More than sentiment - Hacking Abolition (4)


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In previous posts in my Hacking Abolition blog series, I explored the impetus behind Hannah More's entrance into writing about the transatlantic slave trade.  One tactic she used was appealing to emotion by highlighting the great injustice of slavery against fellow human beings.

However, she didn't leave it at that.  More consciously made a move beyond emotion.  This post explores why.

More than sentiment

For More, the entire exercise of employing poetry for the abolition movement is wasted if it merely produces sentiment, however strong or deep.  It must evoke spiritual transformation in the temporal realm or she is no effective muse herself.

By evoking the suffering of Africa, More invites her readers to sympathize with slaves.  Sentiment and sympathy, however, are the starting point of liberation, not the end.  More makes much about the uselessness of Liberty, as Muse, if nothing but emotion is produced when Liberty is invoked. 

Moral superiority, political sobriety and literary legitimacy matter little if no real-world change results from impassioned poetry.  Even as More alludes to the literary prowess others grant her, she admits that the “feelings” and “fires” (42) of poetry can create a deception: “for genius we mistake delight, / Charm’d as we read, we fancy we can write” (47-48). 

Her direct reference to Southerne’s Tragedy of Oronoko, the play she campaigned to bring back to the stage in London, despite her “growing scruples about the theatre” (Stott 90), during the push by Wilberforce and her other abolitionist colleagues to present the critical abolition bill in Parliament, reinforced her conviction that the “impassion’d strain” of literature merely wakes the “languid Muse in vain” (37, 38).

More does not despise emotion or minimize it.  Only when it languishes and leads to no social action, does she critique it. Her poem, published in February of 1788 criticizes the very inaction she fears a performance of Oroonoko might produce—a sentimental response to a spectacle of suffering that produces no political or social action—even as she championed the stage performance of the script, which was mounted a month after Slavery was published that very March (Stott 92). 

In the opening passages of her poem, then, More seeks to mobilize public opinion against slavery and to influence a social response to abolitionist literature, in the midst of one of the abolition movement’s most consequential years, previously highlighted, that “so suddenly [caught] the eye of the London public” (Hochschild 130). More does work to distinguish between veracity and verse, laying bare her tactics before her reading audience of Slavery (a move echoed in the preface to her Collected Works):

Tho’ not to me, sweet Bard, thy pow’rs belong,
Fair Truth, a hollow’d guide! inspires my song.
Here Art wou’d weave her gayest flow’rs in vain,
For Truth the bright invention would disdain. (49-52)

More ends the passage with her insistence that she speaks not of “fictitious ills” but “living anguish” (53-54).  She is most concerned with the real-life anguish of women and men torn from each other as free people, forced from their home life in chains. 

She is cautious about the way the artfulness of her verse will arouse sentiment, aware that it can become the reader’s end, not the means by which the reader decides upon social action, such as boycotting sugar or more immediately, putting public pressure on Parliament. 

If the sentiment she generates were to yield no social action, in More’s own words,  the poem “will not be worth a straw” (qtd. in Jones 84). Truth thus disdained, what More signals in her critique of poetry as sentiment in Slavery is akin to what Menely identifies as two critiques of literary sympathy widely noted in contemporary criticism:

1) it is unable to effect a meaningful substitution between the witness and the victim (it fails to constitute an identification, to alter interest), and 2) the passions it creates in the witness do not lead to ameliorative activity on behalf of the victim (it fails to compel action). (49)

More strips away the layers of self-importance and literary posturing.  She relies on no literary laurels nor does she pretend to own any.  The urgency in her warning against ineffectual sympathy, combined with More’s humble stance toward her own literary merit emphasize the activist aims of More’s poem. 

In essence, this is her literary act of self-conquest and here she practices, poetically, what she preaches. After the commercial success and critical acclaim of her play Percy which sold some four thousand copies in its first two weeks of publication (Metaxas 67) and catapulted her to the forefront of literary society, More wrote The Fatal Falsehood (1779), in which she advances her view of literature as a vehicle for moral transformation and guidance:

For if to govern realms belong to few,
Yet all who live have passions to subdue.
Self-conquest is the lesson books should preach,
Self-conquest is the theme the stages should teach. (Complete Works 545)

Behind the scenes of the unfolding legal drama that the abolition movement began to stage in the Empire, More petitioned her influential friend Lady Middleton to have an accomplished poet like Sheridan to write the anti-slavery poem, and upon failing to secure his talent wrote, “in case a good poet will not take the pains, I know a bad one who would attempt it, though she should be sorry not to see the campaign in better hands” (qtd. in Stott 90).

Good poets, and perhaps even some bad “are the… mirrors of the gigantic shadows, which futurity casts upon the present,” wrote Percy Shelley.  “The trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves” (46).  The move More makes in Slavery is “at the edge of the body politic, to alter identification [and] instigate political-juridical change” (Menely 45-46).  

As Shelley also famously wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (46), a sentiment Thomas Clarkson echoed.  Clarkson viewed poets as “coadjutors” to “turn national sentiment against human commerce” (Menely 47).

Through Slavery, More attempts to legislate a clear moral imperative that all humanity should enjoy liberty through a literary strategy that emphasizes truth and humility over literary posturing and activism over sympathy.  With these motives thus established in her poetical treatment of the slave trade, More positions herself as a coadjutor for slaves in the goal of their freedom; she equalizes black men and women with white Europeans.

More’s intertextual interplay with scripture demonstrates that in a “curious way, and without a hint of bad faith, More writes from the inside, assuming, however, that her beliefs transcend and transform boundaries, and thus exteriorize her insidedness” (“More’s Public Voice” 127).  More’s use of the “savage root” (74) to describe Africans recalls Saint Paul’s extensive, if not perplexing, hermeneutic on race relations from the first century.

In the famous passage the apostle declares that a “wild olive shoot,” that is, Gentiles, were “grafted in…place to share the rich root of the olive tree,” that is, inclusion into Israel, the people of God (Romans 11:17). This New Testament passage reinvigorates the significance of the sensual Hebrew love poem. More, as a Gentile, writes as one “grafted in” to the olive tree in order urge other formerly “wild olive shoots” that the savage root of Africa, like the wild root of the Gentile world, holds the “immortal principle within” (63), a principle that does not “Change with the casual colour of a skin” (64).

More’s palimpsest superimposes concepts of spiritual equality of all men, through belief in Christ, in a way that does not completely efface the temporal realities of the body. This stanza, which encodes humanity with philological signs such as patriotism and zeal, lays Englishman and African one over the other in an almost physiological entanglement. 

The language More employs to describe an essential human nature implies that the social intercourse of Englishman and African, despite the enslavement of the latter, is ultimately an intercourse of equals. “Strong, but luxuriant virtues boldly shoot / From the wild vigour of a savage root” (73-74). The passion coursing through African bodies is the same sap flowing in British veins. 

Upon first glance the lines portray a primitizing view of Africans as archaic leaders. However More insists “that very pride / In Afric scourg’d, in Rome was deify’d” (82); slave traders, blinded by racism do not recognize in Africa the same capacity for greatness that produced the greatest empire.  Successive chains merely delay that promising project.    

The word “zeal” conveys Biblical language as well. As an attribute of God, zeal denotes “passionate love or care which will tolerate no unfaithfulness” (OED). The term also expresses a vocabulary of devotion, that is, the “ardent concern, affection, or love for a person or thing.”  

The allusion to the Song of Solomon, the erotic poem from the pen of King Solomon, the storied Hebrew King with more than 700 wives and some 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3), enlivens, if not titillates, the passage.  More’s “Love strong as death” (70) is a direct allusion to the passionate call by the King’s bride in the Biblical love poem to be placed as a seal on her lover’s heart for eternity, a memorial to a love that cannot be quenched whose “flashes are flashes of fire, / a raging flame” (Song of Solomon 8:6).

While the poem has been interpreted as an allegory of Christ’s love for the church since the second century, the Jewish poem predates Christianity and, as Paul Tanner writes, an “accurate understanding” of the book takes a literal-didactic view, while stressing the elements of fidelity and devotion” (39).

While More’s poem is by no means a treatise on human sexual behaviour and while it is unclear that More was familiar with the Jewish German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn who took up the literal view and read the Song of Solomon as an erotic love poem during her lifetime, More’s choice to characterize the love Africans display in such terms is provocative, especially to slavers who More condemns for considering Africans as mere “merchandize [sic]” that is, inhuman commodities with a “sense of feeling callous and obtuse”(Slavery 146 and 148).

The pointed questions, “Does then th’ immortal principle within / Change with the casual colour of a skin? Does matter govern spirit? or is mind / Degraded by the form to which ’tis join’d?” highlight that More is concerned not only with both the black soul and mind, but also wants white English eyes to see black bodies: skin, heads, hearts (63-65). 

Emphasis on “affectations,” “desires” and “rude energy” (69-70) reinforce the sense of love at work in human bodies and recall the eroticism of Solomon’s poem. 

Although culturally different than Christian British bodies, More argues that Africans are human in every way then, motivated by the same human urges as British subjects, whether in the flesh or in the spirit. The evil of slavery is found in the bondage it puts the human body under and the spiritual enslavement that bondage perpetuates. 

More's Solomonic allusion, then, creates a chain of signification deployed to shatter the chains of transatlantic slavery, a link of which is the famous seal developed by the Queen’s Potter, Josiah Wedgewood.  In 1787, the year before More published Slavery, Wedgewood released the famous “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” seal that was reproduced “everywhere from books and leaflets to snuffboxes and cufflinks” (Hochschild 128) and which ladies of high society affixed to bracelets and pinned in their hair. 

Certainly abolitionist sympathizers, many of whom wore the seal for the political cause over their heart, would recognize themselves in the line of verse and perhaps would connect their public fashion statement to the passionate purpose of their activism.  The verse proclaims the sentiment captured in the popular wax seal and animates and invigorates the inanimate object. 

The poem, like the seal, incarnates the incorporeal concept of liberty, to which More wants her audience to be attuned: it follows that the immortal principle of liberty that flows through hearts and souls must be made manifest in physical bodies, no matter their colour.

While it may be difficult to imagine what a free person has in common with a slave in any time, More taps into a sentiment that resonated with her audience despite the differences of experience between her British contemporaries and Africans ripped from their homelands, chained in the dark and pestilent belly of ships like animals across the Middle Passage, only to be thrust in the daily horrors of brutal slave labour. 

More seizes on this sense that slavery is a national hypocrisy from the poem’s first lines when she invokes Liberty, and depends on the British values of freedom, something engrained in the largest slave-trading nation the world had ever seen through the words of a song sung ever since the 1740s: “Rule, Britannia!  Britannia rule the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves” (qtd. Hochschild 218).  “Shall Britain, where the soul of freedom reigns, / Forge chains for others she herself disdains?” (Slavery 251-52) More asks.

The sentiment of inherent freedom sung by free subjects of the Empire everywhere was perpetuated through a society where freedom of ideas was paramount, as evidenced through a free and flourishing print industry of uncensored newspapers, supported by new stands and coffee shops, bookstores and libraries and debate clubs. More’s Britain was a society of “unrestrained argument… curiously at odds with the society’s rigid stratification by wealth and caste” (Hochschild 218).

TO BE CONTINUED...

The next post in this series will continue my exploration of More's move beyond sentiment to engage the mind and body for social action, with a focus on how More compelled women in her time to act against abolition.

 

 

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Hacking Abolition is a blog series that derives lessons from the original abolition movement that worked tirelessly to bring an end to the transatlantic slave trade. The series begins with a close look at the life and writing of Hannah More and is an adaptation of Andrew's work for his MA Thesis in English and Transitional Justice at Western University entitled, "Bonds and Bondage: Intimacies and Enslavement in Hannah More’s Abolition Writing."

The aim of the series is to explore and discover successful tactics champions of faith and abolition employed in the past and consider ways we might learn from them for the pressing work of abolition in the present.

For a full bibliography of my research and further reading on More's life, visit this page.

Andrew Kooman

About Andrew Kooman: Andrew is a Canadian writer and producer. His work has been published and viewed around the world and translated into more than 10 languages. Andrew strives to tell powerful stories that make real-world impact.  { Learn More }

 

Works Cited (in this post)

Demers, Patricia. “Hannah More’s Public Voice in Georgian Britain.”  Women, Morality and Advice Literature Manuscripts and Rare Printed Works of Hannah More (1745-1833)  and her Circle, Clark Library, Los Angeles, www.ampltd.co.uk/collections_az/Women-More-1/editorial-introduction.aspx. Accessed 18 July 2018.

Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Jones, M. G. Hannah More. University Press, Cambridge [Eng.], 1952.

Menely, Tobias.  “Acts of Sympathy: Abolitions Poetry and Transatlantic Identification.” Affect and Abolition in the Anglo-Atlantic, 1770-1830, edited by Stephen Ahern, Ashgate Publishing, 2013, pp 45-67.

Metaxas, Eric. Seven Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness. Nelson Books, 2015.

More, Hannah. Slavery, A Poem (London: T. Cadell, 1788) Accessed 28 May 2019 http://www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/morepoems.htm

-- The Complete Works of Hannah More, vol. 3, T. Cadell, Strand 1830, https://archive.org/details/workshannahmore42moregoog/ Accessed 18 July 2018. 

This e-text is located at www.brycchancarey.com/slavery/morepoems.htm

Myers, Mitzi.  “Hannah More’s Tracts for the Times: Social Fiction and Female Ideology.”  Fetter'd Or Free?: British Women Novelists, 1670-1815, edited by Mary A. Schofield and Cecilia Macheski. Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 1986.

Stott, Anne. Hannah More: The First Victorian. Oxford University Press, Oxford [England], 2003.

Tanner, Paul J. “The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs.  Bibliotheca Sacara 154, 613, 1997, pp. 23-46, www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/article_song1_tanner.html. Accessed 27 June, 2018.

The New Revised Standard Harper Study Version. Edited by Verlyn D. Verbrugge, Zondervan Publishing House, 1990.

Wall, Cynthia. Introduction. A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, Penguin Books, 2003, pp. xvii-xxxiii.

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Note: Portions of this post were adapted for Andrew's chapter in Palgrave International Handbook on Human Trafficking (2019). The chapter is entitled "Aesthetic Whistleblowers: The Importance and Limitations of Art and Media in Addressing Human Trafficking" and is available here.

 

Photo by Lee yan on Unsplash


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