W.H. Auden famously wrote once that ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’ I happen to disagree. Many dramatic or even gradual changes in our society throughout history have happened because of people. People who were filled with the conviction that something needed to change. And some of those individuals read poetry, or a novel, or watched a play.
If poetry has something to say about the injustice that tears at our social fabric, then perhaps it has the power to change it too?
Before slavery could be abolished in the British Empire in 1833, abolitionists like the politician William Wilberforce (1759-1833) needed to challenge the mindsets that permeated their generation. Before change of legislation could be brought through in Parliament, a change of heart needed to happen in the culture. The abolitionists worked tirelessly to convince the British public of the evils of the slave trade, and to encourage them to petition Parliament and join the anti-slave trade movement. One of the ways that abolitionists did this was through creativity. Hannah Moore (1745–1833) was a British playwright, abolitionist, and philanthropist, and a friend of William Wilberforce and other abolitionists in a group of evangelical Christians known as the Clapham Sect, which opposed slavery. She began writing and editing religious tracts—collections of ballads, moral stories, and readings. She composed “Slavery, a Poem” (1788) when William Wilberforce was campaigning for abolition in Parliament.
You can read the full poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51885/slavery but I would like to pick out a couple of key moments where More offers a compelling appeal to the dignity and worth of those oppressed by slavery, a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of 18th century British thinking and values, and heartrending images which remain relevant to the slave trade today.
More starts off by questioning:
“If Heaven has into being deigned to call
Thy light, O Liberty! to shine on all;
Bright intellectual Sun! why does thy ray
To earth distribute only partial day?…
While Britain basks in thy full blaze of light,
Why lies sad Africa quenched in total night?”
Moore exposes the hypocrisy of a Britain which rejoices in liberty and freedom, yet denies such rights to those it enslaves. The problem is not the universal reach of liberty, but rather those who keep liberty from Africans, whom they subject to slavery. She continually questions how the presence of reason, dignity and worth, found in the white man, is not equally recognised in the African:
“What! does the immortal principle within
Change with the casual colour of a skin?
Does matter govern spirit? or is mind
Degraded by the form to which it’s joined?
No: they have heads to think, and hearts to feel..”
Moore moves from intellectual reasoning regarding the shared nature and worth of all humankind to an emotional plea for readers to imagine the slaves being taken from their homes to be sold and sent away:
“See the dire victim torn from social life,
See the sacred infant, hear the shrieking wife!
She, wretch forlorn! is dragged by hostile hands,
To distant tyrants sold, in distant lands:
Transmitted miseries, and successive chains,
The sole sad heritage her child obtains.
Insulted Reason loathes the inverted trade —
Loathes, as she views the human purchase made;
The outraged Goddess, with abhorrent eyes,
Sees Man the traffic, souls the merchandise!”
These words still ring true today. They call to mind the realities of the ever-growing slave trade; the goods that are trafficked are humans, and the traffickers who therefore become merchants of souls. Individuals are kidnapped from their home countries and taken to far off lands to work for ‘tyrants’, whether they be pimps or factory owners. Much like the original readers of this poem, we do not often witness individuals being stolen from homes and sold into slavery first-hand, and neither do we expect to. But through this poem we can imagine the trauma of those who are trafficked from other nations to be prostitutes on the streets of London. We can imagine those children who are kidnapped and forced into labour.
Today, poetry continues to ‘make things happen’. One of the charities which Treated Right supports called ‘Beyond the Streets’ runs a project which enables women caught in the sex trade to articulate and process some of their trauma. You can read some of their pieces here: http://www.gatheredvoices.com/entries/poems/.
Perhaps, like Hannah Moore, you too can use your creativity to raise awareness about trafficking. The following poem is my personal attempt to say something about modern day sex trafficking.
Lights, shining intermittently down the dark alley
Shining into hidden spaces, shadows escaping
Clinging onto their captives, who take care
Not to be seen, not to be heard
By critical eye and ear
Light, shining from headlamps of jet-black cars
Like the souls of those within, one might say
The captive and captor are alike and the same
But who’s to say?
One comes out on top, in more ways than one,
And this is not a pun, to be laughed at,
But rather to make you think, who’s on top?
And how did he get there, and more
Importantly, how did she?
But we don’t ask, we never do
We simply roll our eyes, or avert,
Or stare, or think, “Wow, she’s hot”
Or “Wow, she’s not”
So, we back away or take our place
Take the place of the men who came before
Sharing our prize, our captive, thinking we saw
Love in those eyes, when really all we saw was
A girl, looking for a dad who never came.
So, she is now passed around, without a sound,
At least in between, cause it’s a safe bet
Her cries will pierce the night, but no one
Will hear, will see that light
That cries out, I want to be seen
Can you see beyond these eyes?
That have been taught to lure, to lust,
But are silently crying out for a cure, just one person to trust
Written by Matt Lewis