Robert Southey penned down several poems on the cruel custom of slavery. One such poem is ‘Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V’. The slave trade, on which he wrote this poem, is not about the buying and selling of slaves. Rather it is about an agonized slave, chained like an animal. His vengeful desires get portrayed in this poem. Along with that, Southey portrays what is going to happen in the future. The slaves would break their chains and revolt against those who throttled their freedom.
At the beginning of the poem, Southey foreshadows the future of slavery. One day they will avenge the misdoings and stand up for their rights. Enough blood will be spilled to quench their anger. Thereafter, the poet describes the condition of a slave chained inside a chamber. He thinks of his past when he was free. However, at some point in time, he was taken into this trade. For this reason, he gets angry whenever he thinks of freedom. This anger leads to the dark desire of killing his lord. In this way, Southey anticipates the future of the slave trade.
It is a sonnet that imitates the Shakespearean sonnet form. The fourteen lines of ‘Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V’ are divided into three quatrains and a couplet. Moreover, the poet uses a regular rhyme scheme in this sonnet. For example, the rhyme scheme of this piece is ABAB CDDC EFFE GG. So, the first quatrain contains alternative rhyming lines. While the following two stanzas are in the closed rhyming pattern. Apart from that, there are a total of ten syllables in each line. The stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. So, like a conventional sonnet, this poem is composed in iambic pentameter.
Southey uses several literary devices in his ‘Sonnet V’. To begin with, “the Sword of Vengeance” is a metaphor. In the second line, there is an inversion. Here, the “thirsty blade” contains a personal metaphor. Moreover, this phrase also shows personification. The third and fourth lines contain rhetorical questions. Thereafter, the poet capitalizes some words such as “Friendship”, “Liberty”, and “Love” for emphasizing those words. The repetition of the conjunction “and” in the seventh line, is an example of polysyndeton. Southey also uses alliteration in the phrase, “spectre stalk(e)d” and “stern smile.” Apart from that, the last two lines of this sonnet contain irony.
Did then the bold Slave rear at last the Sword
Of Vengeance? drench’d he deep its thirsty blade
In the cold bosom of his tyrant lord?
Oh! who shall blame him? thro’ the midnight shade
Southey’s poem, ‘Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V’ begins with anticipation. According to the poetic persona, the “bold Slave” will rear at the “Sword of Vengeance” at last. It means one day they will be rebellious and revolt against their lords. Thereafter the poet uses another interrogation. He enquires of whether the slave drenched his thirsty blade into the cold bosom of the tyrant. Here, “cold bosom” is a symbol of inhumanity and lack of compassion. In the last line of this quatrain, Southey makes it clear that nobody can blame him for such a reaction. Any compassionate person can anticipate this event. Such was the condition of the slaves. To regain their freedom, they had to fight back.
Still o’er his tortur’d memory rush’d the thought
Of every past delight; his native grove,
Friendship’s best joys, and Liberty and Love,
All lost for ever! then Remembrance wrought
In the second quatrain, the poet uses enjambment in the very first line. The first quatrain deals with the poet’s anticipation concerning the future of slavery. While the second quatrain is about a slave. In some dark chamber, through the midnight shade, he thought about his past. In his “tortured memory” rushed the thought of “every past delight.” Thereafter, the poet refers to the things the slave longs for. He misses his native grove, the friends, and those joyful days. Moreover, he mostly longs for “Liberty” and “Love”. All such good things are wiped from his life.
His soul to madness; round his restless bed
Freedom’s pale spectre stalk’d, with a stern smile
Pointing the wounds of slavery, the while
She shook her chains and hung her sullen head:
For this reason, when he remembers his past life, it maddens his soul. He becomes agitated due to the absence of those things in his life. The tyrants have taken everything away from him, leaving him alone in pain and confinement. Thereafter, Southey personifies “Freedom” and compares it with a “pale spectre.” When the slave sleeps in his dark chamber, freedom stalks around like a ghost. With a “stern smile”, she points at the “wounds of slavery.”
Here, the poet refers to the wounds the slave has received from his master. This wound reminds him of his inability to be free. Thereafter, the poet clarifies the gender of the slave. The slave is a woman. She shook her chains in disgust and hung her “sullen head” in exasperation.
No more on Heaven he calls with fruitless breath,
But sweetens with revenge, the draught of death.
In the last two lines of ‘Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V’, the poet comments on the mental state of the slave. Due to her condition, she no longer prays to heaven with “fruitless breath.” Here, “fruitless breath” is a symbol of hopelessness. It is a reference to the hopeless sighing of the slave. As she has been suffering for a long time, now her heart has hardened. She only sweetens “the draught of death” with revenge. This is the most significant metaphor of this sonnet. Here, the poet compares death to a “draught” sweetened with “revenge.”
‘Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V’ centers on slavery and enslavement. In Britain, slavery continued to be practiced for a long time. However, the Slave Trade Act 1807 abolished the slave trade. Robert Southey, one of the romantic poets, talks about this cruel custom in his poem. This poem deals with a slave who is denied his basic human rights. Moreover, through this piece, Southey highlights the fact that one day they will pick the “sword of vengeance.” He warns the slaveholders that they will be punished. One “bold slave” will be there to give the clarion call and they will be united.
The following poems are similar to the themes present in Southey’s poem ‘Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V’.
- The Slave in the Dismal Swamp by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – This poem was written during the chaotic period in an attempt to garner support for the abolitionist cause. Here, Longfellow records the pangs of a slave.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe by Paul Laurence Dunbar – This poem of Dunbar taps on the theme of the brutality and cruelty of slavery. The titular character tells the true story of slavery.
- Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Harper – In this poem, Harper depicts the cruel custom of slavery. Through this work, the poet presents her desire to be buried in a land free from slavery.
- No Master by William H. Davies – This poem presents a parallel between the speaker’s stance and that of a slave’s.