“Earth Feels the Time of Prophet-Song”: John Brown and Public Poetry
During the weeks between the raid on Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859, and the execution of John Brown on December 2 of that year, popular and antislavery newspapers in the Northern states published an extraordinary effusion of poetry, first praising Brown’s acts and then memorializing his death in heroic tropes. This outpouring of poetry continued for months after the execution; it forms a unique literary response, one that functioned to translate rapid political shifts into familiar cultural rhetoric. However, John Brown poetry did more: it constituted a metaphorical revolution that prepared the American nation for coming bloodiness. Individual metaphors—enchained slaves, sacrificial altars, prophetic voices, and a suffering and corrupt Southern landscape calling for liberation—had all appeared previously. With the “meteoric” appearance of John Brown,1 that same metaphoric economy in antislavery poetry coalesced around his radicalized figure.
KeywordsDeath Scene Black Slave Divine Justice Emancipation Proclamation Sentimentalist Narrative
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