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

  • R. S. White


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.


French Revolution Slave Trade Slave Owner Parliamentary Debate Social Wrong 
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  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
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    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
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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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© R. S. White 2005

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