The Sexualised Female Body Counterposed with the Dominant Visual Discourses of Oppression in the Nineteenth Century

Jerome Wynter is a third-year PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the representation of the Other in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s political poems from her juvenilia to the mature works (1822- 1860), examining her use of oppression as a metaphor for slavery and the Italian Risorgimento as both analogous to and coextensive with American antislavery. Jerome is also interested in exploring the relationship between prosody and antislavery verse. You can contact him at jsw349@bham.ac.uk.

‘After all my waiting I have no cayenne pepper to send you, – nothing except a piece of chocolate, tamarinds and shaddocks. Only one however of the ships has yet come in, and something more according to my hope may reach us by the David Lyon’.1

This rueful comment, with its unmistakable proprietary tone, was made by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806- 1861) in a letter dated 2 September 1843 to Mary Russell Mitford – one of the London literati with whom she carried on an epistolary relationship. The tamarinds and shaddocks referred to are fruits from the former British West Indian colonies where Barrett Browning’s father Edward Moulton Barrett (1785- 1857) owned slave plantations in his native Jamaica; and the David Lyon was a packet ship in which the poet held a one-eight share.2 Indeed, the poet’s family were among the landed English gentry whose life of luxury and privilege relied on the proceeds of slavery which did not end with the British Emancipation of the slaves or the Apprenticeship system on 1 August 1838.3 Still relying on slave-grown produce, the poet’s family engaged in and benefitted from the trade between the West Indies and England.

This striking fact is in tension with the sentiment Barrett Browning later expressed to an American correspondent, the poet James Russell Lowell, in a letter on 17 December 1846, ‘The great antislavery cause must always be dear to me […]. The poem I enclose to you […] perhaps you will think too bitterly and passionately for publication in your country’.4 This apparent dissonance between Barrett Browning’s life and her writing of a poem too bitter for the American antislavery cause was a characteristic ambivalence that dogged her identification as a self-proclaimed ‘abolitionist’.5 The contradiction between practice and rhetoric notwithstanding, Barrett Browning produced some of the most ‘ferocious’ antislavery poems in the canon in mid-nineteenth-century Britain and America, two of which are briefly considered here: ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ (1847), the ‘poem’ alluded to in the letter to Lowell, and ‘Hiram Power’s Greek Slave’ (1850).

Barrett Browning was aware of the merger of slavery and sexuality in the female body, and the poems demonstrate her engagement with the sexualised trope as a site of resistance, creating a counter-narrative which critiques and subverts the dominant cultural discourses of slavery and liberty in the nineteenth century, enshrined in the visual discourses of the Landing of the Mayflower pilgrims in America and the marble statue of the American sculptor Hiram Powers (1805 – 1873).

In his narrative of the Landing, one of Barrett Browning’s contemporaries, the English painter Charles Lucy (1814- 1873), depicts the arrival of a band of ‘primitive puritans’ on the American coast of New England after fleeing oppression in England, in his painting Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (1847).6

Charles Lucy’s Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (1847)

Charles Lucy’s Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers (1847)

The scene portrays men, women, and children standing on a rock on the shores of Plymouth, Massachusetts, with their faces directed towards some unseen target. In the background on the right are the Mayflower, in which the pilgrims arrived. One man carries a farming tool, while another kneels in prayer of thankfulness. The women are attentive to the weak, and a man smiles lovingly into the face of a wearied or swooned woman he carries in his arms. As if their moral and religious imperatives were not clear, the painting also features an old patriarch with a staff, and a Christ-figure occupying centre-left of the painting with a weary or weeping woman who draws support from him by leaning on his shoulder. This sentimental scene is a picture of respectability and familial harmony, a scene which John Seelye observes in Memory’s Nation (1998) as full of ‘pious postures’.7 Lucy’s rendition of the Forefathers suggests they were morally devoted, innocent, God-fearing Christians and freedom-loving, traits which they ostensibly handed down to their descendants.

Barrett Browning dissents with this easy moral and religious interpretation of the Landing and its consequences in her balladic monologue. Published in the 1848 issue of The Liberty Bell, an annual gift-book sold at the Boston Antislavery Bazaar in America, ‘The Runaway Slave’ is a bitter poem of a rhetorical black female slave whose desperate acts of infanticide and rebellion against her white slave masters, who killed her lover and raped her, re-inscribe the narrative of America as a land of freedom, passed down to the progenitorial and cultural descendants of the Pilgrim fathers.8 Instead the slave woman’s monologue refigures the Landing as racially hegemonic and oppressive. At the opening, the slave woman tells the dead spirits of the Forefathers of her oppression, ‘O pilgrims, I have gasped and run | All night long from the whips of one | Who in your names works sin and woe’.9 The slave’s oppression in the land where the ancestors thanked God for liberty is an indictment of the Pilgrim fathers as well as a critique of the symbolism of the Landing. As a cultural heir of the Pilgrims, the slave shares none of the freedom that the Forefathers found in coming to America and bequeathed to their descendants.

Halfway through the monologue, the speaker relates to her interlocutors her racial oppression, sexual exploitation and the murder of her slave lover by the hands of the Pilgrims’ descendants:

We were black, we were black.

We had no claim to love and bliss,

What marvel if each went to wrack?

They wrung my cold hands out of his, –

They dragged him … where? .. I crawled to touch

His blood’s mark in the dust! .. not much,

Ye pilgrim-souls, .. though plain as this!

 

Wrong, followed by a deeper wrong!

Mere grief’s too good for such as I.

So the white men brought the shame ere long

To strangle the sob of my agony.

They would not leave me for my dull

Wet eyes! – it was too merciful

To let me weep pure tears and die.1

The rhythm of the lines is halting, burdened by the accumulation of harsh consonant sounds and the unbearable weight of the memory of the events the slave describes – the murder and then the rape. The anaphora of line one also reinforces the slaves’ unrelenting and inexorable racial oppression. The rhyme which the verb ‘wrung’ in the first stanza forms with the noun ‘wrong’ in the second bears not only a semantic relationship, but also the resonance of the double oppression of being woman and black, compounding the difficulty of distinguishing the slave body from the sexualised body. But Barrett Browning turns the slave’s sexual violation on its head, making the figure of the slave both one of dread and daring. At the end of the poem when the masters hunt her, she, sensing her impending death, in a surge of empowerment commands their attention, lectures them and then enjoins fellow slaves to rebel, run ‘Up to the mountains, lift your hands, | O slave, and end what I began!’11.

The gesture of raising the hand (or a finger) as a symbol of resistance is a leitmotif which pervades Barrett Browning small antislavery oeuvre, including the ekphrastic sonnet ‘Hiram Power’s Greek Slave’ published in Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens.12 The sonnet takes as its subject the titular Seravezza marble statue of The Greek Slave by Powers, another of Barrett Browning’s contemporaries.

His Greek slave is naked, exposed, and waiting to be sold at a Turkish slave market.

The Greek Slave (1845) by Hiram Powers (1805- 1873)

The Greek Slave (1845) by Hiram Powers (1805- 1873)

The lowered head, the chained hands, which purports to hide its nudity, and the cross in the folds of the drapery show, according to one of the sculptor’s many narratives, that the slave is Christian, resigned, and a paragon of patient female suffering. In defiance of her exposed raw sexuality, Barrett Browning animates the naked female statue to resist its oppressors. In contrast to Powers’s narrative of ‘superior suffering’, ‘Christian resignation’ and ‘sublime patience’, Barrett Browning impels the sexualised figure to break its manacled hands, the symbol of its enslavement, in the striking gesture it is urged to perform. Both the work of art and the statue itself are given revolutionary potentialities:

Pierce to the centre,

Art’s fiery finger! – and break up ere long

The serfdom of this world! appeal, fair stone,

From God’s pure heights of beauty against man’s wrongs!

Catch up in thy divine face, not alone

East griefs but west, – and strike and shame the strong,

By thunders of white silence, overthrown.13

Part of the diction of these lines, the word ‘wrong’, which rhymes with ‘wrong’ and ‘strong’ (in both poems), the striking gesture and the alliterative ‘fiery finger’ slightly echo the semantics and spirit of ‘The Runaway Slave’. The statue’s sexual exposure and ‘enshackled hands’, symbols of its vulnerability and powerlessness, become all the more arresting because the oxymoron ‘thunders of white silence’ with which it is impelled to ‘shame’ and ‘strike’ empowers it. Finally, the poet’s use of the cultural synaesthesia holds out the possibility that this resistance in a Turkish slave mart can effect a similar revolution of the sexualised female body elsewhere. In these two poems, linking the sexuality of the female body and slavery, Barrett Browning subverts and counters the staid dominant cultural narratives of oppression and slavery of her day.

__________________

Notes

  1. The Brownings’ Correspondence, v, 305- 307, Letter from EBB to Mary Russell Mitford, 2 September 1843.
  2. p. 307, note 1; Jeannette Marks, The Family of the Barretts: A Colonial Romance (New York: Macmillan, 1938, p. 218.
  3. A Barrett, The Barretts of Jamaica: The Family of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (London: The Armstrong Browning Library of Baylor University, The Browning Society, and Wedgestone Press, 2000, p. 46.
  4. BC, xiv, 86- 87, Letter from EBB to James Russell Lowell, 17 December 1846.
  5. EBB declares that she is an abolitionist’. See BC, xix, 45- 49, EBB to MRM, 12 April 1853.
  6. David Robertson, ‘Lucy, Charles (1814- 1873)’, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Biography, Oxford: Oxford University, 2004 <oxforddnb.com> [12 June 2015].
  7. John Seelye, Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock (London: University of North Carolina, 1998), p. 11.
  8. ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’, The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I, 409- 430.
  9. Ibid. p. 421, Stanza II.
  10. Ibid. p. 424, Stanzas VIX and XV.
  11. Ibid. p. 428, Stanza XXXIII.
  12. ‘Hiram Power’s Greek Slave’, WEBB, II, 147- 150.
  13. Ibid. p. 150.
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