Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Southey's Radicalism and the Abolitionist Movement

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Southey's Radicalism and the Abolitionist Movement

Article excerpt

Southey's abolitionist poems of the 1790s and his long poem of 1805, Madoc, typically demonstrate his ideological ambivalence. In his nine anti-slavery poems, Southey shows his egalitarianism and his sympathy with black slaves. The basic tone of these poems is a protest against the British victimisation of black people for profit. However, Southey's liberal vision is ambivalent: while the slaves are to have their human rights respected, it is intended, from the Eurocentric perspective, that they will be Christianised by white culture. In "On the Settlement of Sierra Leone" (1798), for instance, Southey, while celebrating the Sierra Leone plan to create a free state for former slaves, indicates that the liberated slaves are happy in the civilised British community.

Southey's interest in republicanism was at a peak in the early 1790s. His commitment to human equality and liberty originated in 1788, when he published the periodical paper The Flagellant with his friend Grosvenor Charles Bedford. In this paper, Southey criticised the English education system for repressing the freedom of students through its authoritarian approach, such as flogging. He argues that "corporal punishment" is "an invention of the Devil" (Carnall 16). The tone of this paper reveals his revolutionary sensibility that was to develop in the 1790's strengthened through his reading of Voltaire, Rousseau, Paine's Rights of Man (1791) and Godwin's Political Justice (1793), and through his friendships with a radical circle including Coleridge.

His dissenting sensibility also contributed to his political radicalism. Most of the reform movements in England in the 1790s were related to such dissenters as the Unitarians. Discriminated against in 18th-century English society, they welcomed the French Revolution which they believed would help precipitate reform in Britain. Some even viewed it as the herald of a millenarian world, where everyone would enjoy civil and religious liberty, irrespective of their religious sect. For instance, Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian scientist, in his letter to Edmund Burke, revealed that he expected to see "the extinction of all national prejudice, and enmity, and the establishment of universal peace and good will among all nations" (Priestley 143). An admirer of Priestley, Southey derived his dissent from his upbringing in Bristol where had attended a school run by William Foot, a dissenting minister. In the 1790s, he started to mix with dissenters such as George Burnet and other Unitarians educated by Anna Barbauld. Although it is unclear which denomination Southey felt he belonged to, it is certain that he questioned the doctrine and rituals of Anglicanism. His dissenting sensibility along with his radical politics made him interested in dissenters' campaigns for human rights. Southey's egalitarian stance was thus reinforced by his political and religious anti-establishment attitudes.

The abolitionists became active in England in 1787, after the London Committee was founded by the Granville Sharp, together with the Quakers. Southey's abolitionist poems reflected his antagonism to the established political order, which he and most dissenters saw as a system for oppressing the liberty of thought and body. In his nine anti-slavery poems, Southey expressed his humanitarian indignation against the slave trade, as in "To the Genius of Africa" (1797) which was composed as anti-slavery propaganda in conjunction with the anti-slavery lecture given by Coleridge in Bristol. Southey vividly illustrates their hard labour and "there imprison'd die

  Where the black herd promiscuous lie,
  By the scourges blacken'd o'er
  And stiff and hard with human gore,
  By every groan of deep distress.
  (Shorter Poems 54-56; lines 38-42)

The critical tone reflects Coleridge's "Lecture on the Slave Trade," where Coleridge denounces as blasphemy the selling of human beings as if they were commodities. …

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