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).