71) to "But tho' death this hour may find me" (CR40 line 125; CR47 line 153)—again serves to forestall a reading of Yamba's approaching death in terms of suicide. The Universal Magazine poem, in its one concession to orthodox religious morality, does have Yamba speak of an earlier suicide attempt as "impious" (UM, line 67). But the overall effect of the poem tends to align it with the slave suicide genre, an association all but demanded by its first stanza:

Come, kind death, and give me rest;
Yamba hath no friend but thee;
Thou canst ease my throbbing breast,
Thou canst set a pris'ner free.

Even the poem's title may allude to that then-notorious fictional treatment of suicide, The Sorrows of Werther. These associations would have been intolerable to More, who condemns "German literature" for its "French" principles and scorns Mary Wollstonecraft as a "professed admirer and imitator of the German suicide Werter" in Strictures on Female Education (1: 41-2, 48). By switching the order of the opening stanzas and inverting the active and passive positions in Yamba's embrace of death, More could render the allusions to earlier slave suicide poems and to Goethe effectively inaudible, shielding her intended lower-class readership from cultural "corruption" (Strictures 1: 44).

Another set of smaller changes concerns More's insertion of dialect (or pseudo-dialect) terms. In preparing (however inadequately) for the crude dialect and broken syntax that characterize some of her added stanzas, More also changed a few standard terms in the material taken from Smith into her ersatz version of Afro-Caribbean dialect. "Master" and "masters" in stanzas 14-15 of UM becomes "Massa" and "Massas" in the Cheap Repository (CR40, sts. 14-15; CR47, sts. 16-17). In a change that seems almost comically intrusive, E. S. J.'s "wily" man (UM, line 17) turns into More's "whity man" (CR40, 47; line 17)—an unconvincing idiom even by the standards of most other pseudo-dialect of the time. These changes and additions, despite their inconsistency with the bulk of the poem, might seem to proceed from More's stated practice of rendering the style "familiar," yet the result is to render Yamba's diction less familiar, more exotic. Not to mention more childlike: Yamba's ready command of the standard lexicon and syntax in the Universal Magazine is disrupted by spurts of crude, stereotyped Afro-Caribbean speech in the Cheap Repository. As Ferguson points out in Subject to Others, such uses of pseudo-dialect served to underscore the alleged "‘stupidity' of slaves" and place them in an inferior position in need of "British intervention" (103). Even slaves and former slaves who, like Phillis Wheatley, had publicly demonstrated their command of educated speech were demeaned in this fashion, as the crude pseudo-dialect attributed to "Phillis" in the broadside lampoon Dreadful Riot on Negro Hill! so coarsely attests. [8] Here the esthetic disparities between E. S. J.'s verse and More's emendations become inextricable from their ideological differences.

Even disencumbered of the changes and additions made for its inclusion in the Cheap Repository, the "Sorrows of Yamba" signed by "E. S. J." bears marks of what Ferguson has called "Anglo-Africanism." It evokes an undifferentiated "Afric" with the "African pastoral" conventions of its time (Yamba's "Humble Hut of rushes"). It grants its African speaker a greater degree of agency than do More's versions, but (insofar as the poem evokes the slave suicide genre) her despair and anger are ultimately turned upon herself. It makes use of common antislavery tropes—for example, the reversal of the "civilized/savage" dichotomy, a reversal that casts the British slavers, not their African victims, as "savage"—that More also deploys in Slavery. Its successive portrayal of Yamba's capture, the middle passage, the slave auction, field slavery, and approaching death retraces a narrative arc already well-established in antislavery writing by the 1790s. Its strategic use of domestic terms—"parents," "husband," "baby," "breast"—to trigger empathy has been noted as a hallmark of British women's antislavery writing, though here, interestingly, they occur throughout the stanzas contributed by a man (Mellor, "‘Am I not'" 315). Yet in comparison to a poem like Slavery, the Universal Magazine version of "Yamba" attests to the profound ideological differences that render a term like "Anglo-Africanism" as potentially misleading as it is useful. Most strikingly, the poem attempts to counter its readers' Anglocentric bias by instead centering Yamba's thoughts, passions, and political hopes on "Afric." Yamba's final "pray'r" for Africa, moreover, envisions an Africa "free" from British interference, whereas the exchange of missionaries for slavers in More's revised conclusion leaves Africa subordinate and passive. In the Universal Magazine poem, Britain may become a benign offshore presence, ensuring that no "slave ship sail the sea," but Afric's sons will "roam" without the dubious benefit of European guidance. Without More's Christianizing stanzas, the "Sorrows of Yamba" delivers a uniformly harsh indictment of "British laws" and the colonial practices and institutions they support, however mitigated by the occasional "kind" master. The concluding stanzas, with the final image (deleted by More) of Britons seeking "blood," leave the reader with a much starker sense of British hypocrisy and cruelty. Throughout the poem, Yamba's perspective remains authoritative and her voice consistent, dignified, and assured. Juxtaposed with the Cheap Repository versions, the Universal Magazine text exhibits a striking degree of esthetic, ideological, and moral coherence. Its relative integrity again speaks to the compositional priority of the "E. S. J." version.

Once the pseudonym "E. S. J." has been traced to Eaglesfield Smith, moreover, the case for priority becomes yet stronger. For, although More never laid claim to "The Sorrows of Yamba," Smith did, including versions of the ballad in both editions of his collected poems. Sypher seems not to have bothered tracing the pseudonym, and one can hardly blame him. Although Eaglesfield Smith published some dozen titles in verse, drama, and prose, he fails to appear in standard biographical dictionaries and literary histories, and the bibliographical record of his works has long remained confusing and incomplete. [9] One reference work that was potentially available to Sypher, however, the 1932 volume of the enlarged Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature, correctly identifies Eaglesfield Smith as the author of the anonymous poem, William and Ellen (Kennedy et al. 6: 237), and the phrase "E. S. J. author of William and Ellen" appears on the title page of Hildibrand and Una, another literary ballad that the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) attributes to Eaglesfield Smith. Based on this chain of references, Emily Lorraine de Montluzin has attributed seventeen poems signed "E. S. J.," published from 1796-1801 in The Gentleman's Magazine and The European Magazine, to Eaglesfield Smith. [10] These poems, along with William and Ellen, Hildibrand and Una, and other works signed "E. S. J.," appear in one or (like "The Sorrows of Yamba") both of the collected editions of Smith's verse. The Poetical Works of Eaglesfield Smith, Esq., published by Joseph Johnson in 1802 and surviving in a unique copy held by Yale University, includes a version of E. S. J.'s antislavery ballad entitled "Ianda." Besides changing "Yamba" to "Ianda," Smith adds a refrain stanza largely borrowed from William Cowper's "The Negro's Complaint," but the twenty-two stanzas of UM all appear intact, in their original order and with only minor changes. Smith again changed the poem's title, to "The Slave," in revising the poem for the second edition of his Poetical Works, expanded to two volumes and published by Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy in 1822. (Queen's College, Belfast uniquely holds both volumes; volume one, which includes "The Slave," is also held by Harvard University). In this version, Smith changes "Ianda" back to "Yamba," deletes the refrain stanza closely modeled on Cowper, and adds a new framing stanza of his own. Otherwise, the original twenty-two stanzas appear in their expected order, again with only slight changes in wording and punctuation here and there. [11]

Despite his many publications, Smith remained obscure enough in his own time that two reviewers of his 1822 collection took his proper name to be no less pseudonymous than "E. S. J." "We know nothing of the author of these poems, though from his presumed rank we conceive we might have known of his existence, had his name really been what we find in the title of the book," wrote a reviewer in the Newcastle Magazine (2: 66). A reviewer for the Monthly Magazine simply referred to Eaglesfield Smith as a "fictitious personage" (54: 451). These remarks must have hurt, for records of Smith's marriage, death, estate, and genealogy, not to mention his headstone, all attest to his historical reality. His father, also named Eaglesfield Smith, was a prosperous landowner with his principal estate in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, and a second estate (gained by marriage) in Derby, England; Eaglesfield Smith, Jr. (hence "E. S. J.") eventually inherited both. British War Office records held in the Public Records Office bear out Smith's claim, in a brief note to the 1802 Poetical Works, that he had served time in a "French prison." Smith had been captured by the French soon after joining General Mansel's regiment in Flanders in 1794, where he served as Surgeon's Mate; records at Edinburgh University show that he had taken courses in Anatomy, Surgery, and Chemistry there from 1793-94. His memorial inscription states that he died in 1838 at 68 years of age, giving a birth year of circa 1770. His family is still remembered in the Dumfries village of Eaglesfield, near his birthplace, though no one can say for certain whether the village is named for the senior or junior Eaglesfield Smith.

Knowledge of Smith's political sympathies must be gleaned from his published works, and these confirm the impression that the author of "The Sorrows of Yamba," in its original form, could be considered liberal to radical in politics (in the 1790s). Johnson, who published the 1802 Poetical Works, famously cultivated authors with radical opinions and reputations, including Joseph Priestley, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Erasmus Darwin. J. S. Jordan, who brought out two of Smith's earlier books, had been enlisted by Johnson to publish Part Two of Tom Paine's Rights of Man, for which Jordan was duly arrested (Tyson 123-26). The second of Smith's works published by Jordan, The Scath of France; or, The Death of St. Just and his Son, A Poem, issued in 1797 and (uncharacteristically) signed, "E. Smith, Esq. Author of William and Ellen," was an outspoken defense of the French Revolution. (Apparently, Smith's "tedious hours" in a French prison had left him with no hard feelings against his captors.) Most of the book's reviewers roundly condemned it for its revolutionary sympathies, although one, Robert Southey, came to its defense. [12] Southey, of course, had published his own poetic tribute to the Revolution, Joan of Arc, the year before. During the same years that he was sending poems to The Universal Magazine, The European Magazine, and The Gentleman's Magazine, all journals with a liberal editorial slant, Smith had somehow become connected with radical publishers, perhaps through membership in radical circles. His shorter pieces take up any number of the liberal and radical causes of the day: child beggars, chimney sweeps, discharged soldiers, tinkers and gypsies, the "Birth of Liberty," and the West-Indian slave.

Tracing the enigmatic initials "E. S. J." to Eaglesfield Smith adds the weight of external evidence to the considerable case on internal grounds for the priority of his version of "The Sorrows of Yamba." It may also help to account for why Smith published his version when he did in 1797. Given the liberal social values and radical political views informing his poetic output of the 1790s, the young poet may well have been appalled at what More had made of his antislavery ballad. Printing his own version in the Universal Magazine, despite More's having entered her broadside edition in the Stationer's Register and thus obtained copyright, would have been an understandable response. At a time when copyright claims were jealously guarded and rigorously enforced (St. Clair), the Universal Magazine would have needed assurance of Smith's original authorship in order to reprint twenty-two stanzas of a copyrighted poem. Even so, the journal may have been taking a risk on Smith's behalf. The altered titles of the versions he included in his collected poems, along with the new introductory stanzas he added in each case, may reflect his publishers' worries regarding copyright infringement. If Smith had to revise "Ianda" (and alter the heroine's name) quickly under editorial pressure, it would explain why the added stanza in this case was effectively cribbed from Cowper, forcing him to subtitle the poem: "(Not Wholly Original)." [13] In the absence of Smith's papers, no trace of which has emerged, these are matters for conjecture only.

What remains certain is that the twenty-two stanzas of Smith's 1797 "Sorrows of Yamba" show a thematic coherence and stylistic integrity notably lacking in the longer Cheap Repository versions; that both the Cheap Repository broadside and chapbook texts show pronounced signs of dual authorship and editorial interpolation; that the added material and stylistic changes fit neatly with More's editorial policies and ideological slant; and that Smith twice reasserted his authorship of the 1797 version, though guardedly, in both editions of his collected poems. The compelling case for Smith's authorship of the "ur-text" of "The Sorrows of Yamba," one presumably close or identical to the 1797 text, might suggest that anthologists should in future prefer that text to the Cheap Repository versions currently in print. Drawing such a conclusion, however, would mean falling back into the uncritical notions of originality and authorial privilege that Foucault's critique of authorship sought to dislodge. [14] "The Sorrows of Yamba" owes no small part of its interest today, reflected in its recent promotion to the college teaching canon, to the contradictions and sutures that mark the Cheap Repository versions. Put differently, although as a critic and as a twenty-first century reader I greatly prefer the more integral and empathetic 1797 version, as a scholar and teacher of British Romanticism I find the Cheap Repository texts indispensable. Precisely because they embody some of the leading conflicts within antislavery ideology and unsettle any premature notion of a unified "antislavery discourse," More's Cheap Repository texts remain extremely useful as material both for literary-cultural history and for classroom teaching. The full historical interest and pedagogical value of the ballad will fail to emerge, however, unless its dual authorship (and the countervoice of an alternative text) are kept in sight. [15]

Considered in juxtaposition, then, the Universal Magazine and Cheap Repository texts reveal fractures within the larger field of antislavery discourse in terms of politics, religion, morality, and attitudes toward Africa and those of African descent. Ideological conflicts meld into esthetic differences in relation to such matters as the use of dialect and the choice between active and passive verb forms. Surprisingly, perhaps, the difference in gender between the two authors does not yield the expected thematic differences: Smith's version of "Yamba" makes significant use of domestic and familial material, while More's additions introduce authoritative male figures who function to limit Yamba's autonomy and redirect her desires. The stanzas contributed by Smith to the Cheap Repository versions, even with More's emendations, retain their affiliations with the radical wing of the antislavery movement and its literary allies. Like the young Southey (or, still, earlier, Thomas Chatterton in his "African Eclogues"), Smith attempts to imagine and maintain an Afrocentric perspective. Like Day and Bicknell, Smith presents suicide as an understandable alternative to enslavement, granting his protagonist sufficient agency at least to end (if not avenge) her sufferings. As does Anne Yearsley's Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave-Trade, Smith's stanzas underscore the consonance of the slave system with "British laws" despite the central position given to liberty in official British ideology. In telling contrast to poems like More's Slavery and James Montgomery's West Indies, not to mention More's additions to "Yamba," Smith's stanzas imagine an Africa "free" from European influence, rather than tying a hopeful African future to British-led commerce and Christianization. [16]

All the more telling, then, that "The Sorrows of Yamba" became a "prototype" for later antislavery writing only with More's additions, and despite the formal and ideological inconsistencies these introduced into the poem. More's "author-function" (Foucault 125), though not her actual authorship, undoubtedly served to sanction "Yamba" for family reading and to facilitate its dissemination among the "provincial homes" mentioned by Ferguson (372). Whether or not they found favor with her intended lower-class readers, More's additions would have appealed to a middle-class audience with their endorsement of religious authority, their missionary ethos, and their reassertion of British superiority. Whereas Smith's version seems well tailored for the genteel, liberal-minded, late-eighteenth-century readership cultivated by journals like the Universal Magazine, More's revision catches early in its rise a nascent, more conservative, more militantly religious sensibility that would eventually be labeled "Victorian." [17] The vestigial 1790s radicalism informing Smith's stanzas reached the proto-Victorian audience of post-Regency Britain only under the sheep's clothing of More's pious emendations.

As theories of social discourse seek to avoid reductionism and account for the overdetermined character of discursive subjectivity, they necessarily rediscover the author. If, as Chantal Mouffe urges, a "subject position" within a discursive field must be understood in terms of a "multiplicity of social relations," including those of class, religion, gender, race, and nationality, recovering that "multiplicity" involves at least a certain minimal provision of biographical information (89-90). Traditional scholarly concerns such as text attribution and biographical research need not return literary criticism to traditional notions such as the autonomous author with full control over a definitive text, though Foucault seems to have feared otherwise. As the case of "The Sorrows of Yamba" makes clear, such research can in fact serve to explode spurious notions of a unified text "typical" of its presumed author's writing practice. More broadly, attention to matters of religion, politics, disparate readerships, and conflicting stances on esthetics and ideology—requiring a measure of biographical as well as historical research—can challenge the premature description of a unified discursive field before it hardens into a reified meta-category that constrains as much as it enables criticism. Because widespread critical attention came late to the study of antislavery writing and critics long ignored the pioneering studies of Sypher and Eva Beatrice Dykes, a good deal of basic research taken for granted in relation to canonical texts has yet to be carried out. Generalization has often proceeded on the basis of a fairly small selection of texts, and even those texts have suffered from scholarly neglect. Historical overviews now need to be supplemented, and challenged, by more particularized studies, drawing on new textual and biographical scholarship wherever necessary.

Post-classical theories of text and authorship will not be forgotten by such scholarship but will help shape it. This study, for example, has tacitly appealed to notions of multiple authorship, multiple texts, discrete readerships, the economics of literary production, and the social ecology of the literary text now taken for granted in the new philology and textual criticism. [18] Foucault's notion of an "author-function" helps account for the popularity and cultural salience of "The Sorrows of Yamba" once it came officially under the aegis of More, even as a reexamination of the historical author has served to underscore More's editorial interventions and to differentiate them from the very different textual material she undertook to revise.

As critics of Romantic-era writing turn their attention to an ever larger body of texts and authors, the primary work of scholarship will need to be gone through rather than gone around. Otherwise, notions like "discourse" and "social text" may prove no less limiting and misleading than the notions of the autonomous author and the "definitive" text that they were intended to displace. In making "The Sorrows of Yamba" once more widely available, anthologists have inadvertently provided students and instructors with a rich case study both in the new textual scholarship and in the conflicts within antislavery discourse. Now they need only change their attributions and headnotes to underscore the rifts and sutures that readers already notice, allowing Smith's very different poem to show more clearly through the conflicted palimpsest text popularized by More through the Cheap Repository. [19]

Parties annexes