William Wordsworth, in his sonnet, ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’ lauds the role of the Haitian general Louverture in the Haitian revolution. He was a renowned historical figure and one of the inspirations for humankind. His zeal to save his brothers along with his political acumen made him famous in history. In this poem, Wordsworth gives his tribute to the late general, Toussaint Louverture. His death means nothing as his contribution lives in human minds. Moreover, the poet feels sad for such a hero who has selflessly contributed to the greater good of his community as well as his motherland.
To Toussaint L'Ouverture William Wordsworth Toussaint – the most unhappy of men! – Whether the rural milkmaid by her cow Sing in thy hearing, or though liest now Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den, Oh miserable Chieftain, where and when Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not! Do thou Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow; Though fallen thyself, never to rise again, Live, and take comfort! Thou hast left behind Powers that will work for thee – air, earth, and skies – There’s not a breathing of the common wind That will forget thee! Thou hast great allies: Thy friends are exultations, agonies, And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’ by William Wordsworth is a sonnet that describes how Louverture lives in the hearts of men even after his sad demise.
Wordsworth wrote this poem just a few months before the Haitian anti-slavery and anti-colonial revolutionary, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s death. The poet sees him as a part of nature. His demise means to him a process of assimilation into the air, earth, and sky. However, the poet thinks he can hear his voice. Hence, he asks him whether he can hear the song of the milkmaid. It can also be possible that he is buried inside some deep dungeon. Those who come to redeem mankind never die. So, Toussaint remains everywhere. None can forget his contribution to humanity. Lastly, the poet eulogizes him saying his friends are exultations, agonies, love, and the “unconquerable mind.”
Wordsworth wrote this sonnet in praise of the revolutionary leader Louverture. This poem follows the Petrarchan or Italian sonnet form. Hence, the poet divides this poem into two parts. The first part comprising eight lines (octave) contains the ABBA ABBA rhyme scheme. While the sestet contains the CDCDDC rhyme scheme. So, the second section of the poem differs a little from the Italian model concerning the rhyme scheme. However, like any conventional sonnet, this poem is also composed in iambic pentameter. Along with that, there are some metrical variations in this poem. For example, the first line of the sonnet is in iambic tetrameter.
This sonnet, ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’ begins with an apostrophe. In the beginning, invoking his spirit, the poet says he is “the most unhappy of men!” The quoted phrase contains hyperbole. Thereafter, one can find the use of alliteration in the phrase, “deep dungeon’s”. Here, the poet uses the repetition of the hard “d’ sound for creating an internal rhythm. Along with that, the line “Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den” contains a personification. In the following line, the poet asks a rhetorical question. Moreover, the poet uses synecdoche in the “a cheerful brow.” Here, “cheerful” is a transferred epithet. Thereafter, “common wind” is a metaphor for humankind and the last line contains a polysyndeton.
Toussaint – the most unhappy of men! –
Whether the rural milkmaid by her cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
The first four lines of ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’ sets the tone and mood. In the first line, the poet says Toussaint is the most unhappy of humankind. The reason is that before Toussaint’s death he was imprisoned by the French colonists. So, the last few days of his life were full of misery and suffering. Thereafter, the poet asks him whether he can hear the song of the rural milkmaid. Here, the poet paints a beautiful pastoral scene consisting of a milkmaid tending her cows.
However, the poet makes it clear that he is no more. His mundane body lies deep in some dungeon. The place is so marooned that none residing there can hear the rhythm of life. Moreover, the “dungeon’s earless den” contains a personification.
Oh miserable Chieftain, where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not! Do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow;
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
In the last part of the octave, the poet refers to L’Ouverture as the “miserable Chieftain.” The poet thinks his soul can never find patience as the custom of slavery still exists. However, the poet quickly changes the mood of the poem by saying “Yet die not!” Here, the poet implicitly says that his contribution to the anti-slavery revolution cannot be forgotten. However, the poet is not sure whether his soul rests cheerfully or not. In the last line of this section, the poet uses an enjambment. Hence, one has to go through the first line of the next section to understand the meaning of the line.
Live, and take comfort! Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee – air, earth, and skies –
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee! Thou hast great allies:
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
Though Toussaint has fallen never to rise again, he will never die. In the last section of ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’, the poet says he will live forever. He has left behind the natural powers that work for him. Being a part of nature, he lives in the air, earth, and skies. Moreover, the “common wind” that humankind breathes, contains his essence. As long as nature exists, his existence will never be lost. Lastly, the poet says he has great allies. His friends are “exultations”. The pain he has suffered is his friend. Besides, the love of mankind and his “unconquerable mind” is always with him. Hence, the hero will live forever in the hearts of men.
Wordsworth’s poem, ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’ is dedicated to the former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. He was an influential leader in the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to 1804. Moreover, he led the anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection by self-liberated slaves against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue. It is now a sovereign nation of Haiti. However, L’Ouverture was imprisoned by the French and died in captivity shortly after Wordsworth wrote this poem. He penned down this piece in January 1803 and L’Ouverture died on 7 April 1803 at Fort-de-Joux in Doubs. Moreover, the opening phrase of this poem, “the most unhappy of men” appears in Louverture’s memoir written during his imprisonment.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly talk about the major themes of Wordsworth’s ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’.
- Checking Out Me History by John Agard – In this poem, John Agard also talks about Toussaint L’Ouverture who was a great source of concern for slavers and a source of hope for the slaves.
- Parsley by Rita Dove – This poem deals with the mass murder of thousands of men in the Dominican Republic in 1937. This poem taps on the themes of grief and violence.
- The Slave’s Lament by Robert Burns – This poem presents a Senegalese slave’s lamentation after being captured and deported to Virginia.
- Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V by Robert Southey – In this poem, Southey anticipates how the slaves would revolt against the brutish men who were responsible for the degradation of their lives.