The Power of Anti-Slavery Poetry

In late 2016, I found myself re-reading with increasing urgency a poet whose work has retreated to the margins of American literature anthologies. James Russell Lowell’s “The Present Crisis,” a poem admired by W. E. B. DuBois, seemed to speak with special urgency to our moment, and Lowell himself was looking significantly less dusty than I might have previously assumed.Lowell’s poem called for “present valor” in the face of the political and moral crises of the 1840s, notably the looming invasion of Mexico and the concomitant expansion of slavery in the United States. It was a revelation to see how Lowell engaged deeply with the American past, including the New England Puritans, in making the case for moral courage in relation to the crises of his present moment. There also seemed something especially invigorating about applying Lowell’s words to our own troubled times:  

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,            

In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;        

Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,   

Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,       

And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.  

Reading Lowell’s poem caused me to wonder how much more poetry like “The Present Crisis” might be available that had not been a part of my previous reading. I found myself reading antislavery poems by Lowell’s fellow “Fireside Poets” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, along with popular poetry by Lydia Huntley Sigourney. I also found myself reading widely in antislavery poetry by major African American literary figures in the nineteenth century, like Frances E. W. Harper, William Wells Brown, James Monroe Whitfield, and George Moses Horton. I was also surprised by the depth of the connection between late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century British antislavery poetry by writers like James Montgomery, William Cowper, Hannah More, and Ann Yearsley and the development of an American antislavery tradition in verse. The antislavery verse of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, first published in US venues, also interacted in fascinating ways with Lowell’s work.  

What struck me about all of this material was how much Lowell’s call for “present valor” seemed to speak to our own times and to the ways in which the need for discernment and courage remain constant. Contemporary crises around violence against African Americans, around the treatment of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers at the US/Mexico Border, and around what can and cannot be taught in schools all seemed very closely connected to the moral case against slavery made by antislavery poets. If courage—valor, in Lowell’s terminology—is required in our own moment, the commitment to a collective defense of truth and to the creation of a language for the proclamation of truth than can be shared by many voices modeled by nineteenth-century poets seems crucial in our fraught present.  

It doesn’t seem like an accident that the writing of hymns and the writing of antislavery poetry went hand in hand for a number of the writers I discussed. In addition to the adaptation of Lowell’s “The Present Crisis” in “Once to Every Man and Nation,” Frances E. W. Harper’s “Ethiopia” was adapted into a hymn, and, less expectedly, James Montgomery, author of The West Indies, a long poem celebrating the abolition of the slave trade, was also the author of the popular Christmas carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” There is an intensity of moral and ethical purpose in many of the poems discussed in Why Antislavery Poetry Matters Now that gives them a religious quality.  

Antislavery poetry has often been dismissed on aesthetic grounds, but what I found was that moral commitment and poetic and rhetorical sophistication were by no means opposed in many of the poems I read for this book. The antislavery poets of the nineteenth century spoke powerfully to their own time, but their voices continue to reverberate in our own because, not in spite of, their commitment to verse as a genre.  

BRIAN YOTHERS is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at Saint Louis University. 

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