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“The soul that dreams it shares the power it feels so well”: The Politics of Sympathy in the Abolitionist Verse of Williams and Yearsley

  • Robert Edward Mitchell

…plus d’informations

  • Robert Edward Mitchell
    Duke University

Corps de l’article

For it is remarkable in human nature, that though we always sympathize with our relations, and with those under our eye, the distress of persons remote and unknown affects us very little.

Home 17

Abolitionist poetry is an important site for investigating rhetorical transformations and innovations in late eighteenth century women’s poetry. As a number of critics have noted, the supposedly “sentimental” nature of this topic allowed women to interrogate the taboo field of political discourse, as it “provid[ed] a cover for expressing political aims and ideals otherwise too controversial to broach in print”(Richardson, “Introduction” x). [1] Moreover, the uncertain generic territory occupied by anti-slavery poems enabled the emergence of a number of new stylistic and rhetorical devices; a cross between eighteenth century moral poetry, Christian sermonizing, the political ode, and the poem of “sensibility,” abolitionist verse offered poets opportunities to experiment with form and technique. The explicitly political goal of poems on the slave trade also encouraged active reflection on the powers and limits of poetic language, and women poets were especially attentive to the relationships between their own voice and their readers’ reactions.

At the same time, however, some of this innovation has been obscured by the interpretative categories of “sensibility,” “sentimentality” and “sympathy.” Critics have noted that abolitionist verse often sought to encourage sympathy for slaves in readers, but also have suggested that this strategy depended almost exclusively on “sentimental” tableaux, in which readers were asked to respond to representations of abductions, floggings, burnings, whippings, and suicides. Yet not all abolitionist poets believed that sympathy could be encouraged simply, or solely, through representations of suffering, and some, such as Helen Maria Williams and Ann Yearsley, included in their verse sophisticated reflections on the relationships between sympathy, representation, and language.

In this essay I focus on two important rhetorical strategies of sympathy developed by Helen Maria Williams in “A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave-Trade” (1788) and Ann Yearsley in “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade” (1788). Like most anti-slavery verse, Williams’ and Yearsley’s poems include extended portraits of suffering slaves, and commentators have tended to focus critical attention on the content of these sentimental tableaux. Yet I shall argue that this emphasis tends to obscure their much more complex understanding of sympathy and its connection to language. Where many other abolitionist poets often assumed that portraits of suffering would automatically produce sympathy for (and political action on behalf of) slaves in middle-class readers, both Williams and Yearsley interrogate the origin and production of sympathy itself. For both authors, poetic language produces sympathy not primarily as a consequence of its representational capacity (that is, its ability to re-present the sufferings of victims to those in political and economic power), but rather in its ability to force the imagination to reflexively turn back upon itself. Williams and Yearsley, in other words, are less interested in the content of a sympathetic engagement with the other, and far more interested in the dynamic, almost dialectical, nature of sympathy itself. Both poets connect this power with the figure of the home; for each, sympathy occurs when poetic language creates, partially dissembles, and then recreates an imaginative home, thus allowing the reader truly to domesticate the sufferings of the other. Yet where Williams deploys poetic language in order to establish an emotional order in which money and sympathy could coexist, Yearsley’s production of sympathy hints at a much more general critique of commerce.

The first two sections of this essay provide background for Williams’s and Yearsley’s innovations, outlining several dominant strategies of sympathy employed within abolitionist verse, and then considering problems poets such as William Cowper encountered in the use of sentimental tableaux. The next two sections focus on Williams’ and Yearsley’s interrogations of the origin, nature, and production of sympathy through poetic language. I conclude with a brief consideration of the way in which Williams and Yearsley’s abolitionist poetry complicates considerably the nature of the relationship between abolitionist literature, capitalism, and Romantic verse. I situate my discussion in the context of a long-standing debate on the relationship between abolitionism, capitalism, and moral philosophy (a debate initiated by Eric Williams, and most recently continued by Thomas Haskell, David Brion Davis, and Charlotte Sussmann), but I also draw on Colin Cambell’s and Thomas Pfau’s recent analyses of the connections between commerce, imagination, and Romantic poetry to suggest that Williams’ and Yearsley’s poems signal especially clear examples of the development of a distinctively middle-class and “Romantic” aesthetic in which imaginative mobility is presented as the basic form of sociocultural capital.

I. The Background: Rhetorical Strategies of Sympathy in Late Eighteenth Century Abolitionist Poetry

British abolitionist poetry arguably extends back at least to the start of the eighteenth-century [2], but the volume of anti-slavery verse increased dramatically in the 1770s and 1780s. This discursive explosion was spurred in part by Thomas Clarkson’s and James Ramsay’s extremely graphic prose exposés of slave-trade conditions, as well as by several attempts in the 1780s to pass in the British legislative houses bills limiting slavery. These texts and political maneuvering were two prongs of a broader, and well-organized, campaign designed to expose the evils of slavery and encourage political and economic resistance on the part of British upper and middle-classes. Other elements of this campaign included the boycott of products produced by slaves, such as sugar and rum, and the publication of a number of abolitionist poems, many of which were officially commissioned. Abolitionist poets had access to a very large and developed publication and distribution network, for by 1788 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave trade (founded the year prior) had published 25,000 copies of anti-slavery reports and 50,000 copies of abolitionist pamphlets and books (Richardson, “Introduction” xii). [3] As Wylie Sypher notes in Guinea’s Captive Kings: British Anti-Slavery Literature in the XVIIIth Century, the incredible volume of British abolitionist literature of the 1770s, ‘80s, and ‘90s justifies describing it as the “earliest instance of modern propaganda” (Sypher 1). Abolitionist verse of the 1780s was thus assured of a relatively large readership, though this did not mean that authors could neglect the question of audience in their poems.

The relationship between abolitionist poets and their audience often was mediated by notions of suffering and sympathy. A number of poets and reviewers suggested that the sole function of poetic language was the transmission of suffering from slaves to readers, and that this was achieved through accurate representations. In the Monthly Review (1788) for example, one author contended that

Fiction is sometimes said to be the soul of poetry. There are subjects, however, in which fancy can scarcely pass beyond nature; - in which, consequently, the poet’s office is rather to describe than to invent. . . . So numerous and horrid are the miseries created by that cruel species of commerce, the slave trade, that the poet, in order to produce the strongest impression on the imagination and feelings of his readers, has only to follow the track of the historian, and clothe plain facts in the dress of simple and easy verse. [4]


This restriction of the function of poetic language was echoed by Hannah More in “Slavery; A Poem” (1788), in which she suggested that in her verse

art would weave her gayest flow’rs in vain,
For Truth the bright invention would disdain.
For no fictious ills these numbers flow,
But living anguish and substantial woe; [5]

ll. 51-54

Both More and the reviewer implicitly positioned sympathy as the enabling condition of abolitionist poetry, and suggested that the function of verse was the transmission of misery between slave and reader. This implied a very limited agency for the poet, for as the author’s task was limited to “clothing” suffering in respectable form. Both More and the reviewer suggested that truly represented suffering possessed its own political power, and the poet’s function was simply to facilitate the flow of this non-linguistic sentiment.

Yet despite these sorts of explicit restrictions of poetic language, most poets (including More) in fact went far beyond merely clothing scenes of suffering in simple and easy verse. They frequently employed these pathetic tableaux both as vehicles that highlighted the effects of slavery on Britain as well as established the authority of the author’s own poetic voice. Clarkson’s and Ramsay’s prose exposés had already documented the horrors of slavery; as a result, the function of abolitionist verse thus was less to represent real sufferings than to establish schemas by which middle-class readers could “bring home” otherwise distant misery. Thus, even if poets assumed that sentimental tableaux operated automatically on their readers, these portraits of suffering still had to be supplemented by other emotional strategies that would appeal to British readers.

As Shannon R. Wooden notes, “[e]arly abolitionist writing found its strongest rhetorical drive in an appeal to British national identity” (149), a tactic that involved positioning slavery as a threat to British national integrity and abolition as the solution to that dilemma. In The Task (1785), for example, William Cowper suggested that the slave trade had degraded the British themselves, forcing them into animal-like behavior in which they hunted after Africans as though the black skin of these latter made them “lawful prey” (Book II, l. 15). Yet, suggested Cowper, the legislative decision to exclude slavery from Britain itself was “noble, and bespeaks a nation proud/ And jealous of the blessing” (ll. 43-4). Britain need only extend the abolition of slavery and it at the same time would extend and ennoble its empire:

Spread it [the abolition of slavery] then,
And let it circulate though ev’ry vein
Of all your Empire, that where Britain’s power
Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.

ll. 44-47

In “Slavery; A Poem,” More echoed this representation of freedom as a “blessing” that had been granted to Britain under the condition that it “spread” this gift:

 Shall Britain, where the soul of Freedom reigns,
Forge chains for others she herself disdains?
Forbid it, Heaven! Oh let the nations know
The liberty she loves she will bestow;
Not to herself the glorious gift confined,
She spreads the blessing wide as humankind …

ll. 251-56

In A Poem on the African Slave Trade (1792), Mary Birkett more explicitly connected the abolition of slavery with colonial ambition. She consoled the legislator who despaired that an end to slavery might mean the abandonment of “the wealth abundant which in Afric lies” (l. 234) with the knowledge that these riches could be regained. Britain had only to

… search her [i.e., Africa’s] fertile land,
Let the mind rays of commerce there expand;
Her plains abound in ore, in fruits her soil,
And the rich plain scare needs the ploughman’s toil;
Thy vessels crown’d with olive branches send,
And make each injur’d African thy friend;
So tides of wealth by peace and justice got,
Oh, philanthropic heart! will be thy lot.

ll. 237-44

Birkett’s conclusion, that nationalist commerce (“tides of wealth”) and morality (the “philanthropic heart”) could be unified through the negation of slavery, was exemplary of anti-slavery rhetorical strategies that connected abolition with national commercial interests.

Abolitionist poets also described suffering in ways that helped situate the moral authority of their own voice. So, for example, More established the legitimacy of her commentary on slavery in part by contextualizing her portrait of suffering within an ideology of domesticity. More suggests that the “deepest, deadliest” fault of the slave trade is that it tears babies from mothers:

 Whene’er to Afric’s shores I turn my eyes,
Horrors of deepest, deadliest guilt arise;
I see, by more than fancy’s mirror shown,
The burning village and the blazing town,
See the dire victim torn from social life,
The shrieking babe, the agonizing wife!
She, wretch forlorn, is dragged by hostile hands …

ll. 95-101

The result of this separation, More claimed, was the loss of any beneficent continuity and tradition between generations, for “[t]ransmitted miseries and successive chains” are “The sole sad heritage her child obtains!” (ll. 103-4). To the extent that women poets were understood as “qualified” to comment on the home and family, More was able to legitimate her essentially political critique of slavery by linking it to the institution of domesticity. [6] More’s first person vision of maternal separation thus authorized her extended critique of the institution that engendered that suffering, and is exemplary of the ways in which representations of suffering and the legitimacy of poetic voice were intricately bound to one another in abolitionist verse. [7]

II. Exhaustion and Reflexivity: The Dilemma of Sympathy

While depictions of suffering helped poets establish links between slavery and national interests, as well as establish the moral legitimacy of their own voice, such portraits could also prove problematic. Several of the more astute abolitionist poets understood that the efficacy of these representations was threatened by their multiplication, for the more that poets represented suffering, the less effective such representations became. William Cowper, for example, had sketched a number of scenes designed to incur sympathy in poems such as “The Negro’s Complaint’ (1788) and “Pity for Poor Africans” (1788), but he became increasingly aware that the political efficacy of abolitionist verse was difficult to control by this means. In a letter of 1788 he noted that “[t]he more I have considered it, the more I have convinced myself that [slavery] is not a promising theme for verse …. The world has already been overwhelmed with remarks already” (Sypher 186). Repeated direct representations of suffering, Cowper suggested, had an effect (and affect) opposite that desired by the poet, for such depictions threatened to exhaust readers’ sympathies.

Cowper’s solution to this dilemma, which anticipates those of Williams and Yearsley, was to develop a reflexive version of sympathy in his poem “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce, or The Slave-Trader in the Dumps” (1788). Rather than assuming that the function of sympathy in a poem was to enable readers to feel the sufferings of others, Cowper’s poem is effective to the extent that it encourages readers to reflect on the limits and proper objects of sympathy. The narrator of the poem, a slave trader, explicitly demands the reader’s pity and financial help, bemoaning the fact that, if a bill limiting slavery passes, he will no longer be able to practice the “art” of “prepar[ing]/ A pretty black cargo of African ware” (ll. 34; 26-27) with tools such as chains, the “cat with nine tails,” and “screws for the thumbs” (ll. 12; 18). The mere thought of this loss, claims the slave-reader, threatens to “break [his] compassionate heart” (l. 36)--and, the narrator assumes, the reader’s as well. The narrator even provides the reader with a model for sympathetic engagement with his story, describing “oh, how it enters my soul like an awl;/ This pity, which some people self-pity call,/ Is sure the most heart-piercing pity of all” (ll. 38-40). By invoking the word “pity,” the narrator is demanding of his readers that they “domesticate” his despair in their own souls (as well as act on that feeling; two lines later, he asks the reader to “Come buy off my stock”). Yet by including the suggestion that this is simply “self-pity,” Cowper forces readers to recognize the irony of the slave trader’s claim, for if it is true that “self-pity …/Is sure the most heart-piercing pity of all,” why then should the reader feel for anyone but him or herself? The reader is supposed to recognize the irony of this appeal for sympathy, and thus, by extension, the irony and insincerity of real slave-traders’ calls for sympathy. While More’s and Pratt’s sentimental tableaux relied on the implicit premise that representations of suffering automatically led to sympathy and political action, the efficacy of Cowper’s portrait depends upon readers who reflect critically on their own sympathetic attachments. At least in this poem, poetic language does not facilitate the transmission of sentiment, but instead encourages a reflexive interrogation of sympathy.

Yet while Cowper’s reflexive strategy avoids the danger of exhausting readers already inundated with portraits of suffering, and while it moves beyond the naïve position that a representation of suffering operates automatically on readers, it also threatens to undercut the operation of sympathy itself. Cowper’s irony ensures that the slave trader’s suffering will not “enter the soul” of the reader, but as a result it sidesteps the question of the reader’s metaphorical domestication of the sufferings of others. The poem hints at some sort of calculus by means of which the reader might adjudicate between claims for sympathy (the slaver’s loss of employment is presumably less severe than the slaves’ corporeal pain), but it does not fully illuminate the ground of such a sympathetic schema. It also leaves open the troubling possibility that all pity is simply self-pity, and that one ought to deny any domestication of the other’s pain. As a result, while Cowper’s poem ensures that readers will not take seriously the slave trader’s appeal for his sufferings to enter their souls, it provides no clear-cut rule for when such domestication is desirable, or even if it is possible.

III. Williams: Eloquence, Sympathy, and the Pleasures of Home

Helen Maria Williams and Ann Yearsley each developed solutions to Cowper’s dilemma by combining versions of reflexive sympathy with the trope of the shattered home. The trope of the home allows both to contextualize slaves’ suffering by forcing readers to imagine the destruction of slavery crossing over to British households. Even more importantly, the reflexive understanding of sympathy allows Williams and Yearsley to establish the authority of verse, for each explicitly situates the power of sympathy as an effect of poetic language. For both Williams and Yearsley, poetry facilitated sympathy not primarily because it could refer to real states of affairs (e.g., the sufferings of slaves), but rather because it could initiate a process of imaginative reflection. Unlike Cowper, however, each is able to provide criteria for the proper limits of this reflective process by suggesting that “proper” sympathy initiates imaginative productivity.

The explicit reference point for Helen Maria Williams’ “A Poem on the Bill Lately Passed for Regulating the Slave-Trade” was Sir William Dolben’s introduction of a bill to the House of Commons in 1788 that limited and reduced the ratio of slaves to British ships destined for British colonies in the West Indies. [8] This bill was ultimately passed, though it was strongly opposed by merchants, especially those of Bristol and Liverpool, who depended economically on the slave trade. While the first few and last stanzas of Williams’s poem are devoted to the praise of Britain and the individuals who helped approve the bill (e.g., Pitt and Richmond), most of the poem encourages the reader to see this as a first victory in a much larger battle. Williams asks her readers to continue the battle against slavery, suggesting that its “stain” has not yet been washed away:

Ye who one bitter drop have drained
From slav’ry’s cup with horror stained,
Oh let no fatal dregs be found,
But dash her chalice on the ground;

ll. 149-52

The poem opens with praise that the “groan of agony” from slaves formerly held in the harbor of Bristol is now silent, yet it closes with Williams’s appeal that Britain continue to act in such a way that the other nations can honorably “emulat[e] thee” (ll. 4; 362).

Williams suggests that the efficacy of such an appeal depends on the power of “eloquence” to alter her readers’ sentiments. Eloquence denotes for Williams an essence of language that can be instantiated in both poetry and political discourse. Outlining a claim that initially seems similar to that of More and the reviewer from the Monthly Review, Williams dismisses the possibility that eloquence is achieved through imaginative embellishment of the facts of slavery. She contends that the horrors of the trade are so extreme that “fancy o’er the tale of woe/ In vain one heightened tint would throw” (ll. 337-338). Yet Williams does not conclude that eloquence therefore aims at an accurate representation of misery. Instead, she suggests that the essence of eloquence lies in its capacity to mimic political relationships in language, and through that mimesis, subvert inequitable hierarchies. Williams describes this power in an apostrophe:

Oh eloquence, prevailing art,
Whose force can chain the list’ning heart,
The throb of sympathy inspire
And kindle every great desire
And reign the sov’reign of the soul,
That dreams, while all its passions swell,
It shares the power it feels so well,
As visual objects seem possessed
Of those clear hues by light impressed --

ll. 321-330

She suggests that to combat the real manacles that bind slaves, eloquence must “chain the listen’ing heart” (l. 322). In place of the political power that British politicians and merchants hold over slaves, eloquence must use its “magic energy” to inspire as well as coordinate both sympathy and desire, and thereby “control/ And reign the sov’reign of the soul” (ll.325-6). Yet unlike the political forms of control that perpetuate the slave trade, eloquence is effective precisely because it dissimulates its power. Even while it reigns over the soul, the soul “dreams” that it itself is agent of this power (it “dreams … it shares the power it feels so well”). Eloquence employs language to simulate in the listener the emotional condition of being a slave, but at the same time it creates a model of power sharing. The listener is left with the memory of the experience of being “chained” and “enslaved” but is empowered by that experience.

Earlier in her poem, Williams had located an example and figure for the operation of eloquence in the image of the home. The home, like eloquence, binds, but in a manner that allows bondage to transform itself into freedom. It also inspires and coordinates sympathy and desire. After asking her readers to continue the fight for abolition, at roughly the midpoint of her poem Williams reminds her readers “Of home, dear scene, whose ties can bind/ With sacred force the human mind” (ll.177-78). She then describes the home as the origin of emotional connection with others (the place “[w]here first the sweet affections grew,” l. 184), and the site in which we seek to share the sufferings of others:

to its hallowed roof we fly
With those we love to pour the sigh,
The load of mingled pain to bear,
And soften every pang we share!


The emotional field of the home is grounded in a logic of distance and proximity, for the mind “feels each little absence pain/ And lives but to return again” (ll. 179-180). In and through the home, we are bound to our loved ones, but in such a way that chains (“ties”) are transformed into empowering community.

Yet Williams’s discussion of the home is more than merely descriptive, for she returns to “that loved spot” in language in order tap into its generative power. Despite their apparently referential nature, Williams’ lines do not refer to an external, pre-existent reality. Rather, her verse invokes the essence and powers of home in order to introduce the figure of the slave into this entirely imaginative home. Thus, midway through her long central stanza, Williams introduces an element of distance into her hymn to home, asking her reader to “think how desolate his [i.e., the slave’s] state” (l.193). Her sixteen lines of glowing description of home are mirrored by sixteen lines that describe the slave’s wretched estrangement from domesticity. The slave has been “severed from his native soil,” and on his “despairing eyes/ His cherished home shall never rise … “ (ll.195; 199-200). Williams does not draw this contrast between her readers’ domestic pleasures and the slaves’ lack of home in order to distinguish between two separate groups of people, but rather to include slaves in the imaginative home. Thus, the stanza concludes with a passage in which she relates the slave’s estrangement back to her first-person plural addressee, connecting the two through the tropes of distance and eyes:

Poor wretch, on whose despairing eyes
His cherished home shall never rise,
Condemned (severe extreme) to live
When all is fled that life can give!
And ah, the blessings valued most
By human minds, are blessings lost!
Unlike the objects of the eye,
Enlarging as we bring them nigh,
Our joys at distance strike the breast
And seem diminished when possessed.


The final four lines suggest that “we” cannot count ourselves lucky that we possess a home while the slave does not, for the imaginative home does not operate according to this simplistic logic of presence and absence. Rather, our joys are experienced (the “strike the breast”) only when we are able to reflect on them (i.e., when they stand “at distance”). This moment of reflection is the opportunity to reconfigure the parameters of the home, and rebind the ties that connect us to others--and in this case, to homeless slaves. This is the moment to welcome the slave into the imaginative hearth, and Williams emphasizes this possibility in the structure of the stanza itself, which literally surrounds the description of the slaves’ sufferings with, on the one hand, the initial description of the joys of “our” home, and, on the other, the final address to the first-person plural. As a result, the “we” of the stanza has been extended to include both the reader and the slave, since both are similarly distanced from the joys of home by the same institution, slavery.

Williams’s use of the figure of the home differs significantly from the poetic strategies of an author such as More. While the latter simply described the destruction of domesticity, Williams employs “eloquence” to command the reader to construct an imaginative domicile, achieving through poetic language that which she attributes to the home itself. She presents the home as the place in which affections originate and sufferings are exchanged and shared, but then uses the image of the homeless slave as a wedge to introduce an internal distance into that site of feeling. The estranged condition of the slave becomes the condition of the reader, and, as a consequence, the solution to estrangement is the same for both sides: the abolition of slavery. The slave, by virtue of his homelessness--or, perhaps more accurately, his capacity for having a home, though he lacks one at present--becomes a part of the reader’s imaginary “home,” and thus an agent with whom we can “mingl[e] pain” and (more importantly) “soften every pang.” (At the same time, though, Williams’ stress on the fact that the slave will ‘never’ set eyes on his cherished home subtly reassures readers that middle-class readers and slaves will not end up sharing literal space, for this is an entirely imaginary home.)

While Williams’ apostrophe to home exemplifies the positive possibility for a merger of identities between Britons and slaves, she also hints at the more negative scenario that stands waiting in the wings should her readers not respond correctly. She suggests that a confusion of subjectivities will occur, one way or another; should readers fail to respond correctly, this merger will occur between slavers and slaves, rather than reformers and slaves. Williams hints that this process is already underway, for she asks slavers how they can dare to:

Deform creation with the gloom
Of crimes that blot its cheerful bloom?
Darken a work so perfect made,
And cast the universe in shade?

ll. 111-14

She applies to slavers the qualities (deformation and darkness) that beneficiaries of the slave trade often attributed to slaves in their efforts to justify their commerce. Moreover, suggests Williams, this traffic in human beings rebounds on the slavers themselves, for the more that they rob Africa of its inhabitants, the more the slavers themselves are “robbed of every human grace” (l. 212). This confusion of identities reaches its conclusion in one of the final images of the poem, that of a “helpless wretch” who gazes at a shore surrounded by death and storms. The image is part of Williams’s claim that fancy cannot dress up the horrors of slavery:

Fancy may dress in deeper shade
The storm that hangs along the glade,
Spreads o’er the ruffled stream its wing
And chills awhile the flowers of spring,
But where the wintry tempests sweep
In madness o’er the darkened deep,
Where the wild surge, the raging wave,
Point to the hopeless wretch a grave,
And death surrounds the threat’ning shore –
Can fancy add one horror more?

ll. 341-350

The identity of this “helpless wretch” is not entirely clear. The most obvious referent is that of the slave, especially since Williams early in her poem compared the European men who engage in slaving to an “annual blast,/ That sweeps the Western Isles and flings/ Destruction from its furious wings” (ll.18-20). Yet in the preceding stanza, Williams had described the slaver himself in his moment of confronting death, describing that death as a “sinking” into a sea-like darkness (“sink in death’s terrific night” l.300), which suggests that the “hopeless wretch” who stands on an island surrounded by death may by the British slaver, as well. Thus, the imaginary merging of identities that began in the middle of the poem is completed in the image of the ambiguous figure of a wretch facing death alone, a figure that can stand for the slave, the slaver or in fact anyone who contributes to the continuation of slavery.

Despite Williams’ obvious critique of those “hardened souls” who engage in “the traffic of their race,” her understanding of the relationship between commerce and abolition is not entirely clear in this poem. While a poet such as Mary Birkett hoped to console the sons of commerce with the belief that “tides of wealth” would still flow back to Britain even should they abolish slavery entirely, Williams does not explicitly outline the fortunes of a post-abolition economy, preferring instead to valorize British maritime exploration over commercial endeavor. She thus extols the virtues the “generous sailor” who “bears/ The British flag o’er untracked seas/ And spreads it on the polar breeze” (ll. 229-232)--that is, the British sailors who avoid the inhabited climes. Yet at the same time, Williams argues that slaves have been rendered homeless by “those” who “deem despair a part of trade” (ll. 226), a claim that at least implicitly allows for the possibility of commerce that does not depend upon misery. [9]

III. Yearsley: Song, the Crafty Merchant, and the Critique of Commerce

If Williams equivocates on the relationships between commerce and abolition, Ann Yearsley presents a far more pessimistic argument in “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade.” In this poem, Yearsley considered seriously the requirements necessary for facilitating politically effective identifications of British consumers with slaves, and like Williams, she suggests that sympathy must become reflexive before this can occur. Yet where Williams highlighted the pleasures of home and held out the possibility of a pacific mode of trade, Yearsley focuses instead on what she sees as the antagonistic relationship between commerce and domesticity.

Yearsley’s poetic engagement with commerce was no doubt encouraged by the circumstances surrounding her emergence as a poet. While Williams was a solidly middle-class writer, and could thus claim some culturally-validated “right” to attempt poetry, Yearsley’s background was represented by both herself and others as lower-class (she was, until the age of 30, a milkwoman near Bristol). [10] She thus required “discovery” by a middle- or upper-class sponsor, and such support came from Hannah More, from whose home Yearsley had obtained slop for her pigs. Upon reading some of Yearsley’s verse, More decided to “be the means of promoting [Yearsley’s] prosperity” (Wu, Romantic Women Poets 151). More’s patronage included helping Yearsley to publish and promote a volume of poetry (Poems, on Several Occasions, 1785). However, this relationship of patronage did not last happily or long, for More wished to control the money made from the sales of Poems, claiming to friends that Yearsley was incapable of doing so herself. Yearsley, on the other hand, interpreted this request as a desire to keep her in economic dependency. The two split in 1786, and engaged in public sniping against one another for several years thereafter. (Yearsley’s 1788 poem on the slave trade, in fact, has often been seen as an attempt to outdo her former mentor’s poem, “Slavery: a Poem,” also published in that year.) As a result of her economic background and experiences with More, Yearsley was especially attuned to the interrelationships between economics, emotion, and the politics of poetic representation, and in “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade,” she highlights many of these connections in the context of slavery.

While previous discussions of the role of sympathy in Yearsley’s poem have tended to focus on her extended portrait of the sufferings of “Luco and Incilinda” (a couple divided by slavery), Yearsley gives readers reasons to believe that this representation plays a lesser role than its length seems to suggest. [11] At the poem’s conclusion, Yearsley hints that the fundamental goal of her poem is the reconstellation of the contours of self-interest. She commands “social love” to

… touch the soul of man;
Subdue him; make a fellow creatures woe
His own by heartfelt sympathy, whilst wealth
Is made subservient to his soft disease.

ll. 420-423

Yearsley’s description of social love and sympathy assumes a certain primacy of self-interest, for she suggests that only when a reader understands the sufferings of others as truly his or her own will he or she desist from actions that are injurious to others (since it then becomes clear that to hurt the other is to work against one’s own self-interest). Yet the function of her verse is renegotiate the relationship between the categories of self, wealth, and other, such that the reader can feel a sense of ownership in the sufferings of the other.

The story of Luco and Incilinda, which occupies much of the poem, plays a role in this renegotiation, but it is not its primary vehicle, for like Williams, Yearsley does not believe that sympathy occurs as an automatic consequence of the representation of slaves’ sufferings. Rather, Yearsley suggests that the conditions for sympathy have to be prepared for and guided by the careful and strategic use of language. Human nature is so far from engendering an automatic moral response to suffering that it must be forced by poetic language into an ethically proper response. Thus, Yearsley contends in the second stanza of the poem that she will “dare the strain/ Of Heav’n-born Liberty till Nature moves/ Obedient to her voice” (ll.14-16). This tactical employment of poetic language (highlighted by the double meaning of “strain”) is necessary in order to counter the forces, such as “custom” and “law,” that conspire against sympathy.

Custom and law are problematic insofar as they encourage a deceptive anti-poetic discourse of “sighs and tears.” Though “[w]e feel enslaved” by these institutions, “yet [we] move in [their] direction” (ll. 20-1), and custom allows sinners to fill a church “with mouthing, vap’rous sighs and tears,/ Which, like the guileful crocodile’s, oft fall,/ Nor fall but at the cost of human bliss” (ll. 26-28). The question for Yearsley, is how language might be employed in such a way that custom and law can be countered and human nature forced into a moral response in which the interest of the other becomes the interest of the self, and tears escape a calculus that binds suffering to “cost”.

Yearsley’s solution depends on facilitating the productive and reflexive powers of the imagination. This solution is suggested in the prefatory dedication of the poem, addressed to “the Right Hon. And Right Revd. Frederick, Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry, Etc., Etc.” In addition to his status as earl and bishop, Frederick Augustus Hervey was Yearsley’s new patron. Yearsley writes to her sponsor that her intention in this poem “is not to cause that anguish in your bosom which powerless compassion every gives; yet my vanity is flattered when I but fancy that your Lordship feels as I do.” This dense sentence contains two claims about the capacities of representation, both of which are figured along an axis of “power.” First, Yearsley establishes an implicit distinction between powerful and powerless compassion; the latter is tied to anguish, while the former is presumably not. Also implicit in this distinction is the suggestion that the Earl--and all of us who read over the shoulder of the Earl--can read this poem correctly only by learning how to adopt a stance of powerful compassion. Yet what would it mean to read in such a manner? The next clause in the sentence proposes an answer and model, for Yearsley suggests that, at least with respect to her feeling of personal power (vanity), her own imaginative representation of the Earl of Bristol takes precedence over any real response that he might have. In other words, whether or not the Earl actually feels as Yearsley imagines him to is beside the point; in a cheeky inversion of her economic relationship with the Earl, Yearsley aligns her sense of power with her imaginative representation of him. The implicit moral of this story (which will be repeated in the poem) is that effective compassion comes about as a result of an imaginative production that works against the grain of real economic relationships.

This moral is taken up consistently throughout the poem. So, for example, Yearsley hints that the supposed cultural inarticulacy of Africans is a function not of an innate lack of creativity, but rather of the ways in which the institution of slavery prevents Africans from externalizing and actualizing the contents of their productive imaginations. She thus describes the slave Luco as “lost/ In dear internal imag’ry” (ll. 56-7). Luco does not lack a rich store of mental contents, but rather is temporarily unable to find a path that would mediate between internal imagery and external reality. Later in the poem, Luco is again presented in the process of contemplation, and again his imaginative activity is unable to externalize itself in practical action:

… pausing faintly, Luco stood,
Leaning upon his hoe, while mem’ry brought,
In piteous imag’ry, his aged father,
His poor fond mother, and his faithful maid.
The mental group in wildest motion set
Fruitless imagination; …

ll. 244-249

In this case, however, Luco’s imaginative “fruitlessness” is mirrored by his silent resistance to the institution of slavery itself, for his pause makes explicit the fact that his loss of imaginative outlet comes as a consequence of his forced cultivation of the soil.

While the productivity of Luco’s imagination was hindered by a social institution effectively beyond his control, Yearsley does not let her readers off the hook so easily, and she commands them to produce an image that will reveal the power of imagination. She conjures up for her reader the image of a Cowper-like Christian slave merchant who, against the calls for abolition, mounts a plea couched in the language of domesticity: “I know the crafty merchant will oppose/ The plea of nature to my strain, and urge/ His toils are for his children” (ll. 75-77). Yearsley counters this plea with a “challenge,” demanding her reader to “Behold that Christian!,” and she then asks her imaginary interlocutor to

… Bring on
Thy daughter to this market, bring thy wife,
Thine aged mother (though of little worth),
With all the ruddy boys! Sell them, thou wretch,
And swell the price of Luco!

ll. 83-87

Yearsley demands that the “crafty merchant” imagine his own family in economic terms, an imperative that is underlined by the parenthetical suggestion that the mother, because of her age, would be of “little worth.” Anticipating the startled reaction of her auditor, Yearsley attempts to turn this horror back upon itself, asking:

… Why that start?
Why gaze as thou wouldst fright me from my challenge
With look of anguish? Is it nature strains
Thine heart-strings at the image?


Yearsley subtly positions both the crafty merchant and reader as subjects of this anguish, for her use of second-person pronouns (thy, thou, thine) encourages a merging of the reader’s self-image with that of the imaginary slaver.

Yearsley’s move here is deceptively simple, for it in fact encourages a very complicated and sophisticated interplay of “the real” and “the imaginary.” Rather than presenting her readers with an image that has some real referent (e.g., a suffering slave), Yearsley represents a pure simulacrum, or virtual image, as there were of course no Christian traders who sold members of their own families. This Christian slaver explicitly exists only in the imagination, a move that is vital in Yearsley’s effort to create sympathy for slaves by positioning the slaves’ interests as equivalent to the reader’s interests. [12] This sympathy is encouraged, no doubt, by the implicit charge of hypocrisy made an individual who would “throw thine arm/ Around thy little ones” and yet contribute to the breakup of another person’s family. Yet the charge of hypocrisy would not require Yearsley’s purely virtual image of the capitalist-who-sells-his-family, a fact that points to the way in which Yearsley uses this image to reveal an otherwise hidden opposition between moral interest and economic interest. By forcing her readers to imagine the figure of the “crafty merchant” who sells his family, Yearsley implies that that the breakup of families occurring in Africa and in the Northern hemisphere is simply a remote expression of a inner tendency of commerce, a tendency that would achieve its logical expression in the crafty merchant’s sale of his own family. Capital, suggests Yearsley, is based on greed (avarice) but also on the exchangeability of objects, and there is no reason intrinsic to capital to draw the line at one’s own family in the pursuit of profit (especially if the sale of one’s family, by flooding the market with relatively inefficient slave labor, would “swell the price of Luco” (l. 87)).

Yet Yearsley’s image suggests that this inner logic that pits family and capital against one another can be captured--at least at that historical moment--only in an imaginative act, in which the reader “becomes” the crafty merchant, thus producing for him or herself proof of the disjunction between family and capital. The truth of that “destructive system” that allows for the sale of humans can only be grasped in a reflexive move of the imagination, in which the reader experienced virtually the breakup of his or her family. [13] Nor was this critique entirely lost on Yearsley’s reviewers, despite Moira Ferguson’s recent claim that “[t]he press read Yearsley’s poem without nuance, refusing to internalize or address her multiple significations” (Subject 172). The reviewer of Yearsley’s poem in the Monthly Review (Andrew Becket, who signed himself “Moo.-y”), did seem aware that Yearsley’s critique extended to the system of commerce as a whole, but sought to defuse that critique by castigating it as a fault of Yearsley’s too-highly pitched emotion. Becket writes that, “in the heat of invective, she mingles too many curses and execrations with her arguments,” and cites Yearsley’s lines “ ---- Curses fall/ On the destructive system that shall need/ Such base supports!” as an example of Yearsley’s ”scolding.” [14] The reviewer’s charge of emotionalism and shrewish scolding acknowledges, but attempts to bracket within gendered terms, Yearsley’s social critique. What is elided by this critique is the power of Yearsley’s image of the “crafty merchant,” for rather than using language to refer her readers to a real referent that would demonstrate the truth of slavery, Yearsley employs her “strain” to initiate in her readers an imaginary production of identity that is at the same time a revelation of the essence of a social institution. [15]

Conclusion: Abolition, Imaginative Mobility and the Origins of Romanticism

Both Williams and Yearsley present the imagination as the means by which one captures the truth of slavery, and thereby turns readers against that institution. Williams constructs an apostrophe to home not in order to describe it, but rather to recreate an imaginative domicile that will generate the same sympathetic binding power as the “real” home. Yearsley encourages “heartfelt sympathy” for slaves not simply through pathetic portraiture, but by creating an imaginative entity, the crafty merchant, that forces the reader to produce for herself evidence of the conflict between home and commerce. For both authors, politically efficacious poetic language has less to do with accurate representation of suffering than with the question of leading the reader into a state of powerful imaginative reflexivity. This attempt to combat certain forms of commerce by encouraging imaginative production establishes an important continuity between their abolitionist verse, capitalism, and “first generation Romanticism.”

The relationship between late eighteenth century abolitionist verse and capitalism is admittedly vexing. Recent historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth century British antislavery movement have noted that while abolitionism was a discourse centrally concerned with the development of sympathy, it was also, and equally, an attempt to justify capitalism (or, at any rate, the proper limits of capitalism). Many key abolitionist organizers were very successful Quaker businessmen, who thought deeply about the relationship between their own businesses and the particular form of commerce that they opposed. [16] Historian David Brion Davis suggests that this convergence of business acumen and abolitionist passion was not coincidental, for anti-slavery discourse facilitated the ideological justification of an emerging capitalist order:

[t]he antislavery movement, like [Adam] Smith’s political economy, reflected the needs and values of the emerging capitalist order. Smith provided theoretical justification for the belief that all classes and segments of society share a natural identity of interest. The antislavery movement, while absorbing the ambivalent emotions of the age, was essentially dedicated to a practical demonstration of the same reassuring message. [17]

“Preservation” 71

Historian Thomas Haskell, taking a slightly different tact, argues that the increasing prevalence and importance of the capitalist market forced many eighteenth century business owners to develop sophisticated mental strategies--what Haskell calls “recipes”--for thinking about the relationship between their own present actions and effects that were far distant, both temporally and geographically. One consequence of this “market-oriented form of life,” Haskell argues, was that it “gave rise to new habits of causal attribution that set the stage for humanitarianism,” to the extent that these mental habits “expanded the range of causal perception and inspired people’s confidence in their power to intervene in the course of events” (Haskell, “Capitalism” 137; 147-48). [18] In other words, the development of “sympathy” (understood as the ability to bring distant sufferings near) depended upon a prior ability (stimulated by interest in markets) for perceiving causal economic links between distant and near events. Thus, for both Davis and Haskell, as well as a number of other historians, the abolitionist movement must be understood as an extremely complex intersection of humanitarian discourses, focused on sympathy, and economic discourses that emphasized the “proper” limits of commerce. [19]

The importance of these connections for early Romantic verse has only begun to be noted. As Alan Richardson notes, “conventional accounts of British Romanticism have shown little interest in the slave-trade (dominated by Britain during this period), colonial slavery, or the Abolition movement,” despite the fact that “these were unquestionably among the most pressing public issues of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (Richardson and Hofkosh 130). This situation has been remedied to some extent as recent interest in the political dimensions of Romantic verse has encouraged the inclusion of abolitionist poetry in the canon, thus reversing an earlier critical bias in which the very popularity of “the slave question” automatically disqualified any intersection between it and the “high art” of Romantic poetic discourse.

At the same time, though, Williams’s and Yearsley’s stress on what Thomas Pfau calls “imaginative mobility” highlights another continuity between their verse and Romantic poetry. Recent critics such as Colin Campbell and Thomas Pfau have argued that much early Romantic discourse--including the early poems of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the didactic fiction of More, Wollstonecraft, and others--was unified by a shared effort to transform the “consumer” of art into an “imaginative producer.” [20] In Wordsworth’s Profession: Form, Class, and the Logic of Early Romantic Cultural Production, Pfau describes the production of a new Romantic bourgeois aesthetic that attempted to represent the reader’s response as a sort of imaginative production. Pfau contends that at both the level of content and form, early Romantic authors encouraged reading habits designed to “stimulat[e] ‘mind’ to further, more productive displays of imaginative mobility” (Pfau 8). For example, Pfau reads Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798-1805) as an attempt to “devise for the emergent middle class a vigilant and adaptive sensibility, one whose cultured reflexivity is its sociocultural capital” (179). The various scenarios outlined in the poems of Lyrical Ballads, Pfau contends, encouraged readers to interrogate their own reactions, valorizing a mode of “consciousness whose claim to legitimacy resides in its reflexive anticipation of ever-new challenges to its current sociocultural beliefs” (192).

Pfau’s reading suggests that William’s and Yearsley’s attempts to develop reflexive conceptions of sympathy within abolitionist discourse are best understood as two expressions of a more general Romantic project. Just as Wordsworth’s poetry “challenges the beholder/reader to discover a new eye” (32), so too did Williams’ and Yearsley’s poems demand of their readers that they do more than simply imagine a suffering other, and instead, actively (that is, reflexively) interrogate their own relations with this imaginary figure. However, as Charlotte Sussman has noted in Consuming Anxieties, British abolitionist verse of the 1780s and ‘90s was developed in the context of consumer boycott and protest, through which consumers established their virtue by abstaining from certain forms of consumption. This suggests that the turn toward the production of imaginative sociocultural capital was dependent upon a (at least temporary) turn away from the consumption of particular commodities, such as slave-produced sugar and rum. Abolitionist verse such as Williams’ and Yearsley’s played an important role in mediating between these two forms of capital, for they explicitly linked abstention from some forms of commerce with imaginative mobility and production.

Parties annexes