Slavery as Fact and Metaphor: William Blake and Jean Paul Marat

  • R. S. White

Abstract

In many ways, William Blake is the guiding spirit behind this book, and his most characteristic, bardic tone of ‘the voice of honest indignation’ (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) is exemplary of those reformists who identify social wrongs and espouse natural rights. Through his poetry he comments on each of the dominant political and social causes which attracted natural law theorists: the American revolution, the French revolution, slavery, child labour and female emancipation. However, his mythological and psychological model of the states of innocence and experience is so broad-based and comprehensive that it is capable of exposing many other specific issues. In fact, his approach is intrinsically one which is uniquely based on an essential and prior theory of natural rights. His poetry graphically (and in some cases, literally) encapsulates the movement away from laws or law, which are inherently restrictive, to rights or freedoms. The tendency of natural rights thinking is away from systems and abstractions and towards the needs of individual human beings in their ‘natural’ state. Blake is always working from these premises, and actively opposing systems and laws, however well-meaning they may have been in origin (such as Christianity). In particular, Blake realises that one issue which provides him with a central reference point for rights thinking is slavery and its abolition, a cause which had a special topical reference for writers and politicians in the 1790s.

Keywords

Sugar Clay Europe Hull Tral 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    See Moira Ferguson, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery’ in Maria J. Falco (ed.), Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 125–50.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Markman Ellis, The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 50.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Quoted by Jon Mee, Dangerous Enthusiasm: William Blake and the Culture of Radicalism in the 1790s (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 156.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See for example: James Walvin, England, Slaves and Freedom, 1776–1838 (London: Macmillan, 1986), and James Walvin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery (London: HarperCollins, 1992), David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 1770–1823 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1975), David Turley, The Culture of English Antislavery 1780–1860 (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: Deutsch, 1964), Barbara L. Solow and Stanley L. Engerman, British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy o f Eric Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492–1797 (London and New York: Methuen, 1986), Wylie Sypher Guineas Captive Kings: British Anti-slavery Literature of the XVIHth Century (New York: Octagon Books, 1969), Kari J. Winter, Subjects o f Slavery: Agents o f Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives 1790–1865 (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
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  8. 11.
    For further information, see Roger Anstey and P. E. Hair, Liverpool, the African Slave Trade and Abolition: Essays to Illustrate Current Knowledge (Liverpool: Western Printing Services, 1976), Seymour Drescher and Stanley L. Engerman, A Historical Guide to World Slavery (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998), J. R. Oldfield, Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilisation of Public Opinion Against the Slave Trade, 1787–1807 (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1998).Google Scholar
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    Quoted by Richardson, xv, from Roger Anstey, The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition 1760–1810 (London: Macmillan, 1975), 266.Google Scholar
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    Unless otherwise specified, quotations from writers come either from original editions in the British Library or facsimiles of originals reproduced in the invaluable set of volumes edited by Peter J. Kitson and Debbie Lee, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period (8 vols, London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999), especially vol. 4 ‘Verse’ ed. Alan Richardson, and vol. 6 ‘Fiction’ ed. Srinivas Aravamudan.Google Scholar
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    See Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 43.Google Scholar
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  14. 24.
    For extensive documentation, see Albert Boime, The Art o f Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), Hugh Honour, The Image o f the Black in Western Art (4 vols, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), David Dabydeen, Hogarths Blacks: Images of Blacks in Eighteenth-Century English Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987). I have benefited from reading Natalie McCreedy, ‘Poetry, Print and Persecution: Images of Slavery in Britain’ (unpublished BA honours dissertation, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, 2000) and I am grateful to Dr Stephanie Brown for drawing this work to my attention.Google Scholar
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  17. 34.
    On Stedman’s experiences, see Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), ch. 5, ‘Eros and Abolition’, 86ff.Google Scholar
  18. 35.
    Since this book is a study in the history of ideas and literature, I do not include consideration of the fiendishly difficult variants in Blake’s individual copies of his books, although it does become relevant for one detail. Here, I quote from the facsimile edited by David Worrall, The Urizen Books: The First Book o f Urizen, The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los (London: The William Blake Trust/The Tate Gallery, 1995).Google Scholar
  19. 43.
    Texts quoted from the transcriptions in the facsimile, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, ed. Sir Geof frey Keynes (Oxford: Trainon Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  20. 44.
    My readings of the Songs have been influenced, though not directly on this subject, by Heather Glen’s Vision and Disenchantment: Blakes Songs and Wordsworths Lyrical Ballads (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).Google Scholar
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    Robert N. Essick, ‘William Blake, Thomas Paine, and Biblical Revolution’, Studies in Romanticism, 30 (Summer 1991), 189–212.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., 210.Google Scholar
  24. 49.
    See Carol Louise Hall, Blake and Fuseli: A Study in the Transmission of Ideas (New York and London: Garland Publising, 1985).Google Scholar
  25. 50.
    Henry Fuseli, Remarks on the Writing and Conduct o fJ. J. Rousseau (1767), facsimile, ed. Karl S. Guthke (Los Angeles: University of California, 1960), 21.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© R. S. White 2005

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  • R. S. White

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