Graduate Program

350:577 - The Poetry of Slavery

Course No: 350:577
Index # - 18241
Distribution Requirement: A4, A5, C, D
Thursday – 9:50 a.m.
MU 207

The Poetry of Slavery

Meredith McGill

Poetry played a vital role in the late 18th and early 19th century mobilization for the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and the elimination of plantation slavery in the British sugar colonies and North America. The prevalence of antislavery poetry in this period is all the more remarkable because it coincided with the rise of a transatlantic market for cheap print, arguably the first truly mass medium in modernity. The multi-media appeal of antislavery poetry was crucial to its commercial success and to its political force. The strong relations poetry maintained with theater, oratory, song, and visual art, and its extraordinary mobility across print formats help to explain why it was regarded as a potent tool in the antislavery struggle. And yet slavery is not just one theme among others in a poetic tradition that remained stable across the centuries it took to abolish the trade, emancipate the enslaved, and petition for some measure of acknowledgment and redress. The history of Anglo-American poetry was itself transformed by its encounter with the slave system.

Twenty-first century poets who have returned to this history in powerful ways understand the pressure slavery’s dehumanizing violence put on many of the assumptions that underwrite the poetic conventions they have inherited. They also demonstrate the galvanizing effect on poetic form that can be produced by a commitment to looking squarely at the legacy of slavery. What impelled British, American, and Caribbean poets to address the problem of slavery in verse, and what poetic resources did they draw on to express its horrors and argue for its elimination? How did poets exploit the rise of mass print, and how did they use printed verse to supplement and extend more conventional activist strategies such as petition drives and public gatherings built around fiery oratory?

This is in part a course about the role of poetry in progressive politics. But we will also ask how specific poetic traditions, genres, and forms mobilize discourse about land, value, and human labor (the georgic); enact the conferral of personhood or the exchange of sympathy (apostrophe; sentimental verse); explore the nuances of cultural types (dramatic monologue); and permit the collective expression of hope and frustration (hymns and songs).

We will draw many of our texts from two massive anthologies of Anglophone poetry about slavery that appeared at the turn of the twenty-first century: James G. Basker’s Amazing Grace: An Anthology of Poems about Slavery 1660-1810 (2002) and Marcus Wood’s The Poetry of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology, 1764-1865 (2003). These volumes, which overlap in terms of coverage, effectively establish a transatlantic canon of Anglophone poems about slavery stretching from the Restoration of the British monarchy to the end of the American Civil War. But we will also trace the history of poetry about slavery past the watershed of emancipation, though reconstruction, the repression of the slave past in Anglo-American modernism, and its recovery as a vital topic and spur to formal experimentation in contemporary African-American poetry.

Topics will include: slavery and heroic drama; locodescriptive poetry and the geographies of slavery; slavery and romantic poetry; enslaved poets; the Amistad case; the transatlantic abolitionist lecture circuit; poetry in abolitionist periodicals; emancipation and reconstruction; slavery and modernist poetry; slavery and contemporary poetry.

Poets will include: Thomas Southerne, Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, James Thomson, James Grainger, Phillis Wheatley, Timothy Dwight, Sarah Wentworth Morton, William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Hannah More, William Cullen Bryant, George Moses Horton, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Thylias Moss, M. NourbeSe Philip, Kevin Young.