Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay

Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay

Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay

Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay

Synopsis

Slavery and Augustan Literature investigates slavery in the work of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and John Gay. These three writers were connected with a Tory ministry, which attempted to increase substantially the English share of the international slave trade. They all wrote in support of the treaty that was meant to effect that increase. The book begins with contemporary ideas about slavery, with the Tory ministry years and with texts written during those years. These texts tend to obscure the importance of the slave trade to Tory planning. In its second half, the book analyses the attitudes towards slavery in Pope's Horatian poems, An Essay on Man , Polly , A Modest Proposal and Gulliver's Travels . John Richardson shows how, despite differences, Swift, Pope and Gay adopt a mixed position of admiration for freedom alongside implicit support for slavery.

Excerpt

The previous two chapters have sought to establish a context. Chapter 2 argues that attitudes towards slavery in early eighteenth-century England, though varied, were not simply complacent, but were marked by a desire to avoid unpleasant knowledge. Chapter 3 traces some of the connections among members of the Scriblerus Club, and between them and the Tory peace. With these contexts established, it is possible now to consider texts. This chapter examines a number of writings associated with the peace, and the ways in which their promotion of the peace involves and exposes attitudes towards slavery. It begins with the geography implied in the name of the South Sea Company, in a number of peace poems and in Windsor-Forest. Both the company’s name and most of the poems omit reference to the parts of the world in which the transatlantic slave trade took place, and in doing so, they avoid confronting the trade itself. This avoidance is consonant with some of the attitudes discussed in chapter 2. A similar kind of avoidance can be seen more broadly in what might be called the controlling rhetorical mood of Swift’s Tory pamphlets, and in the very different mood of the Tory peace poems. In both cases the rhetoric, as far as it is possible to tell, seems to be internalized, that is, it seems to be a rhetoric which acts upon writer and reader alike. Windsor-Forest is the partial exception since the unevenness of that poem suggests Pope may not quite have convinced himself of the benign nature of the Treaty of Utrecht. Before moving on to that, however, the geography of the peace provides an illuminating case study of one way in which those promoting the peace obscured its nature.

The name of the South Sea Company, like those of other commercial enterprises, presents the business as favourably as possible. The company was given a title to echo that of the East India Company, a great precursor trading organization, and to evoke the romantic associations of the South Seas. However, there is euphemism as well as promotion at work here for the name goes beyond glamorizing the company’s trade and hides the major part of it.

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