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4 - Present Valor and the Trauma of Slavery: James Russell Lowell and Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2024

Brian Yothers
Affiliation:
St Louis University, Missouri
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Summary

James Russell Lowell and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were among the most respected poets in the English-speaking world in the nineteenth century. Lowell's reputation has not proved as enduring as Barrett Browning’s, but they are united by a moral fervor regarding slavery that extended to their writing several of their most substantial poems on the subject virtually on their respective honeymoons. in this chapter I consider how two of the most important arbiters of literary taste on opposite sides of the Atlantic were shaped in their own poetic production by debates over slavery and freedom, including a discussion of the transatlantic publication history of Barrett Browning's “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point.” If Lowell offered a stirring call to moral clarity in response to the crisis presented by slavery and the looming invasion of Mexico, Barrett Browning offered a rebuke to any attempt to believe that slavery was a peripheral part of the identity of the antebellum American republic. Both poets were deeply engaged by the question of how history could be made to speak to the present moment. Although we have seen intimations of this tendency in Whittier's engagement with Puritan and Quaker history, there is a special degree of self-consciousness about the relationship between present and past moral struggles in the work of Lowell and Barrett Browning. Even the publication history of these poems shows how closely they are linked. As Anthony H. Harrison has pointed out, it was Lowell, along with editor Maria Weston Chapman, who commissioned Barrett Browning's most famous antislavery poem for the Liberty Bell, and so the poem's obsessive interrogation of the past is connected to Lowell through its publication history as well as through its themes. Harrison also notes that Barrett Browning was haunted by the fact that she was descended from slave-owners in Jamaica, and so she found the history of slavery in the Americas to have profound personal resonances (Harrison, 53). Lowell and Barrett Browning thus both understand the moral crisis of slavery as being related to the long history of settlement in the Americas and of slavery in the Anglophone world beyond the United States, and these poems are thematically and formally as well as circumstantially part of an ongoing conversation about the implications of the past for understanding the present in the Americas.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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