In the line above each article, you will notice the word ‘work’ before whatever text is being considered for the week. The reason that this is labeled ‘work,’ rather than ‘book’ or ‘novel,’ is that I knew I would eventually want to cover poetry in this series as well. For the series’ first foray into verse (epic poems and early modern plays notwithstanding), I will be taking a close look at Robert Southey’s use of sonnets as a means of opposing slavery in Britain.
By definition, the notion of abolition is antithetical to constriction and conservatism. For this reason, it appears odd that abolitionist poet Robert Southey chose the sonnet, a poetic form both restrictive and traditional, to tell the story which populates roughly half of his 1797 Poems Concerning the Slave-Trade. Yet, this appearance of oddness fades with close attention to Southey’s production, a scathing indictment of both the violent ills of slavery and the apathetic British populace’s tacit support of the system.
What seems initially to be a space for old values becomes a space for reform, as Robert Southey utilizes the abiding self-consciousness of the sonnet form to extol subversion and to underscore the moral perversity of the depicted circumstances. Southey constructs a sequence of sonnets at once in command of the tools presented by the formal structure of prevailing sonnet modes and in rebellion against the expectations held by a reading public toward whom the sonnets’ speaker is outraged.
In these sonnets, Robert Southey achieves a biting synergy of working within the tradition of sonneteering (to subvert accepted virtues) and working outside of that tradition (to establish the necessity of social reform).
Meter and Form in Robert Southey’s Anti-slavery Sonnets:
Southey’s careful craft allows him to bend the sonnet, a predictable poetic structure, into a platform for penetrating criticism. Like Milton in his sonnet for the Piedmontese martyrs, Southey’s use of the sonnet form provides a safe place for radical ideas. Furthermore, also like that work of Milton, the violence depicted in Southey’s sequence arrives suddenly, surprising the reader into rapt attention.
Just as the volta of an Italian sonnet arrives roughly two-thirds of the way through a given sonnet, the turn of Southey’s entire sequence of Poems Concerning the Slave-Trade—from a consideration of the relocation and subjugation of African slaves to the consideration of violence and judgment in a slavery-condoning society—arrives two-thirds of the way through, in “Sonnet IV.”
The volta at the ninth line of “Sonnet IV,” the fulcrum of the entire series, seems to set the stage for something far afield from the violence to follow:
Tho’ the gay negroes join the midnight song,
Tho’ merriment resounds on Niger’s shore,
She whom he loves far from the chearful throng
Stands sad and gazes from her lowly door (pgs. 268-9, lines 9-12)
Indeed, the attention turns entirely away from the treatment of the slave aboard the ship to his beloved in their home country. This use of the volta for what is ostensibly a misleading change of focus frames the ensuing violence as the result not only of the injustices visited on the man once captured, but also of the injustices resulting from the capture itself. It is the context of romantic love, contextualized in English sympathies in part by the sonnet form, which is emphasized as a key motivation; this moment of sorrow yields immediately to “the Sword” in the first line of the fifth sonnet.
In addition to this clever use of sonnet structure, Robert Southey also employs—with great portent—metrical caesuras. “Sonnet V,” for instance, which is written in near-perfect iambic pentameter, uses the words “Friendship’s,” “Freedom’s,” and “Pointing” to begin three lines with trochees (pg. 269, lines 7, 10, 11). These abrupt, backward interruptions to the sonnet’s rhythm highlight the backward virtues of the society they depict, one wherein equality, freedom, and blame are notions applied illogically. These breaks, positioned potently at the start of their respective lines, also grant weight to the concepts as they are remembered and lost by the slave.
This act of memory, bringing to fruition the prior sonnet’s emphasis on recollection, becomes the speaker’s final justification for the enslaved man’s attack. The exacting utilization of the tools of the sonnet provides the grave reality of the scenario via the placement of the reader in the place of the forlorn love prior to the murder, and in the double use of English virtues as that lost by the slave and as backward concepts.
Rhyme in Robert Southey’s Anti-slavery Sonnets:
More remarkable than Robert Southey’s navigation of the strictures of the sonnet, though equally vital to the overall effect, are his total departures from existing formal traditions. The rhyme schemes of his sonnets bear resemblance at times to English sonnets, at times to Italian sonnets, at times to both, and at times to neither.
The stanza format dictated by the poems’ voltas and rhymes is inconstant across the first four sonnets, varying widely as the reader is swept through the tumultuous upheavals and degradations in the life of the enslaved figure. Sonnets “I” through “IV” mirror the unpredictable future of the slave figure at that time by sharing identical rhyme schemes for their octaves (ABBA CDDC), then having distinct sestet patterns. This also reinforces the theme of memory, as it grants a solidity to earlier events and an ambiguity to later events.
Sonnets “V” and “VI,” on the other hand, present a more complex matching of form to meaning. These latter two sonnets have identical rhyme schemes to each other (ABAB CDDC EFFE GG). This rhyme scheme is a jumbled mess combining the overall structure of the English sonnet with quatrain rhyme patterns from the Italian sonnet. Despite this messiness, Southey repeats its use in the two closing sonnets, as if to indicate the entrenched aspects of the society which fail to provide coherent morality.
In this mode, the implication is that of permanence in the exchange of violence within the system of slavery; this is a pessimistic reprimand: that the reader can expect more of the same poor excuses for justice under this system.
Conversely, this repetition may indicate something permanent about the enslaved figure. His memories of the past, his memories of the misdeeds which he will report in the afterlife, and his soul’s immortality are all likely candidates for implied permanence. The closing couplets of these two closing sonnets rhyme “breath” with “death” and “plead” with “deed” (pg. 269, lines 13-14).
These associations cap off Southey’s experimental sonnet forms with the speaker reminding the reader of their own mortality and afterlife. This has the effect of making immediate the threat of the sixth stanza, urging the reader to take action to curb those entrenched systems and to make social reform a personal responsibility.
Robert Southey wields a strong knowledge of, and a slight rebellion against, the sonnet as a way of making meaning. He succeeds in transforming a demandingly precise form into a tool for reform. His choices evoke sympathy for the central black characters while casting aspersions on the society whose values has led to their emotional and physical destruction.
Southey’s original preface reveals the sincerity of his narrative, as it urges that English citizens who do not refuse to buy slave-produced products are contributing directly to future violence on and by enslaved people (Southey 1). The drama of Southey’s sequence gives context to the abstract notion of production by confronting the reader with the consequences for themselves and for the slaves if apathy wins the day.
Often overshadowed by his Romantic contemporaries, Robert Southey showcases in these Poems Concerning the Slave-Trade the abilities which would later attain him the long-held position of Poet Laureate.