Helen Maria Williams
On The Bill Which Was Passed In England For Regulating The Slave-Trade - Poem by Helen Maria Williams
The hollow winds of night no more
In wild, unequal cadence pour,
On musing fancy's wakeful ear,
The groan of agony severe
From yon dark vessel, which contains
The wretch new bound in hopeless chains!
Whose soul with keener anguish bleeds,
As AFRIC'S less'ning shore recedes--
No more where Ocean's unseen bound
Leaves a drear world of waters round,
Between the howling gust, shall rise
The stifled captive's latest sighs!--
No more shall suffocating death
Seize the pent victim's sinking breath;
The pang of that convulsive hour,
Reproaching man's insatiate power;
Man! who to AFRIC'S shore has past,
Relentless, as the annual blast
That sweeps the Western Isles, and flings
Destruction from its furious wings!--
And woman, she, too weak to bear
The galling chain, the tainted air,--
Of mind too feeble to sustain
The vast, accumulated pain,--
No more, in desperation wild,
Shall madly strain her gasping child;
With all the mother at her soul,
With eyes where tears have ceas'd to roll,
Shall catch the livid infant's breath,
Then sink in agonizing death!
BRITAIN! the noble, blest decree
That soothes despair, is fram'd by thee!
Thy powerful arm has interpos'd,
And one dire scene for ever clos'd;
Its horror shall no more belong
To that foul drama, deep with wrong.
O, first of EUROPE'S polish'd lands
To ease the captive's iron bands;
Long, as thy glorious annals shine,
This proud distinction shall be thine!
Not first alone when valour leads
To rush on danger's noblest deeds;
When mercy calls thee to explore
A gloomy path, untrod before,
Thy ardent spirit springs to heal,
And, greatly gen'rous, dares to feel!--
Valour is like the meteor's light,
Whose partial flash leaves deeper night;
While Mercy, like the lunar ray,
Gilds the thick shade with softer day.
Blest deed! that met consenting minds
In all but those whom av'rice binds,--
Who creep in interest's crooked ways,
Nor ever pass her narrow maze;
Or those whom hard indiff'rence steels
To every pang another feels.
For them has fortune round their bowers
Twin'd, partial nymph! her lavish flowers;
For them , from unsunn'd caves, she brings
Her summer ice; for them she springs
To climes where hotter suns produce
The richer fruit's delicious juice;
While they , whom wasted blessings tire,
Nor leave one want to feed desire,
With cool, insulting ease demand
Why, for yon hopeless, captive band,
Is ask'd, to mitigate despair,
The mercy of the common air?
The boon of larger space to breathe,
While coop'd that hollow deck beneath?
A lengthen'd plank, on which to throw
Their shackled limbs, while fiercely glow
The beams direct, that on each head
The fury of contagion shed?--
And dare presumptuous, guilty man,
Load with offence his fleeting span?
Deform creation with the gloom
Of crimes that blot its cheerful bloom?
Darken a work so perfect made,
And cast the universe in shade?--
Alas! to AFRIC'S fetter'd race
Creation wears no form of grace!
To them earth's pleasant vales are found
A blasted waste, a sterile bound;
Where the poor wand'rer must sustain
The load of unremitted pain;
A region in whose ample scope
His eye discerns no gleam of hope;
Where thought no kind asylum knows
On which its anguish may repose;
But death, that to the ravag'd breast
Comes not in shapes of terror drest;
Points to green hills where freedom roves,
And minds renew their former loves;
Or, hov'ring in the troubled air,
Hangs the fierce spectre of Despair;
Whose soul abhors the gift of life,
Who stedfast grasps the reeking knife,
Bids the charg'd heart in torrents bleed,
And smiles in frenzy at the deed!
Ye noble minds! who o'er a sky
Where clouds are roll'd, and tempests fly,
Have bid the lambent lustre play
Of one pure, lovely, azure ray;
O, far diffuse its op'ning bloom,
And the wide Hemisphere illume!
Ye, who one bitter drop have drain'd
From slav'ry's cup, with horror stain'd,
O, let no fatal dregs be found,
But dash her chalice on the ground,
While still she links her impious chain,
And calculates the price of pain;
Weighs agony in sordid scales,
And marks if death or life prevails;
Decides how near the mangling scourge
May to the grave its victim urge,--
Yet for awhile, with prudent care,
The half-worn wretch, if useful, spare;
And speculates, with skill refin'd,
How deep a wound will stab the mind;
How far the spirit can endure
Calamity, that hopes no cure!--
Ye! who can selfish cares forego,
To pity those which others know,--
As light that from its centre strays
To glad all nature with its rays,--
O, ease the pangs ye stoop to share,
And rescue millions from despair!--
For you, while morn in graces gay
Wakes the fresh bloom of op'ning day,
Gilds with her purple light your dome,
Renewing all the joys of home,--
Of that dear shed which first ye knew,
Where first the sweet affections grew;
Whose charm alike the heart can draw,
If form'd of marble or of straw;
Whether the voice of pleasure calls,
And gladness echoes through its walls,
Or to its hallow'd roof we fly
With those we love to pour the sigh;
The load of mingled pain to bear,
And soften every pang we share!--
Ah, think how desolate his state,
How he the cheerful light must hate,
Whom, sever'd from his native soil,
The morning wakes to fruitless toil
To labours hope shall never cheer,
Or fond domestic joy endear!
Poor wretch! on whose despairing eyes
His cherish'd home shall never rise!
Condemn'd, severe extreme, to live
When all is fled that life can give:--
And ah, the blessings valued most
By human minds, are blessings lost!
Unlike the objects of the eye,
Enlarging as we bring them nigh;
Our joys at distance strike the breast,
And seem diminish'd when possest.
Who from his far-divided shore
The half-expiring captive bore?
Those whom the traffic of their race
Has robb'd of every human grace;
Whose harden'd souls no more retain
Impressions nature stamp'd in vain:
As streams that once the landscape gave
Reflected on the trembling wave,
Their substance change when lock'd in frost,
And rest in dead contraction lost;
Who view, unmoved, the look that tells
The pang that in the bosom dwells;
Heed not the nerves that terror shakes,
The heart convulsive anguish breaks;
The shriek that would their crimes upbraid,
But deem despair a part of trade.
Such only for detested gain
The barb'rous commerce would maintain;
The gen'rous sailor, he who dares
All forms of danger, while he bears
The British flag o'er sultry seas,
And spreads it on the Polar breeze;
He to whose guardian arm we owe
Each blessing that the happy know;
Whatever charms the soften'd heart,
Each cultur'd grace, each finer art,
E'en thine, most lovely of the train!
Sweet Poetry, thy heav'n-taught strain,
His breast, where nobler passions burn,
In honest poverty, would spurn
The wealth oppression can bestow,
And scorn to wound a fetter'd foe!
True courage in the unconquered soul
Yields to Compassion's mild control;
As, the resisting frame of steel
The magnet's secret force can feel.
When borne at length to Western lands,
Chain'd on the beach the captive stands,
Where Man, dire merchandize! is sold,
And barter'd life is paid for gold!
In mute affliction, see him try
To read his new possessor's eye;
If one blest glance of mercy there,
One half-form'd tear may check despair!
Ah, if that eye with sorrow sees
His languid look, his quiv'ring knees,
Those limbs which scarce their load sustain,
That form consum'd in wasting pain,
Such sorrow fills his ruthless eye
Who sees the lamb he doom'd to die;
In pining sickness yield his life,
And thus elude the sharpen'd knife.
Or if where savage habit steels
The vulgar mind, one bosom feels
The sacred claim of helpless woe--
If pity in that soil can grow!
Yet why on one poor chance must rest
The int'rest of a kindred breast?
Why yield to passion's wayward laws
Humanity's devoted cause?--
Ah ye, who one fix'd purpose own,
Whose untir'd aim is self alone;
Who think in gold the essence lies
From which extracted bliss shall rise;
Does fleeting life proportion bear
To all the wealth ye heap with care?
When soon your days in rapid flight
Shall sink in death's terrific night,
Then seize the moments in your power,
To Mercy consecrate the hour!
Risk something in her cause at last,
And thus atone for all the past.
Does avarice, your god, delight
With agony to feast his sight?
Does he require that victims slain,
And human blood his altars stain?--
Ah, not alone of power possest
To check each virtue of the breast:
As when the numbing frosts arise
The charm of vegetation dies;
His sway the harden'd bosom leads
To cruelty's remorseless deeds;
Like the blue lightning, when it springs
With fury on its livid wings,
Darts to its goal with baleful force,
Nor heeds that ruin marks its course!
O, Eloquence! prevailing art!
Whose force can chain the list'ning heart;
The throb of sympathy inspire,
And kindle every great desire;
With magic energy control,
And reign the sov'reign of the soul!
That dreams, while all its passions swell,
It shares the power it feels so well:
As visual objects seem possest
Of those clear hues by light imprest.
O, skill'd in every grace to charm,
To soften, to appal, to warm,--
Fill with thy noblest rage the breast,
Bid on those lips thy spirit rest,
That shall, in Britain's Senate, trace
The wrongs of AFRIC'S captive race!--
But Fancy o'er the tale of woe
In vain one heighten'd tint would throw;
For ah, the truth is all we guess
Of anguish in its last excess!
Fancy may dress in deeper shade
The storm that hangs along the glade;
Spreads o'er the ruffled stream its wing,
And chills awhile the flowers of spring;
But where the wint'ry tempests sweep
In madness o'er the darken'd deep,--
Where the wild surge, the raging wave,
Point to the hopeless wretch a grave;
And death surrounds the threat'ning shore--
Can fancy add one horror more?--
Lov'd BRITAIN ! whose protecting hand,
Stretch'd o'er the globe, on AFRIC'S strand
The honour'd base of freedom lays,
Soon, soon the finish'd fabric raise!
And when surrounding realms would frame,
Touch'd with a spark of gen'rous flame,
Some pure, ennobling, great design,
Some lofty act, almost divine,
Which earth may hail with rapture high,
And heav'n may view with fav'ring eye,--
Teach them to make all nature free,
And shine by emulating thee!
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