John Wilson, "On Reading Mr Clarkson's History" (1812)





'MID the august and never-dying light
Of constellated spirits, who have gain'd
A throne in heaven, by power of heavenly acts,
And leave their names immortal and unchanged
On earth, even as the names of Sun and Moon,
See'st thou, my soul ! 'mid all that radiant host
One worthier of thy love and reverence,
Than He, the fearless spirit, who went forth,
Mail'd in the armour of invincible faith,
And bearing in his grasp the spear of truth,
Fit to destroy and save,    went forth to wage,
Against the fierce array of bloody men,
Avarice and ignorance, cruelty and hate,
A holy warfare ! Deep within his soul,
The groans of anguish, and the clank of chains,
Dwelt ceaseless as a cataract, and fill'd
The secret haunts of meditative prayer.
Encircled by the silence of the hearth,
The evening-silence of a happy home ;
Upon his midnight bed, when working soul
Turns inward, and the steady flow of thought
Is all we feel of life ; in crowded rooms,
Where mere sensation oft takes place of mind,
And all time seems the present ; in the sun,
The joyful splendour of a summer-day ;
Or 'neath the moon, the calm and gentle night ;
Where'er he moved, one vision ever fill'd
His restless spirit.  'Twas a vision bright
With colours born in Heaven, yet oh ! bedimm'd
With breath of sorrow, sighs, and tears, and blood !
Before him lay a quarter of the world,
A Mighty Land, wash'd by unnumber'd floods,
Born in her bosom,    floods that to the sea
Roll ocean-like, or in the central wilds
Fade like the dim day melting into night ;
A land all teeming with the gorgeous shew
Of Nature in profuse magnificence !
Vallies and groves, where untamed herds have ranged
Without a master since the birth of time !
Fountains and caves fill'd with the hidden light
Of diamond and of ruby, only view'd
With admiration by the unenvying sun !
Millions of beings like himself he sees
In stature and in soul,    the sons of God,
Destined to do him homage, and to lift
Their fearless brows unto the burning sky,
Stamp'd with his holy image ! Noble shapes,
Kings of the desert, men whose stately tread
Brings from the dust the sound of liberty !
The vision fades not here ; he sees the gloom
That lies upon these kingdoms of the sun,
And makes them darker than the dreary realms,
Scarce-moving at the pole.    A sluggish flow
Attends those floods so great and beautiful,
Rolling in majesty that none adores !
And lo ! the faces of those stately men,
Silent as death, or changed to ghastly shapes
By madness and despair ! His ears are torn
By shrieks and ravings, loud, and long, and wild,
Or the deep-mutter'd curse of sullen hearts,
Scorning in bitter woe their gnawing chains !
He sees, and shuddering feels the vision true,
A pale-faced band, who in his mother-isle
First look'd upon the day, beneath its light
Dare to be tyrants, and with coward deeds
Sullying the glory of the Queen of Waves!
He sees that famous Isle, whose very winds
Dissolve like icicles the tyrant's chains,
On Afric bind them firm as adamant,
Yet boast, with false and hollow gratitude,
Of all the troubled nations of the earth
That she alone is free ! The awful sight
Appals not him ; he draws his lonely breath
Without a tremor ; for a voice is heard
Breathed by no human lips,    heard by his soul,    
That he by Heaven is chosen to restore
Mercy on earth, a mighty conqueror
Over the sins and miseries of man.
The work is done ! the Niger's sullen waves
Have heard the tidings,    and the orient Sun
Beholds them rolling on to meet his light
In joyful beauty.    Tombût's spiry towers
Are bright without the brightness of the day,
And Houssa wakening from his age-long trance
Of woe, amid the desert, smiles to hear
The last faint echo of the blissful sound.    
*    *    *    *    *    *    *
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Notes on the poem

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A poet, satirist, professor and essayist, John Wilson (1785-1854) enjoyed a varied, though not always distinguished, literary career. Wilson, the son of a wealthy Glasgow manufacturer, studied at Glasgow University and Oxford. A friend and admirer of Wordsworth, he published several volumes of poetry in the style of the "lake poets," but achieved only moderate success. He was better known for his lifelong affiliation with Blackwood's Magazine, and his collaboration on many of the wickedly satirical articles that secured its reputation as a worthy rival of the Edinburgh Review. His most enduring contribution, however, was a series of popular dialogues, "Noctes Ambrosianæ," written under the pseudonym Christopher North. Known more for his boisterous sociability than his intellectual skills, Wilson nevertheless used his political connections to secure a position as professor of moral philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.

"On Reading Mr. Clarkson's History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade," written sometime between 1808 and 1811, appeared in Wilson's first volume of poetry, The Isle of Palms and Other Poems (1812). Hailed as a worthy offering from a "new recruit to the company of the lake poets," the collection clearly shows the influence of Wordsworth and his circle. The title poem, an exotic tale of marooned lovers, was described as "something in the style of Southey." Likewise, Wilson's poem on Thomas Clarkson reflects the keen interest in the abolition movement among the lake poets.

Clarkson (1760-1846), a leading abolition figure, conducted exhaustive research on the British slave trade, and risked his health, safety, and financial situation for the cause. Part-autobiography, part-history, and part-morality tale, his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808) was immensely popular. Clarkson's image as a tireless fighter in the cause of justice made him a hero and the subject of numerous laudatory poems, of which Wilson's is representative. Like Clarkson's History, Wilson's poem depicts the abolition movement as an epic battle of good against evil. Clarkson is portrayed as a soldier in a "holy warfare," chosen by God and driven by a single, compelling vision.

The poem is reprinted here from the 1812 British edition of Isle of Palms and Other Poems.

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Bibliographical note

Wilson, John, "On Reading Mr. Clarkson's History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade," The Isle of Palms and Other Poems (Edinburgh: Printed by James Ballantyne for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London; John Ballantyne & Co., Edinburgh; and John Smith & Son, Glasgow, 1812), pp. 357-361, (New York: James Eastburn, 1812), pp. 279-382; rpt. The Works of Professor Wilson of the University of Edinburgh Vol. 12 (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1858), pp. 376-387.
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This hypertext was created on November 2, 1999, by Colleen Lannon.