Paul Cheshire reads

Amazing Grace: an Anthology of Poems about Slavery 1660-1810

Edited by James G. Basker, (Newhaven & London: Yale University Press, 2002.)


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp 77-79)



This anthology may be of interest to Coleridgeans because it includes a newly commissioned verse translation of STC’s Greek ode on the slave trade.  Before homing in on Coleridge, a few words on the collection as a whole.  The title presents the comprehensiveness of this anthology better than the big-name scholar’s dust jacket endorsement of it as a “collection of antislavery sentiment”.  In fact the poems show attitudes to slavery that span the full range between opposition, complacency, oblivion and outright defence. The collection actually starts with two seventeenth century poems that don’t deal with slavery at all.  In ‘A Blackamore Maid to a Fair Boy’ and ‘The Boy’s Answer’, Henry King’s metaphysical wit turns on racial difference.  Next, Dryden is excerpted to show how he used the transatlantic slave trade “primarily as food for wit and beau monde satire”.  As the chronologically arranged anthology unfolds over the next 150 years, we move on from this seventeenth century oblivion and witness the awakening of a culture’s conscience; the anti-slavery polemic appears, the defence of slavery gets shriller and, movingly, the victims’ voices emerge as they get marginal admission to the culture.

       The anthology’s contents have been chosen for their thematic relevance rather than poetical merit, and this scrapbook approach gives the book a documentary authority that one does not normally associate with verse collections. Thus we hear everyone from the canonical Cowper to the artistically unambitious James Hammond, a free black man opening a restaurant in Virginia in 1805, who placed in a local newspaper a rhyming advertisement asking for tolerance and custom from the slave society surrounding him:


He hopes the color of his face

Will his calling never disgrace,

But that his conduct and attention

Will be a means to gain him custom.


       Editorially the anthology is excellent; the headnotes and footnotes are generous and a special point has been made to include many of the authors’ own footnotes.  My only reservation, especially given that many of the pieces are extracts, is the use of ellipses.  Without square editorial brackets or other clear indications of editorial intervention (the Norton use of three asterisks is a




good example of how to do this well), shortening of authors’ texts is not well marked.  Consider this stanza from Southey’s “The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave-Trade”:


She shriek’d, she groan’d,..I could not spare,

For the Captain he stood by;…

Dear God! that I might rest one night

From that poor creature’s cry!


       I have not looked up the original and thus have no way of knowing whether Basker has joined three stanzas into one with ellipses as splice-marks halfway through line one and at the end of line 2, or whether either of these ellipses are Southey’s own.  Even the number of points has not been kept to the standard three.  On the other hand, good documentation of the original sources is provided for those with more specialised interest, and the low profiling of editorial intervention signals the prioritisation of readability. Generally speaking, care has been taken to preserve the spelling and punctuation of the original text.

       So, how does Coleridge’s voice fare in this context?  His Greek ode, ‘The Wretched Lot of the Slaves in the Islands of West India’, has been newly translated by Stephen Marsh, a classicist.  Written when he was 19, for a prize at Cambridge, Coleridge’s Greek has been both disparaged (by himself as well as others) and defended, and a translation of this anachronistic academic exercise will inevitably sound a bit clunky.  Jim Mays’ Collected Coleridge edition opted for the Loeb Classics style of literal prose translation, whereas Marsh’s verse translation has replicated the stanza structure of the original and, in a nice period touch, introduced small capitals for personifications such as DEATH and HUNGER.  The language used is also attuned to the period without being ungainly.  Oddly, it is the translation itself that falls short.  The third stanza, addressing DEATH, is meant to be describing the West Indian slaves’ longing to return to Africa, their native land.  It is translated by Marsh as:


I would take wing with thee to fly

Through rugged Ocean’s massy swell,

To seats beloved of pleasure rare,

Where I was born.


       It goes completely against the sense of the poem for the poet to claim birth in Africa and wish to return to his homeland there.  Coleridge’s own prose translation puts both verbs in the third person plural: “they [the slaves] fly to the loved seats of joys”; “they return […] to their native country”.  The Greek seems unambiguously third person plural to my stumbling half-knowledge, so there seems no justification either in sense, authorial intention or language for this change to the first person.  The translation has also been over-literal in this stanza: flying “through rugged Ocean’s massy swell” may be an exact translation of




dia (dia) which does indeed mean “through”, but it makes bad use of the wings that Coleridge has thoughtfully provided, and the poet’s own translation of dia as “across” is clear evidence that he wanted the poor slaves to make their transatlantic return-crossing at a reasonable altitude.  If he had intended otherwise, he would surely have given them surfboards.

       Elsewhere, in the sixth stanza where Marsh’s translation differs from Mays in opting for the first person plural rather than singular, Coleridge’s Greek does allow a choice: his Greek has first persons plural in possession of a singular heart. This is either a peculiarity of Aeolic Greek idiom, or an early Coleridgean vision of the deep oneness of humanity.

       This new version of Coleridge’s poem, then, is hardly the jewel in the crown of an otherwise excellent anthology.  Many other Romantics are represented here.  The prolific Robert Southey has extracts from nine poems including the Ancient Mariner based poem I quoted from earlier, and I will end with one oddity from Mary and Charles Lamb (to adopt Basker’s re-ordering of gender precedence), which epitomises the anthology’s strength.  The Lambs’ “Choosing a Profession” is a poem (for children!) about a black boy who has been sent to England from the West Indies to be educated at a Prep School prior to going to Westminster.  No explanation for his financial backing has been given, but this education means that he is being fitted out by a sponsor (natural father?) for a place in Society.  The boy’s kindly schoolmistress tries in vain to find out “to what profession he was most inclin’d”, and the boy is perplexed by her questioning until at last he sees a gang of soot-blackened “chimney-sweeping boys” in the street and realises he has found where he belongs.  I think this is supposed to be funny—any intended irony would surely be lost on children.  This is just the kind of poem that the anthology is brave to include.  There are many such poems that leave the reader uneasy about racial attitudes let slip by otherwise presumably decent people.  People like us, in fact.


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