Historical world of female romantics

The Romantic era saw prominent, successful women poets emerge. Hannah More and Mary Robinson were amongst these elite who dared to venture into politically engaged verse, even though these were considered masculine topics. In Slavery (1788), the evangelical More conveys strong emotion associated with female romantics to emphasize the inhumane treatment of African slaves. She channels her feelings with a powerful female abolitionist voice and sentimental argument to arouse public feeling and manipulate events in the Legislative sphere. Since she was passionate advocate of the anti slavery campaign, it can be argued that a theme of romantic irony pervades the poem to expose the brutality of the Slave Trade. Conversely, Robinson reflects her historical period with more vigour; creating a sublime urban spectacle in A London Summer Morning (1794). She realistically portrays the hustle and bustle of a street in the overcrowded metropolis of London, as the Industrial Revolution was gaining force. Nevertheless like More, she also captures the frightening realm and "inharmonious nature"[1] of her historical world.

Written within two weeks to aid Wilbermore's parliamentary campaign for abolition of the Slave Trade, More's Slavery is powerfully moving and depicts an inharmonious nature. The portrayal of the slave raid, 'the burning village', 'the shrieking babe, the agonizing wife'[2] is visually frightening. The burning village create an unnaturally menacing landscape and becomes an effective backdrop to correspond with the suffering of blacks. This makes the reader feel disconcerted as well as sympathise with their "anguish and substantial woe" (54). She reflects the vindictiveness of the Slave Trade by offering a graphically realistic description of the objectionable treatment of slaves. She makes it powerfully touching when these discontented slaves are subsequently sold to "distant tyrants, in distant lands!" (102). Her mention of tyrant alludes to the rich aristocrats of a corrupt political system, who imported slaves due to financial gain. The alliteration and repetition of the word "distant" symbolises how African families were cruelly distanced from one another in More's world. The explanation mark heightens her strong abolitionist voice and illustrates her deep concern for the welfare of slaves.

Robinson also refrains from using picturesque securities of nature in most parts of London's Summer Morning, but unlike More, she expresses a more vibrant, pulsating atmosphere through the diverse overlapping sounds: "The din of hackney-coaches, wagons, carts; While tinmen's shops, and noise trunk-makers, knife-grinders, coopers, squeaking cork cutters, Fruit-barrows...fill the air."[3] This energetic rhythm generates an upbeat mood as well as inviting the reader to engage their senses with the noisy commerce and unavoidable diversity of "busy sounds" (1). There is no structure of harmony or romanticised natural tranquillity and in typical fashion, Robinson details her complete attention to the "crowded and cacophonous plurality of city life."[4] By describing an array of different workers in rapid succession, More is reflecting a time when London had a multiplicity of trades and crafts due to the dawning of the Industrial Revolution; a period which saw "over three quarters of England's population moving to London in hope for better wages and living standards."[5]

Therefore Robinson paints a daunting world to reflect this increase in population and industry. The skies in London's Summer Morning are "lost in clouds Imperious" (9) These thick clouds of dust painted a dim, suffocating atmosphere since "chimneys, bridges and factory smoke blocked out most of the light"[6] in London town during the Industrial Revolution. Her lack of picturesque securities is rather unorthodox in comparison to her fellow Romantics who commonly described London with pictorial beauty. For example, whilst describing Westminster Bridge, William Wordsworth preferred to articulate "The beauty of the morning; silent bare,"[7] unlike Robinson who signifies the breakdown of rural communities and country life by representing the loud, hectic city life, where nature is surrounded by industry. Since Robinson absorbs the precarious scenery into the cheerful tone of the poem, the end result can be seen as a "sublime" atmosphere, giving the poet a sense of rush and delightful terror.

Similarly, More largely abstains from acknowledging the beauty of the universe. In opposition, it can be argued that she applies romantic irony to reflect her world with a dark, chaotic vision, whilst carrying out satirical attacks on Britain's political corruption in Slavery. The narrator asks the reader to contemplate the contradictory worlds of Britain and Africa which are unjust for the latter: "While Britain basks in thy full blaze of light / Why lies sad Afric quenched in total night" (17-18). By using a hyperbole to highlight the dark world in Africa, she is attacking Britain's oppressive systems for causing this. More further increases the critique of her nation's politics by exposing Britain's double standards: "Shall Britain, where the soul of Freedom reigns, / Forge chains for others she herself disdains? / Forbid it, Heaven" (251-253). She mocks Britain by stressing the absurdity that Britain, the freest state on earth, is also the primary slave-trading country. "By 1755 British ships carried nearly sixty thousand slaves a year across the Atlantic," and this substantial increase formed her worries. She subsequently uses rhetoric sentiment and romantic irony to underline her indignation at the British colonies. Such sentiment can also be comprehended as British complacency. It can be disputed that More made the anti slavery discourse necessarily secure, with the slaves suitably distanced from the British poor, whose melancholy could be securely disregarded.

On the other hand Robinson's use of an unnatural, harmful landscape is reflective of the extreme difficulties urbanisation left for the British poor; most notably the adolescent chimney sweepers: On pavement hot / The sooty chimney-boy, with dingy face / And tattered covering, shrilly bawls his trade" (4-5). The hot pavement creates a precarious landscape and highlights the extreme pressure and danger of the child's work environment. She is reflecting the harsh reality where "young chimney sweepers lived in squalor conditions and slept in cellars on bags of soot."[8] By stating that the pavement is hot, the chimney boy is sooty, and his face dingy creates an adjectival sequence of definitions to accrue a descriptive force which ties in with the vibrant rhythm of the blank verse as well as painfully highlighting the child's polluted work environment. However, she abstains to offer intrusive moral judgement on his harsh exploitation which maintains the poem's energetic tone.

On the contrary, More emotionally highlights the harsh exploitation of slaves with intrusive moral judgement and strong sentimental argument in Slavery. Through sentimental argument, she tries to broaden the understanding of man, contending that everyone is equal because all feel the same feelings and physical emotions: "In every nature every clime the same, / In all, these feelings equal sway maintain" (118-119). She is casting moral judgement and mocking the supporters of slavery who held the "cruel and stupid argument, that they [Africans] do not feel the miseries inflicted upon them as Europeans would do" (More's note). Evangelicals like More could not accept this view of the time where many Christians accepted these theories of racial inferiority and notions that black people were biologically different. Through emotion she casts religious judgement on the corrupt Church of England of her historical world as they went against the bible by failing to see black individuals as the common man. She poses the question: What! Does th' immortal principle within / Change with the casual colour of skin" (64-63). Being a devout Christian, she takes Christianity to its extent by demonstrating that every one is equally made in the image of God. Emotion was seen as a characteristic of the female romantics, and More executes it effectively to raise concern on the Slave Trade's morality. By focusing on issues of morality and equality rather than elevated language concerning "self creation or self positioning," she brings the text to the reader, and in doing so, forms a connection that increased readership amongst the middle classes.

In A London Summer Morning, Robinson abstains from expressing sentimental emotion or argument and preoccupies herself with creating an eventful urban spectacle; reflecting the industrious activity of her historical world with meticulous attentiveness. Robinson achieves this attention to detail by focusing on the claustrophobic feeling created by a tightly packed street of people, all looking at one another: "...while the passenger / Peeps through the window. Watching ev'ry charm. Now pastry dainties catch the eyes minute / Of Hummy insects. While the slimy snare / Waits to enthral them" (25-29). The multiplicity of eyes captures the congested atmosphere of Robinson's world. The scenery becomes a "Foucauldian realm"[9] where everyone is subject to the focus of another's gaze, as Robinson shifts from the world outside to the surroundings within the window. Robinson reflects her changing world with a powerful imagination and exactness, inviting the reader to use their oral senses to picture the people's gazes.

The overwhelming feeling of people closely observing each other also mirrors Robinson's own historical world. Robinson herself was a public spectacle, whom people gazed at since she was formerly a popular actress and mistress of the Prince of Wales. Conceivably the many eyes in the poem could be a reflection of her life where she was constantly under public observation. She echoes this view in the Memoirs of Mary Robinson by writing how she "...was gazed at and examined with the most inquisitive curiosity."[10] Thus the "slimy snare" (28) in London's Summer Morning could be symptomatic of her own experiences where she was incessantly hemmed in by hordes of onlookers in the metropolis of London.

Furthermore, Robinson's portrayal of women in A London Summer Morning reflects the rigid gender hierarchy in her historical world. The females in the poem are principally confined within the domestic sphere: "The ruddy housemaid twirls the busy mop" (18). Robinson is reflecting the position of women, who were predominantly "restricted to their homes for domestic housekeeping."[11] Their only other alternative was to work long hours for male factory owners who employed them for lower wages. This reflects the inferior social position women held in the 18th century, as men occupied most of the superior professions. The busy "housemaid" accentuates the entrapment of women in a stringent patriarchal world. Mary Wollstonecraft describes women's position as similar to an African slave; explaining how the majority of "...women were the most oppressed half of the species."[12] Also Robinson's use of an ambiguous narrator reflects the difficulties the poem could have created if she had portrayed a female narrator wandering the streets. This is because "women could not stroll alone in the city"[13] as this was more or less unthinkable at that time, especially for the respectable. The same white male patriarchy which restricted women is dually accountable for the Slave Trade's existence.

According to More's descriptions the existence of the Slave Trade seems painfully everlasting; however, towards the end of Slavery, More eventually paints a world free from slavery by expressing a romanticised atmosphere of free spirit. She expresses her vision of slavery's abolition by depicting a blissful world where blacks are liberated: Nature wears a joyous air / The giant dies, no more his frown appeals... / 'Oppression's fall'n, and Slavery is no more" (280-290). She personifies Britain as a monstrous giant, exerting control over Africa, but gives the poem a hopeful message by painting a world where Britain stops enslaving Africans. The comma after "fall'n" creates feminine caesura to heighten the following statement of slavery's abolishment and the "joyous air" becomes a metaphor for Romantic freedom; giving the poem a much needed inspirational climax. This emotional poetic appeal to eradicate slavery reflects the universal vision of people who shared her opinion at the time.

Overall both poems are symbolic of the vulnerability of marginalised people in society. More effectively uses critique as a literary form to reflect Britain's corrupt political agenda; highlighting Britain's exploitation of African people. Her resolute abolitionist argument reflects her loyalty to the anti slavery campaign and evangelical agenda for the transformation of society. Moreover, beneath Robinson's energetic, cheery rhythm and vibrant atmosphere, lies a suffocated, frightful world which bought extreme hardship for the underprivileged labourers during the Industrial Revolution. As Robinson lived the majority of her life in the city spotlight, she was fully aware of the poor and hence reflects their dire position, even in the midst of creating a sublime urban phenomenon. Both of these well established female romantics capture their historical and political worlds with stark realism.


Primary Texts

  • More, Hannah. "Slavery: A Poem." In Romanticism an Anthology, 3rd ed., edited by Duncan Wu, 66-73. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006.
  • Nurmi, Martin. "Fact and Symbol in 'The Chimney Sweeper' of Blake's Songs of Innocence": Critical essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966.
  • Robinson, Mary. "A London Summer Morning." In Romanticism an Anthology, 3rd ed., edited by Duncan Wu, 66-73. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006.
  • Robinson, Mary. "Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson." In British Literature 1780-1830, 1st ed., edited by Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak. London: Heinle, 2005.
  • Wordsworth, William. "Westminster Bridge." In Romanticism an Anthology, 3rd ed., edited by Duncan Wu, 66-73. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006.

Secondary Texts

  • Bygrave, Stephen. Romantic Writings. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • King, Neil. The Romantics: English Literature in its Historical, Cultural, and Social Contexts. New York: Evans Brothers Ltd, 2003.
  • Mellor, Anne. Romanticism and Gender. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • Racevskis, Karlis. "Post Foucaldian Strategies." Poetics Today, vol. 12, no. 2 (summer 1991), 347-362.
  • Saul, Jennifer. Feminism: Issues and Arguments. London: OUP Oxford, 2003.
  1. Anne Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (New York: Routledge, 1993), 72.
  2. Hannah More, "Slavery: A Poem," in Romanticism an Anthology, 3rd ed., ed. Duncan Wu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006), 68.
  3. Mary Robinson, "A London Summer Morning" in Romanticism an Anthology, 3rd ed., ed. Duncan Wu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006), 249.
  4. Stephen Bygrave, Romantic Writings (London: Routledge, 1996), 188.
  5. Neil King, The Romantics: English Literature in its Historical, Cultural, and Social Contexts (New York: Evans Brothers Ltd, 2003), 46.
  6. http://www.nettlesworth.durham.sch.uk/time/victorian/vindust.html (accessed October 31, 2009)
  7. William Wordsworth, "Westminster Bridge," in Romanticism an Anthology, 3rd ed., ed. Duncan Wu (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006), 535.
  8. Martin. K. Nurmi, "Fact and Symbol in 'The Chimney Sweeper' of Blake's Song of Innocence": Critical Essays (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1966), 21.
  9. Karlis Racevskis, "Post Foucaldian Strategies," Poetics Today, vol. 12, no. 2 (summer, 1991): 355.
  10. Mary Robinson, "Memoirs of the late Mrs Robinson," in British Literature 1780-1830, 1st ed., ed. Anne Mellor and Richard Matlak (London: Heinle, 2005), 644.
  11. Jennifer Saul, Feminism: Issues and Arguments (London: OUP Oxford, 2003), 186.
  12. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender, 171.
  13. King, Romantics: English Literature in its Historical, Cultural, and Social Contexts, 54.

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