Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade

Cease, Wilberforce, to urge thy generous aim!

Thy Country knows the sin, and stands the shame!

The Preacher, Poet, Senator, in vain

Has rattled in her sight the Negro’s chain;

With his deep groans assail’d her startled ear,

And rent the veil that hid his constant tear;

Forc’d her averted eyes his stripes to scan,

Beneath the bloody scourge laid bare the man,

Claim’d Pity’s tear, urged Conscience’ strong controul

And flash’d conviction on her shrinking soul.

The Muse, too soon awaked, with ready tongue

At Mercy’s shrine applausive peans rung;

And Freedom’s eager sons, in vain foretold

A new Astrean reign, an age of gold:

She knows and she persists – Still Afric bleeds,

Unchecked, the human traffic still proceeds;

She stamps her infamy to future time,

And on her hardened forehead seals the crime.

In vain, to thy white standard gathering round,

Wit, Worth, and Parts and Eloquence are found:

In vain, to push to birth thy great design,

Contending chiefs, and hostile virtues join;

All, from conflicting ranks, of power possest

To rouse, to melt, or to inform the breast.

Where seasoned tools of Avarice prevail,

A Nation’s eloquence, combined, must fail:

Each flimsy sophistry by turns they try;

The plausive argument the daring lye,

The artful gloss, that moral sense confounds,

Th’ acknowledged thirst of gain that honour wounds:

Bane of ingenuous minds! th’ unfeeling sneer,

Which, sudden, turns to stone the falling tear:

They search assiduous, with inverted skill,

For forms of wrong, and precedents of ill;

With impious mockery wrest the sacred page,

And glean up crimes from each remoter age:

Wrung Nature’s tortures, shuddering, while you tell,

From scoffing fiends bursts forth the laugh of hell;

In Britain’s senate, Misery’s pangs give birth

To jests unseemly, and to horrid mirth –

Forbear!—thy virtues but provoke our doom,

And swell th’ account of vengeance yet to come;

For, not unmarked in Heaven’s impartial plan,

Shall man, proud worm, contemn his fellow-man?

And injured Afric, by herself redrest,

Darts her own serpents at her Tyrant’s breast.

Each vice, to minds depraved by bondage known,

With sure contagion fastens on his own;

In sickly languors melts his nerveless frame,

And blows to rage impetuous Passion’s flame:

Fermenting swift, the fiery venom gains

The milky innocence of infant veins;

There swells the stubborn will, damps learning’s fire,

The whirlwind wakes of uncontrouled desire,

Sears the young heart to images of wo,

And blasts the buds of Virtue as they blow.

Lo! Where reclined, pale Beauty courts the breeze,

Diffused on sofas of voluptuous ease;

With anxious awe, her menial train around,

Catch her faint whispers of half-utter’d sound;

See her, in monstrous fellowship, unite

At once the Scythian, and the Sybarite;

Blending repugnant vices, misally’d,

Which frugal nature purposed to divide;

See her, with indolence to fierceness join’d,

Of body delicate infirm of mind,

With languid tones imperious mandates urge;

With arm recumbent wield the household scourge;

And with unruffled mien, and placid sounds,

Contriving torture, and inflicting wounds.

Nor, in their palmy walks and spicy groves,

The form benign of rural Pleasure roves;

No milk-maids’ song, or hum of village talk,

Sooths the lone poet in his evening walk:

No willing arm the flail unwearied plies,

Where the mixed sounds of cheerful labour rise;

No blooming maids, and frolic swains are seen

To pay gay homage to their harvest queen:

No heart-expanding scenes their eyes must prove

Of thriving industry, and faithful love:

But shrieks and yells disturb the balmy air,

Dumb sullen looks of wo announce despair,

And angry eyes thro’ dusky features glare.

Far from the sounding lash the Muses fly,

And sensual riot drowns each finer joy.

Nor less from the gay East, on essenced wings,

Breathing unnamed perfumes, Contagion springs;

The soft luxurious plague alike pervades

The marble palaces, and rural shades;

Hence throng’d Augusta builds her rosy bowers,

And decks in summer wreaths her smoky towers;

And hence, in summer bow’rs, Art’s costly hand

Pours courtly splendours o’er the dazzled land:

The manners melt – One undistinguish’d blaze

O’erwhelms the sober pomp of elder days;

Corruption follows with gigantic stride,

And scarce vouchsafes his shameless front to hide

The spreading leprosy taints ev’ry part,

Insects each limb, and sicks at the heart.

Simplicity! most dear of rural maids,

Weeping resigns her violated shades:

Stern Independence from his glebe retires,

And anxious Freedom eyes her drooping fires;

By foreign wealth are British morals chang’d,

And Afric’s sons, and India’s, smile avenged.

For you, whose temper’d ardour long has borne

Untired the labour, and unmoved the scorn;

In Virtue’s fasti be inscribed your fame,

And uttered yours with Howard’s honour’d name,

Friends of the friendless – Hail, ye generous band!

Whose efforts yet arrest Heaven’s lifted hand,

Around whose steady brows, in union bright,

The civic wreath, and Christian’s palm unite:

Your merit stands, no greater and no less,

Without, or with the varnish of success;

But seek no more to break a Nation’s fall,

For ye have sav’d yourselves – and that is all.

Succeeding times your struggles, and, their fate

With mingled shame and triumph shall relate,

While faithful History, in her various page,

Marking the features of this motley age,

To shed a glory, and to fix a strove in vain.

Tells how you strove, and that you stain,

Tells how you strove, and that you strove in vain.

Text: Poems by Anna Laetitia Barbauld. New Ed. (London: Printed for Joseph Johnson, St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1792), pp. 145-52.