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An attempt to bring to light the cruel condition to which black slaves are destined in the plantations in the United States of America, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1847 socio-political poem “The Runaway Slave of Pilgrim Point”, draws on the parallelism between black and white as a metaphor for the different conditions for the black and the white man. This essay will explore both the figures of speech and the meter used by the author to convey her message, but particularly how this idea fits into the socio-political driven literature of Browning and how this work combines more in general with poems of the Victorian Period.

During her entire literary career, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was never afraid of sharing her socio-political ideas. As a matter of fact, her early works and poems underscore her attitude in taking bold positions, as we see in her first published poem which discussed the ongoing Greek Independence, or the long poem “An Essay of Mind” from 1826, which thoroughly describes the work of the poet as a moral responsibility, completely detaching herself from Nature poets. Later in her life, particularly after moving to Italy to improve her delicate health, she became absorbed by the political situation in Italy where she took part in the struggle for unification, an event which actually proved to be deleterious for her condition.

There, she wrote a composition of Poems, called Poems before Congress, supporting the Italian struggle for unification, and a separate poem that emphasizes the situation of slavery in the United States of America, which reconnects to her “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”, written in the form of a dramatic monologue.

The dramatic monologue is a central genre in the large production of the Victorian Period, and it represents one of the most well-known forms of writing in the 19th century. The dramatic monologue is a way of representing a kind of speech, even if sometimes it may be the written representation of an interior monologue, or may even refer to an audience that, in any case, is never taking part in the speech. As Arthur Henry Hallam suggests we can consider Lord Alfred Tennyson’s works as the masterpieces of this literature, and his “Ulysses” as the most widely known piece of writing of this period.

All these works firmly follow the main rules of the dramatic Monologue which were later recapitulated by M.H. Abrams, like the use of the single person, which is patently not the poet; the address to an audience that never speaks; and the revealing in an interesting and captivating way of the temperament of the character as we go deeper in the reading of the monologue.

The dramatic monologue presented here by Elizabeth Barrett Browning takes an important stand on discrimination at the time. As we saw, the author was captivated by socio-political ideas and struggles, and this is one problem she was really involved in.

E.B.B., as she is usually referred to in books, was the daughter of a Jamaican plantation owner, Edward Barrett Moulton. Even though her comfortable childhood had relied on wealth from Jamaican estates that used slave labor, Elizabeth was an ardent abolitionist. What is certain is that she believed her family was cursed by profiting from slavery. The story she relates in this poem was related to her from one of her pro-slavery cousins in Jamaica, a story where she evidently sympathized with the escapee. This is what got her engaged in anti-slavery battles, and what prompted her to write “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” in 1849.

Furthermore, as Glennis Byron shows in his book “Dramatic Monologue”, women authors tend to sympathize more with the characters they write about, as we can see here in the poem where the author is nearly sharing and feeling the emotions of the runaway slave.

Elizabeth Barret Browning’s anti-slavery poem might show dramatic as well as lyrical components, but looking at the construction of subjectivity and relationships in a language it does not fit in the description of ‘deeply skeptical’ or ‘inveterately political’ that Armstrong establishes in the first, theoretical chapter of Victorian Poetry (p. 13).

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All these themes that we reflected upon at the beginning of the essay can be easily found in the poem, where the author employs parallelism between lines, metaphors, and changes of rhythm to express her feelings, and the ones of the protagonist. The fact that Barrett Browning, a white Victorian woman could narrate the struggles of a black slave in the United States taking her point of view, created a bit of a conflict at the time and afterward. I personally think that it was a crucial and necessary action from authors in a period when black people did not have their own voice.

The theme of darkness, which contrasts with white and lightness, is clear since the first stanza, where the slave is standing in the same place where the first pilgrim, “the exiled who turned into ancestor”(lines 1-4), bent his “white knee”. In the same place she stands, after wandering in the dark night, with her black skin, an image that contrasts the one that was represented in the first lines.

The poem possesses a repetitive balladlike pattern, whose polemical purpose is to focus on the stark opposition between the slave’s point of view and the cruel indifference of the white men who oppress her and her whole ethnic group.

The images which are associated with the black man are also those of poverty compared to the white men’s higher social status, as we can see in the parallelism between the “hut” where the black man lives and the house of the white man in the first line of stanza XXV.

This contrast gets to the point that her own skin begins to feel like a prison for the black slave, especially when she says “Our blackness shuts as prison-bars / The poor souls crouch so far behind / That never a comfort can they find / By reaching through the prison-bars” in stanza 6. This

Elizabeth Barrett Browning who professed the Christian faith throughout her life is reflecting on the relationship between God and slaves; while the speaker appears to believe that everyone is a child of God, she has difficulty reconciling this with the realities of slavery.

We can also hear how there is going to be a change in the tones when the previously cited balladlike pattern is broken in the stanza XIX, where the rhyme scheme “ababccb” becomes odd sounding “ababcdb”, which hints at a change in the tones.

As it happens in the following lines, we are hinted at a terrible fate for the child of the runaway slave, a child who was not born from the relationship with the other slave she was in love with and who had got killed in an attempt to escape, but the result of a rape from her master, and the only sight of this baby, too white for her, and who reminded her of the white devil that was torturing her.

Rhyme style: ababccb – ababccb – ababccb

Bibliography

  1. Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point”.
  2. Lennard, John. “Punctuation.” In the Poetry Handbook. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  3. Glennis Byron, “Dramatic Monologue, By Glennis Byron”, 1st Edition, London, Routledge, 2003.
  4. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography”, by Margaret Forster, 1989
  5. Brophy, Sarah. “Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ and the Politics of Interpretation.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 36, no. 3, 1998, pp. 273–288.
  6. Armstrong, I. (1993). “Victorian poetry: Poetry, poetics, and politics”. London: Routledge.
  7. LEWIS, Linda M. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Spiritual Progress: Face to Face with God. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1998. xii, 256 pp.

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