On Slavery and Poetry
In the 1830s, the Reverend William Ellery Channing had a problem. It seemed to him obvious that New England Christians should be actively involved in ending slavery in the United States. But instead he saw two troubling trends.
First, he saw some Christians who were not particularly bothered by slavery; it seemed to them far away, and someone else’s problem.
Second, he saw many Christians who did privately oppose slavery, but avoided discussing it in public for fear others would be offended by their abolitionism, or would think such a distasteful subject inappropriate for polite conversation.
Channing was particularly interested in emboldening the second kind of Christian, and decided to write a book to do just that. In 1835, Channing published this book, titled Slavery. In the introduction, he writes:
There are not a few persons, who, from vulgar modes of thinking, cannot be interested in this subject [of slavery]. Because the slave is a degraded being, they think slavery a low topic, and wonder how it can excite the attention and sympathy of those who can discuss or feel for any thing else. Now the truth is, that slavery, regarded only in a philosophical light, is a theme worthy of the highest minds. It involves the gravest questions about human nature and society. It carries us into the problems which have exercised for ages the highest understandings. It calls us to inquire into the foundation, nature, and extent of human rights, into the distinction between a person and a thing, into the true relations of man to man, into the obligations of the community to each of its members, into the ground and laws of property, and, above all, into the true dignity and indestructible claims of a moral being. I venture to say, there is no subject, now agitated by the community, which can compare in philosophical dignity with slavery; and yet to multitudes the question falls under the same contempt with the slave himself.
— Channing, William E. Slavery. Boston: James Monroe, 1835. pp. 7–8
Channing was one of the great rhetoricians of his age, and he uses his rhetorical skill in this passage to memorable effect. Most striking is Channing’s chain of sentences beginning “It involves… It carries… It calls…” In the third sentence of this chain, Channing creates another repeating sequence of word patterns: “into the foundation… into the distinction… into the true relations… into the obligations… into the grounds… and, above all, into the true dignity…” Along with the repeated “into”s are also the rhyming nouns “foundation… relation… obligation”.
This is masterful rhetoric and poetic diction effectively employed.
It is not only the sounds and patterns of Channing’s words that are thrilling, but also the meaning of his words. Slavery, he is arguing, is a subject that involves our core beliefs about what humans are, what their worth is, and what one’s duties are to one’s fellow humans. Thus Channing flips the ashamed Christian’s reluctance to discuss slavery on its head; slavery is not the lowest topic, but the highest, not the least important, but the most important. To talk about slavery is to talk about humanity.
One of the timid New Englanders who read Channing’s Slavery was the poet-professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was by nature a gentle and non-confrontational man. Though he wrote passionately about literature and history, he shied away from publishing on political topics, and to the day he died tended toward pacifism.
But something was stirred in him when he read Slavery. In 1842 he published the results of that stirring: it was a short pamphlet of 8 poems titled Poems on Slavery. In case anyone doubted who had inspired the book, Longfellow titled his opening poem “To William E. Channing”:
The pages of thy book I read,
And as I closed each one,
My heart, responding, ever said,
“Servant of God! well done!”
Well done! Thy words are great and bold;
At times they seem to me,
Like Luther’s, in the days of old,
Half-battles for the free.
Go on, until this land revokes
The old and chartered Lie,
The feudal curse, whose whips and yokes
A voice is ever at thy side
Speaking in tones of might,
Like the prophetic voice, that cried
To John in Patmos, “Write!”
Write! and tell out this bloody tale;
Record this dire eclipse,
This Day of Wrath, this Endless Wail,
This dread Apocalypse!
— Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. Poems on Slavery. Cambridge: John Owen, 1842. pp. 9–10
In the first stanza, Longfellow dramatizes his reading of Channing. He reads each pages, closes it, praises the writer, and repeats. In the third stanza, Longfellow gives a summary in verse of two of Channing’s chief points.
First, slavery relies on a “Lie”: namely that a person can be appropriately treated as a thing, and that a community has no duty toward the enslaved person in their midst.
Second, Longfellow highlights that the “whips and yokes” of slavery “insult” not just the individual slaves who are whipped and yoked, but in the end insult humanity itself. When read in light of Channing’s introduction, this seemingly simple line “insult humanity” takes on that more nuanced set of philosophical ideas that Channing lists: “It involves the gravest questions about human nature and society. It carries us into the problems which have exercised for ages the highest understandings. It calls us to inquire into the foundation, nature, and extent of human rights…”
Both Channing’s Slavery and Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery were well received by American abolitionists. Channing became a leading voice in the New England Abolitionist movement, and Longfellow was offered the opportunity to run for Congress under the abolitionist Liberty Party. While Channing gladly took to his role as a public voice against slavery, Longfellow turned down the offer of political office. Though his heart and his verse were firmly on the abolitionist side, he did not think himself qualified for political office, and saw that his talents lay in poetry and scholarship.
It is easy to downplay activities like creative writing as non-serious hobbies. But in the rhetorical flourishes and internal rhymes of Channing’s prose and in the thunder of Longfellow’s final stanza (“dire eclipse… / Day of Wrath… / dread Apocalypse!”) we see that well wrought phrases and artfully patterned expressions can be used for the most serious and more urgent of subjects—can, at their best, stir slumbering citizens to stand and strive for justice.
Featured Image: William Ellery Channing (1811) by Washington Allston (Left); Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1862) by George Peter Alexander Healy (Right)