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Anti-Slavery Poems by William Cowper


 

William Cowper
From Charity, (1782)

       Again—the band of commerce was design’d
To associate all the branches of mankind;
And if a boundless plenty be the robe,
Trade is the golden girdle of the globe.
Wise to promote whatever end he means,
God opens fruitful Nature’s various scenes:
Each climate needs what other climes produce,
And offers something to the general use;
No land but listens to the common call,
And in return receives supply from all.
This genial intercourse, and mutual aid,
Cheers what were else a universal shade,
Calls nature from her ivy-mantled den,
And softens human rock-work into men.
Ingenious Art, with her expressive face,
Steps forth to fashion and refine the race;
Not only fills necessity’s demand,
But overcharges her capacious hand:
Capricious taste itself can crave no more
Than she supplies from her abounding store:
She strikes out all that luxury can ask,
And gains new vigour at her endless task.
Hers is the spacious arch, the shapely spire,
The painter’s pencil, and the poet’s lyre;
From her the canvas borrows light and shade,
And verse, more lasting, hues that never fade.
She guides the finger o’er the dancing keys,
Gives difficulty all the grace of ease,
And pours a torrent of sweet notes around
Fast as the thirsting ear can drink the sound.
   These are the gifts of art; and art thrives most
Where Commerce has enrich’d the busy coast;
He catches all improvements in his flight,
Spreads foreign wonders in his country’s sight,
Imports what others have invented well,
And stirs his own to match them, or excel.
‘Tis thus, reciprocating each with each,
Alternately the nations learn and teach;
While Providence enjoins to ev’ry soul
A union with the vast terraqueous whole.
       Heaven speed the canvas gallantly unfurl’d
To furnish and accommodate a world,
To give the pole the produce of the sun,
And knit the unsocial climates into one.
Soft airs and gentle heavings of the wave
Impel the fleet, whose errand is to save,
To succour wasted regions, and replace
The smile of opulence in sorrow’s face.
Let nothing adverse, nothing unforeseen,
Impede the bark that ploughs the deep serene,
Charged with a freight transcending in its worth
The gems of India, Nature’s rarest birth,
That flies, like Gabriel on his Lord’s commands,
A herald of God’s love to pagan lands!
But ah! what wish can prosper, or what prayer,
For merchants rich in cargoes of despair,
Who drive a loathsome traffic, gauge, and span,
And buy the muscles and the bones of man?
The tender ties of father, husband, friend,
All bonds of nature in that moment end;
And each endures, while yet he draws his breath,
A stroke as fatal as the scythe of death.
The sable warrior, frantic with regret
Of her he loves, and never can forget,
Loses in tears the far-receding shore,
But not the thought that they must meet no more;
Deprived of her and freedom at a blow,
What has he left that he can yet forego?
Yes, to deep sadness sullenly resign’d,
He feels his body’s bondage in his mind;
Puts off his generous nature, and to suit
His manners with his fate, puts on the brute.
       Oh most degrading of all ills that wait
On man, a mourner in his best estate!
All other sorrows virtue may endure,
And find submission more than half a cure;
Grief is itself a medicine, and bestow’d
To improve the fortitude that bears the load;
To teach the wanderer, as his woes increase,
The path of wisdom, all whose paths are peace;
But slavery!—Virtue dreads it as her grave:
Patience itself is meanness in a slave;
Or, if the will and sovereignty of God
Bid suffer it a while, and kiss the rod,
Wait for the dawning of a brighter day,
And snap the chain the moment when you may.
Nature imprints upon whate’er we see,
That has a heart and life in it, Be free!
The beasts are charter’d—neither age nor force
Can quell the love of freedom in a horse:
He breaks the cord that held him at the rack;
And, conscious of an unencumber’d back,
Snuffs up the morning air, forgets the rein;
Loose fly his forelock and his ample mane;
Responsive to the distant neigh, he neighs;
Nor stops, till, overleaping all delays,
He finds the pasture where his fellows graze.
       Canst thou, and honour’d with a Christian name,
Buy what is woman-born, and feel no shame?
Trade in the blood of innocence, and plead
Expedience as a warrant for the deed?
So may the wolf, whom famine has made bold
To quit the forest and invade the fold:
So may the ruffian, who with ghostly glide,
Dagger in hand, steals close to your bedside;
Not he, but his emergence forced the door,
He found it inconvenient to be poor.
Has God then given its sweetness to the cane,
Unless his laws be trampled on—in vain?
Built a brave world, which cannot yet subsist,
Unless his right to rule it be dismiss’d?
Impudent blasphemy! So folly pleads,
And, avarice being judge, with ease succeeds.
       But grant the plea, and let it stand for just,
That man make man his prey, because he must;
Still there is room for pity to abate
And soothe the sorrows of so sad a state.
A Briton knows, or if he knows it not,
The Scripture placed within his reach, he ought,
That souls have no discriminating hue,
Alike important in their Maker’s view;
That none are free from blemish since the fall,
And love divine has paid one price for all.
The wretch that works and weeps without relief
Has One that notices his silent grief.
He, from whose hand alone all power proceeds,
Ranks its abuse among the foulest deeds,
Considers all injustice with a frown;
But marks the man that treads his fellow down.
Begone!—the whip and bell in that hard hand
Are hateful ensigns of usurp’d command.
Not Mexico could purchase kings a claim
To scourge him, weariness his only blame.
Remember, Heaven has an avenging rod,
To smite the poor is treason against God!
       Trouble is grudgingly and hardly brook’d,
While life’s sublimest joys are overlook’d:
We wander o’er a sunburnt thirsty soil,
Murmuring and weary of our daily toil,
Forget to enjoy the palm-tree’s offer’d shade,
Or taste the fountain in the neighbouring glade:
Else who would lose, that had the power to improve
The occasion of transmuting fear to love?
Oh, ‘tis a godlike privilege to save!
And he that scorns it is himself a slave.
Inform his mind; one flash of heavenly day
Would heal his heart, and melt his chains away.
'Beauty for ashes' is a gift indeed,
And slaves, by truth enlarged, are doubly freed.
Then would he say, submissive at thy feet,
While gratitude and love made service sweet,
My dear deliverer out of hopeless night,
Whose bounty bought me but to give me light,
I was a bondman on my native plain,
Sin forged, and ignorance made fast, the chain;
Thy lips have shed instruction as the dew,
Taught me what path to shun, and what pursue;
Farewell my former joys! I sigh no more
For Africa’s once loved, benighted shore;
Serving a benefactor, I am free;
At my best home, if not exiled from thee.

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William Cowper
From The Task, Book II (1784)

Oh for a lodge in some vast wilderness,
Some boundless contiguity of shade,
Where rumour of oppression and deceit,
Of unsuccessful or successful war,
Might never reach me more! My ear is pained,
My soul is sick with every day's report
Of wrong and outrage with which earth is filled.
There is no flesh in man's obdurate heart,
It does not feel for man. The natural bond
Of brotherhood is severed as the flax
That falls asunder at the touch of fire.
He finds his fellow guilty of a skin
Not coloured like his own, and having power
To enforce the wrong, for such a worthy cause
Dooms and devotes him as his lawful prey.
Lands intersected by a narrow frith
Abhor each other. Mountains interposed
Make enemies of nations, who had else
Like kindred drops been mingled into one.
Thus man devotes his brother, and destroys;
And worse than all, and most to be deplored,
As human nature's broadest, foulest blot,
Chains him, and tasks him, and exacts his sweat
With stripes, that mercy, with a bleeding heart,
Weeps when she sees inflicted on a beast.
Then what is man? And what man, seeing this,
And having human feelings, does not blush
And hang his head, to think himself a man?
I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earned.
No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart's
Just estimation prized above all price,
I had much rather be myself the slave
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.
We have no slaves at home - then why abroad?
And they themselves, once ferried o'er the wave
That parts us, are emancipate and loosed.
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.
That's noble, and bespeaks a nation proud
And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,
And let it circulate through every vein
Of all your empire; that where Britain's power
Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.

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William Cowper
'The Negro’s Complaint' (1788)

To the tune of 'Hosier's Ghost' or 'As near Porto Bello lying'.

FORCED from home and all its pleasures
        Afric's coast I left forlorn,
To increase a stranger's treasures
        O'er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
        Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though slave they have enrolled me,
        Minds are never to be sold.

Still in thought as free as ever,
        What are England's rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
        Me to torture, me to task ?
Fleecy locks and black complexion
        Cannot forfeit nature's claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
        Dwells in white and black the same.

Why did all-creating nature
        Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
        Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters iron-hearted,
        Lolling at your jovial boards,
Think how many backs have smarted
        For the sweets your cane affords.

Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
        Is there One who reigns on high?
Has He bid you buy and sell us,
        Speaking from his throne, the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
        Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means that duty urges
        Agents of his will to use?

Hark! He answers!--Wild tornadoes
        Strewing yonder sea with wrecks,
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
        Are the voice with which he speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
        Afric's sons should undergo,
Fixed their tyrants' habitations
        Where his whirlwinds answer--"No."

By our blood in Afric wasted
        Ere our necks received the chain;
By the miseries that we tasted,
        Crossing in your barks the main;
By our sufferings, since ye brought us
        To the man-degrading mart,
All sustained by patience, taught us
        Only by a broken heart;

Deem our nation brutes no longer,
        Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
        Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
        Tarnish all your boasted powers,
Prove that you have human feelings,
        Ere you proudly question ours!

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William Cowper
'The Morning Dream' (1788)

To the tune of 'Tweedside'

'Twas in the glad season of Spring,
   Asleep at the dawn of the day
I dream'd what I cannot but sing,
   So pleasant it seem'd as I lay.
I dream'd that on Ocean afloat
   Far hence to the westward I sail'd,
While the billows high-lifted the boat,
   And the fresh-blowing breeze never fail'd.

In the steerage a woman I saw,
   (Such at least was the form that she wore)
Whose beauty impress'd me with awe
   Ne'er taught me by woman before.
She sat, and a shield at her side
   Shed light like a sun on the waves,
And smiling divinely, she cried,
   I go to make Freemen of Slaves—

Then raising her voice to a strain
   The sweetest that ear ever heard,
She sung of the Slave's broken chain
   Wherever her glory appear'd.
Some clouds which had over us hung
   Fled chased by her melody clear,
And methought while she Liberty sung
   'Twas Liberty only to hear.

Thus swiftly dividing the flood
   To a slave-cultur'd island we came,
Where a daemon, her enemy, stood,
   Oppression his terrible name.
In his hand, as the sign of his sway,
   A scourge hung with lashes he bore,
And stood looking out for his prey,
   From Africa's sorrowful shore.

But soon as approaching the land
   That goddess-like Woman he view'd,
The scourge he let fall from his hand
   With blood of his subjects imbrued;
I saw him both sicken and die,
   And the moment the monster expired
Heard shouts that ascended the sky
   From thousands with rapture inspired.

Awaking, how could I but muse
   On what such a Dream might betide?
But soon my ear caught the glad news
   Which serv'd my weak thought for a guide—
That Britannia, renown'd o'er the waves
   For the hatred she ever has shown
To the black-sceptred rulers of Slaves—
   Resolves to have none of her own.

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William Cowper
'Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce: or, the Slave Trader in the Dumps' (1788)

A trader I am to the African shore,
But since that my trading is like to be o'er,
I'll sing you a song that you ne'er heard before,
         Which nobody can deny, deny,
         Which nobody can deny.

When I first heard the news it gave me a shock,
Much like what they call an electrical knock,
And now I am going to sell off my stock,
         Which nobody, &c.

Tis a curious assortment of dainty regales,
To tickle the Negroes with when the ship sails,
Fine chains for the neck, and a cat with nine tails,
         Which nobody, &c.

Here's supple-jack plenty and store of rat-tan,
That will wind itself round the sides of a man,
As close as a hoop round a bucket or can,
         Which nobody, &c.

Here's padlocks and bolts, and screws for the thumbs,
That squeeze them so lovingly till the blood comes,
They sweeten the temper like comfits or plums,
         Which nobody, &c.

When a Negro his head from his victuals withdraws,
And clenches his teeth and thrusts out his paws,
Here's a notable engine to open his jaws,
         Which nobody, &c.

Thus going to market, we kindly prepare
A pretty black cargo of African ware,
For what they must meet with when they get there,
         Which nobody, &c.

'Twould do your heart good to see 'em below,
Lie flat on their backs all the way as we go,
Like sprats on a gridiron, scores in a row,
         Which nobody, &c.

But ah! if in vain I have studied an art
So gainful to me, all boasting apart,
I think it will break my compassionate heart,
         Which nobody, &c.

For oh! how it enters my soul like an awl!
This pity, which some people self-pity call,
Is sure the most heart-piercing pity of all,
         Which nobody, &c.

So this is my song, as I told you before;
Come, buy off my stock, for I must no more
Carry Caesars and Pompeys to Sugar-cane shore,
         Which nobody can deny, deny,
         Which nobody can deny.

 


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* This page last updated 25 August 2002 *