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Whose voice is depicted in this poem? What is the significance of this choice of narrator?
The Negro’s Complaint” (1788) is a powerful poem, this poem is spoken by a fictional African slave who pronounces the unfairness of his condition. Cowper, then, as all of these works suggest, was a sensitive man: he felt his own pain and that of others, a condition that he eased, for a time, through his intense devotion to his life-force. Cowper uses the slave’s voice, to ask some hard questions of his generation, repeating the word me as the object of the slavers dreadful action. The voice nest notes that although his physical appearance differs from that of his captors, he remains their identical in the ability to feel emotion. The Negro’s Complaint by William Cowper, the narrator discusses obviously the main theme of the poem is: the effects of slavery, the treatment of blacks, and racism. The poet, William Cowper, was a white man who wrote the poem focusing on slavery by using a black speaker. Not only does the slave talk about when being brought from Africa but the effect that enslavement has on the individual. In the first stanza, the reader gets an idea of the poem.
The slave explains how they are forced from their homes in Africa and the effect that enslavement has on all the individual slaves as we see in lines 1 and 2; “Forc‟d from home and all its pleasures, Afric‟s coast I left forlorn;”
In lines 7 and 8 we see that although they have taken him from his home they will never be able to take away his mind implying that the slaves will always be able to go back to their homes in through their minds showing that they still owned a little bit of freedom; “But, though theirs they have enroll‟d me, “Minds are never to be sold.”
The narrator indicates that the poem shows how divine judgment has been casted upon the slave trade and how the love of money dehumanizes the slave traders. In the first stanza the narrator talks about how they were force from their homes in Africa and had to leave all that belongs to them behind. They felt like all their belongings were taken from them, to only be given to a complete stranger. The narrator said, “but though they have enroll’d me Minds are never to be sold.” He is saying they can physically take me from my homeland but they cannot keep my mind from going back to that place.
This poem is addressing the issue of slavery at the time. It was a very big issue and an issue that a lot of writers sought to address. Slavery was not something that people liked or agreed with. Therefore, this poem is relevant to the times and aids in the eventual abolition of slavery.
Identify the personification and metaphor in the third stanza and discuss their significance in the speaker’s argument against slavery.
The author uses personification as being illustrated in line 20, “Sweat of ours must dress the soil”. Cowper use personification to the “Black man’s’ ‘ sweat that dresses the soil” is the same that nourishes the ‘plant’ that the white man consumes. The slaves grows the plants through emotional pain, tears, heartache and his sweat as indicated in line 19 to 20. “Sighs must fan it, tears must water, “Sweat of ours must dress the soil.” The slaves risk his live in providing the slave owner with their profit turning the slave owner into a slave for money. The slave owners consume the body fluids of the people that they hate so much.
“Think, ye masters, iron-hearted”, (line 21)
William Cowper uses this metaphor at the slave owners to look at their actions and how this affects who they actually are as human beings and how these actions will affect the relationship between them and God and that God does not approve of what they are doing to the slaves for their own gain. William Cowper is comparing the heart of the slave owners with iron. This line 21 is posing a challenge for the slave owners to go and reflect on themselves, naturally the slave owners does not want to be “iron-hearted”, the slave owners want to be seen as good hearted as they are Christians. The metaphor is not literal, but a comparison between two things without using like or as.
How does the speaker use appeals to reason, logic and emotion to undermine slavery and the slave trade?
“The speaker reveals his superiority to his captors by concluding the opening stanza. “But, though theirs they have enroll’d me,/ Minds are never to be sold,” a common misperception, or simply an excuse used by slavers, was that slaves lacked the ability to reason, equating then with animals. The ability to think and reason equates to the slav;s independence, as stated in the second stanza.”
Still in thought as free as ever
What are England’s rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to server
Me to torture, me to ask?
Cowper uses the slave’s voice to ask some hard questions of his contemporaries, repeating the word me as the object of the slavers heinous action. The voice nest notes that although his physical appearance differs from that of his captors, he remains their equal in the ability to feel emotion. In this case the speaker uses questions, he requests that slave owners prove that they also have feelings because they undermine or they don’t care about the slave feelings. The importance is that during that time where slave trading was still legal, religion was very important to everyone. The slaves did not know religion and was taught about God and that by denying Him was the wrong thing to do by the slave owners. This makes the slave wonder and ask if there is really a God, if there is did God command that the slave people be chained up and be slaves and to be tortured as we look at lines 25 to 32.
Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there one who reigns on high?
Has he bid you buy and sell us?
Speaking from his throne the sky?
Ask him, if his knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means which duty urges
Agents of his will to use?”
The speaker makes it a point in stating that it was the slave owners who taught them about God in line 25 and 26 “Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
“Is there one who reigns on high?”
The African slave should be angry though instead he comes forth as calm and calculated by speaking from his heart appealing to the emotions of captors. The speaker also indicates to them that while the colour of the salves skin may differ, “affection dwells in white and black the same” lines 15 throughout 16. The slave is trying to reason with the owners of all slaves to bring in question their actions before the eyes of God. God would not allow the owners to steal the slaves away from their homes and families. This is making the slave owners reflect on themselves by looking at what they are doing to these human beings (the slaves), by making the owners of the slaves look at their own morality. When we ask questions, we react emotional, either having that picture of them suffering then we understand that slavery is not good and unacceptable.
The poem establishes a link between racism, slavery and profit. Discuss the ways in which these links are explored in the poem. Racism, Slavery and Profit
The socioeconomic issue in this poem is slavery. and Cowper wrote this poem in support of the abolition of the trade in slaves.
Forced from Home and all its pleasures
Afric’s coast I left forlorn,
To encrease a stranger’s treasures
O’er the raging billows borne;
Men from England bought and sold me,5
Pay’d my price in paltry gold,
But through slave they have enroll’d me
Minds are never to be sold.
In my opinion, this reflects the social issues of racism throughout the world. But here it is between black and white. The white English men bought the slaves with gold but cheap, and resell them in England. The slaves work very hard and did not have all the lucksheries that the white people, masters or landlords had. When you look at line 5 “Men from England bought and sold me,/ Pay’d my price in parltry gold,” only black people where used as slaves. “William Cowper’s poem ‘The Negro’s Complaint’ raises principled questions from an non logic prospective by showing the ridiculousness in enslaving a race of human-beings who share the same human abilities of both thought and emotion. This ethical questions rose in the poem about the equality of races are answered mainly on the basis of emotion, rather than wisdom. It is ridiculous to exclude people from their “people-ness” due to their skin colour.
The lines in particular (line 15) “Skins may differ, but affection/ Dwells in white and black the same.” reminded me of South Africa before 1994 in the concept of “affect”; it follows that “affection” or the capacity for change (both psychologically and physiologically) is the heredity and is closest thing we have to essence or eternal form. That is why it follows equal capacities means equal. There is no deviating substantial essence that can be identified to deviate from actual potentials. The slave FEELS pain and anguish in the same way that a white person would. Human FEELINGS are at the root of the argument. The poem demonstrates the same affections that black people face to that of any human-being by expressing the suffering that slavery imposes on them. I really liked the closing lines “Prove that you have human feelings/ Ere you proudly question ours!”. The prospective that the poet used was effective in exalting his argument in critique of the unmoral society. Cowper refer here that both black and white are people that has being made by God.
That black and white people looks the same, there is just a colour difference. The Negro begins his pathetic complaint by a logical discussion of the basic pillar of slave trade, namely, financial benefits. He wonders how he could be bereaved of all the pleasures of his homeland in Africa, brutally carried to England, deprived of his freedom, bought and sold, tortured and forced to hard work only to increase the slave traders’ profits. Profit is being made out of the slaves, they bought the slaves for just a view gold pieces (line 6) “ Pay’d my price in paltry gold,” and they worked hard on the cane lands, forest and farms. All the profit that has being made on the farms did go to the Master/ landlord. “Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings” After all the slave’s is net resold for a profit, when no longer use for them. The Negro is further allowed to defend the humanity of the African race, refute all the slave traders’ pretexts for racial discrimination, and finally, investigate the validity of the European domineering power over their fellow human beings.
What is the significance of the reference to gold in this poem? Compare the reference to gold in the first stanza (“paltry gold,” line 6) to its reference in the last stanza (“slaves of gold,” line 45), for instance.
Gold and the reference to gold can be seen as a powerful point of reference and link to the world that is pulled through the poem from the beginning to the end. This is done primarily to give context to the target audience of the poem at the time it was written, which was to more affluent and educated Westernised people, i.e. the British and American populations. At the start of the poem, gold is seen by the narrator with an emotional of disgust – how do the people, the British dare to compare his worth as an African man to a mere couple of pieces of gold – “paltry gold”. Although gold is seen in the eyes of the trading world as a very precious and valuable commodity, that view is not shared by the narrator, the slave.
Their lives are sold, their humanity is sold, their worth determined by an outsider and measured in gold (the tradable commodity). Towards the end of the poem, the narrator states that his life is worth much more than gold – “slaves of gold”. The narrator and other slaves survived the brutality and humiliation that they were subjected to, to now stand-up and be recognised – “nation of brutes no longer”. Through their broken hearts and suffering they were tempered to become better than gold, gold the world measure of value and worth. At the end the slaves humanity is restored and now the narrator feels personal self-worth. Self-worth to the level of making a positive comparison of himself and slaves in general, to the precious and valuable commodity of gold.
Lesson 7.2 – Human Suffering, William Cowper. Continuing & Distance Education, St Francis Xavier University – 2012 Baird, John D., and Charles Ryskamp, eds. The Poems of William Cowper. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper.
H. S. Milford, ed.
London: Henry Frowde, 1905. 371-2.
Written Feb. (?), 1788. Published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, Dec., 1793; afterwards in 1800.]