Epistle to William Wilberforce by Anna Letitia Barbauld
Poem by Mrs. Anna Letitia Barbauld, 1743-1825.
Epistle To William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade
Cease, Wilberforce, to urge thy generous aim!
Thy Country knows the sin, and stands the shame!
The Preacher, Poet, Senator in vain
Has rattled in her sight the Negro’s chain;
With his deep groans assail’d her startled ear,
And rent the veil that hid his constant tear;
Forc’d her averted eyes his stripes to scan,
Beneath the bloody scourge laid bare the man,
Claimed Pity’s tear, urged Conscience’ strong controul,
And flash’d conviction on her shrinking soul.
The Muse, too soon awaked, with ready tongue
At Mercy’s shrine applausive peans rung;
And Freedom’s eager sons, in vain foretold
A new Astrean reign, an age of gold:
She knows and she persists–Still Afric bleeds,
Uncheck’d, the human traffic still proceeds;
She stamps her infamy to future time,
And on her harden’d forehead seals the crime.
In vain, to thy white standard gathering round,
Wit, Worth, and Parts and Eloquence are found:
In vain, to push to birth thy great design,
Contending chiefs, and hostile virtues join;
All, from conflicting ranks, of power possest
To rouse, to melt, or to inform the breast.
Where seasoned tools of Avarice prevail,
A Nation’s eloquence, combined, must fail:
Each flimsy sophistry by turns they try;
The plausive argument, the daring lye,
The artful gloss, that moral sense confounds,
Th’ acknowledged thirst of gain that honour wounds:
Bane of ingenuous minds, th’ unfeeling sneer,
Which, sudden, turns to stone the falling tear:
They search assiduous, with inverted skill,
For forms of wrong, and precedents of ill;
With impious mockery wrest the sacred page,
And glean up crimes from each remoter age:
Wrung Nature’s tortures, shuddering, while you tell,
From scoffing fiends bursts forth the laugh of hell;
In Britain’s senate, Misery’s pangs give birth
To jests unseemly, and to horrid mirth–
Forbear!–thy virtues but provoke our doom,
And swell th’ account of vengeance yet to come;
For, not unmarked in Heaven’s impartial plan,
Shall man, proud worm, contemn his fellow-man?
And injur’d Afric, by herself redrest,
Darts her own serpents at her Tyrant’s breast.
Each vice, to minds deprav’d by bondage known,
With sure contagion fastens on his own;
In sickly languors melts his nerveless frame,
And blows to rage impetuous Passion’s flame:
Fermenting swift, the fiery venom gains
The milky innocence of infant veins;
There swells the stubborn will, damps learning’s fire,
The whirlwind wakes of uncontroul’d desire,
Sears the young heart to images of woe,
And blasts the buds of Virtue as they blow.
Lo! where reclin’d, pale Beauty courts the breeze,
Diffus’d on sofas of voluptuous ease;
With anxious awe, her menial train around,
Catch her faint whispers of half-utter’d sound;
See her, in monstrous fellowship, unite
At once the Scythian, and the Sybarite;
Blending repugnant vices, misally’d,
Which frugal nature purpos’d to divide;
See her, with indolence to fierceness join’d,
Of body delicate, infirm of mind,
With languid tones imperious mandates urge;
With arm recumbent wield the household scourge;
And with unruffled mien, and placid sounds,
Contriving torture, and inflicting wounds.
Nor, in their palmy walks and spicy groves,
The form benign of rural Pleasure roves;
No milk-maid’s song, or hum of village talk,
Sooths the lone poet in his evening walk:
No willing arm the flail unweary’d plies,
Where the mix’d sounds of cheerful labour rise;
No blooming maids, and frolic swains are seen
To pay gay homage to their harvest queen:
No heart-expanding scenes their eyes must prove
Of thriving industry, and faithful love:
But shrieks and yells disturb the balmy air,
Dumb sullen looks of woe announce despair,
And angry eyes thro’ dusky features glare.
Far from the sounding lash the Muses fly,
And sensual riot drowns each finer joy.
Nor less from the gay East, on essenc’d wings,
Breathing unnam’d perfumes, Contagion springs;
The soft luxurious plague alike pervades
The marble palaces, and rural shades;
Hence throng’d Augusta builds her rosy bowers,
And decks in summer wreaths her smoky towers;
And hence, in summer bow’rs, Art’s costly hand
Pours courtly splendours o’er the dazzled land:
The manners melt–One undistinguish’d blaze
O’erwhelms the sober pomp of elder days;
Corruption follows with gigantic stride,
And scarce vouchsafes his shameless front to hide:
The spreading leprosy taints ev’ry part,
Infects each limb, and sickens at the heart.
Simplicity! most dear of rural maids,
Weeping resigns her violated shades:
Stern Independence from his glebe retires,
And anxious Freedom eyes her drooping fires;
By foreign wealth are British morals chang’d,
And Afric’s sons, and India’s, smile aveng’d.
For you, whose temper’d ardour long has borne
Untir’d the labour, and unmov’d the scorn;
In Virtue’s fasti be inscrib’d your fame,
And utter’d your’s with Howard’s honour’d name,
Friends of the friendless–Hail, ye generous band!
Whose efforts yet arrest Heav’n’s lifted hand,
Around whose steady brows, in union bright,
The civic wreath, and Christian’s palm unite:
Your merit stands, no greater and no less,
Without, or with the varnish of success;
But seek no more to break a Nation’s fall,
For ye have sav’d yourselves–and that is all.
Succeeding times your struggles, and their fate,
With mingled shame and triumph shall relate,
While faithful History, in her various page,
Marking the features of this motley age,
To shed a glory, and to fix a stain,
Tells how you strove, and that you strove in vain.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743 – 1825) was a well-respected English “woman of letters” known as a poet, essayist, literary critic, editor, and author of children’s literature. She was also a noted teacher at the Palgrave Academy, a “dissenting academy” begun in order to provide an alternative to traditional boys’ schools. Her innovative children’s primers were considered a model for more than a century.
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