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July 28, 2004

Wednesday Is Poetry Day

A history lesson with the poetry this week, because i have chosen a sonnet written by a man who might not be a household name, but perhaps should be.

Not generally remembered for his poetry, the author of this week's poem was better known for his passionate devotion to the abolition of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) was a firebrand and so uncompromising, he even managed to piss off Frederick Douglass. Here's a typical W. L. Garrison quote:

I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. . . . I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.
Thank goodness he was heard, eventually, though at the time not many seemed to want to listen. Georgia's antebellum House of Representatives even offered a bounty of $5000 for Garrison's capture. He was ahead of his time in many ways.
In speaking engagements and through the Liberator and other publications, Garrison advocated the immediate emancipation of all slaves. This was an unpopular view during the 1830s, even with northerners who were against slavery. What would become of all the freed slaves? Certainly they could not assimilate into American society, they thought. Garrison believed that they could assimilate. He believed that, in time, all blacks would be equal in every way to the country's white citizens. They, too, were Americans and entitled to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'
Garrison was also an early advocate of women's rights, and non-violent civil disobedience.

In the following sonnet, you get a pretty good picture of the man's intensity and righteousness.

Liberty for All

THEY tell me, Liberty! that in thy name
I may not plead for all the human race;
That some are born to bondage and disgrace,
Some to a heritage of woe and shame,
And some to power supreme, and glorious fame:
With my whole soul I spurn the doctrine base,
And, as an equal brotherhood, embrace
All people, and for all fair freedom claim!
Know this, O man! whate’er thy earthly fate—
God never made a tyrant nor a slave:
Woe, then, to those who dare to desecrate
His glorious image!—for to all He gave
Eternal rights, which none may violate;
And, by a mighty hand, the oppressed He yet shall save!

It's a basic Italian form sonnet, in spotless iambic pentameter, until the final line, which tripped me up a bit. It reads like there's an extra foot in there, and i had to read the line a few times to figure out the meter. All in all, a decent sonnet from a famous non-poet.

Posted by annika, Jul. 28, 2004 |
Rubric: Poetry


Bracing! Thanks for sharing that.

Posted by: Daniel Lowenberg on Jul. 28, 2004

Garrison did quite a bit to advance the anti-slavery cause, but he did some damage to it, too. Not only did he favor women's suffrage, his focus wandered off into things like religious reform and vegetarianism. People started wondering why they should listen to him, because they weren't sure they wanted the whole package he was selling.

That's similar to the "mission creep" that affects many advocacy groups today. Just stick to the original reason you were founded, and you stand a much better chance of being effective. Don't try to save the whole world, just part of it.

Posted by: Eric Johnson on Jul. 28, 2004

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