William Stanley Roscoe, "Ode to May" (1834)



ODE TO MAY,

WRITTEN IN 1807, ON THE ABOLITION OF THE

AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE.

____________

O THOU, who saw'st the infant morn
With secret joy in Eden born,
And fed'st his waking eyes with many a smile,
O prosperous power that rul'st the west,
Arouse thee from thy bed of rest,
And turn benignant to my native isle!
While yet the faint ey'd star of day
Lingers amid the cloudy gray,
To see thee from the heavens descend,
My feet with hasteful hope I bend.
And lo! the thunder-brooding cloud,
That wont his beaming eyes to shroud,
Bursts before the lord of light,
And he from the ebon hands of night
Snatches the ensigns of his sway,
That rule the crimson realms of day;
His sapphire helm, his glittering spear,
His fiery tressed steeds appear;
The glorious beams that gird his head,
Arrowy light around him shed;
Enwrapt in triumph, rob'd in state,
His path is thro' heaven's highest gate:
But thou that own'st a milder birth,
Descend'st on dewy feet to earth,
And as thou com'st, the woodland lay
Hails thee, thou fair-ey'd virgin, May!
Thy vestals chaste, the smiling hours,
From their cold chambers lead the flowers
To blossom on the breezy hill,
Or tremble o'er the mountain rill;
The summer winds, the perfum'd gales
Breathe amid the woods and vales,
Breathe amid the vales and woods,
And soothe the winter swollen floods.
But whence this voice that round thee floats,
That seems to breathe celestial notes,
And wakes on earth a sweeter strain
Than ever grac'd thy genial reign.

With votive hands as erst in early hour
  I rose, the glad return of May to hail,
Dark shadowy mists o'erhung her blooming bow'r,
  And sighs of woe came on the vernal gale.

Seaward they came, while, silent and alone,
  On mournful feet I sought the frowning shore,
Where sate my country's genius on her throne,
  Serene amid the ocean's sullen roar.

The eagle of the sea, on conquering wing,
  With guardian thunders hover'd o'er her head,
The stormy clouds their ruffling shadows fling,
  On waste and desart waters round her spread.

And lo! with joy the homebound vessels ride,
  The ruling flag the winds of heaven unfold,
Her sons careering o'er the foaming tide
  Pour at her sea-wash'd feet the Afric gold.

As flush'd with proud delight she stretch'd her hand,
  A passing spirit caught her startled eye,
The form of Russell walk'd the murmuring strand,
  And sigh'd reproachful as he wander'd by.

In dark suspense she ey'd the glitt'ring ore,
  And trembled when she saw the alloy of blood;
Again she turn'd, and on the silent shore
  In angry tears the shade of Sidney stood.

Her cheeks were blanch'd with fear, and burnt with shame,
  Her eyes that spoke delight were turn'd to weep,
With sterner voice she call'd on freedom's name,
  And wash'd her red hands in the oblivious deep!

'Twas freedom's voice that rent the air,
  Slavery's toiling reign is o'er,
Heaven's own winds the fiat bear
  To Afric's bleeding shore!

Lo! as they pass, in sudden fear
Couches the Gaul his fiery spear,
Abash'd the proud Iberian stands,
Trembling on his blood-stain'd sands.
Afric hears the British voice,
All her thousand realms rejoice!
The sable myriads that abide
By Niger's deep and boundless tide,
And all the palm embower'd hosts
That wander on her tawny coasts,
With shouts of triumph fill their woods,
Their spicy vales, and sacred floods!
Troubled in his mystic bed,
Nile lifts his dark Egyptian head,
While golden songs, and rapturous fire
Flash from Memnon's ancient lyre,
That to Britain's valleys flings
The ecstatic murmur of its strings.
O Britain! may it long be thine
Thy lance with myrtle wreaths to twine,
The laws of heaven aright to spell,
The oppress'd to aid, the proud to quell!
So never may the threatening Gaul
Thy warrior-featur'd youth appal;
So may'st thou see in danger's hour,
A flaming sword on every tower,
In every gate a cherub stand,
To save from spoil thy favour'd land:
The while at freedom's shrine we raise
Our votive hands with hymns of praise,
And gemm'd with buds, our virgins pay
Their homage to the smiling May!

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Notes on the poem

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Introduction

William Stanley Roscoe (1782-1843) may be said to have been born into the abolition movement. The eldest son of William Roscoe, the prominent Liverpool antislavery poet, William Stanley inherited his father's deep-seated opposition to slavery, as well as his love of Italian literature and bent for poetry. He became a partner in his father's bank (the one signal failure, unfortunately, of the elder Roscoe's business career) and later an officer of the Liverpool court of passage. William Stanley published his first and only book of verse, Poems, in 1834. It includes several antislavery poems, which seem to have been composed over the years. "On the Last Regiment of Polish Patriots Being Ordered by the French Government to Serve in the Island of St. Domingo," a compact poem despite its windy title, addresses a complex historical irony: The soldiers who had served under the Polish freedom fighter Kosciuszko (famous, among other things, for freeing his serfs) were ordered by their new imperial French masters to help put down the slave-led revolution in Haiti. "The Ethiop," Roscoe's most interesting antislavery lyric, envisions West Indian slavery being ended once and for all not by British humanitarianism or a triumph of Christian conscience but by a Caribbean war of liberation led by an African-born hero, loosely inspired by Toussaint L'Ouverture.

The "Ode to May," a lively but somewhat strained Pindaric ode, is subtitled "Written in 1807, on the Abolition of the African Slave Trade." It celebrates the bill abolishing the slave trade (though leaving colonial slavery intact), passed in the House of Commons on 25 March, 1807, and effective on May 1 of the same year. Roscoe personifies May as a "fair-ey'd virgin" and day as an Apollo-like warrior who together inaugurate the day (May 1) that brings the British "fiat" against the slave trade into force.

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Bibliographical note

Roscoe, William Stanley, "Ode to May, Written in 1807, on the Abolition of the African Slave Trade," Poems by William Stanley Roscoe (London: William Pickering, 1834), pp. 96-101.
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This hypertext was created on October 18, 1999, by Alan Richardson.