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Poem of the week: To Toussaint Louverture by William Wordsworth | William Wordsworth

To Toussaint Louverture

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;–
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a chearful brow:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.

William Wordsworth, in common with other English Romantic poets, had been captivated by the ideals of the French revolution during the 1790s. His impassioned sonnet to the St Dominguan revolutionary leader, and former slave, Toussaint Louverture (20 May 1743-7 April 1803), was composed in 1802, and reflects the period of Wordsworth’s political disillusionment. But in the poem the deposed and imprisoned leader remains the “Man of Men,” an enduring symbol of the ideals that were characterised by an early commentator on the revolution as “regenerated man and regenerated earth”.

Louverture’s unhappiness is especially bitter because the success of the rebellion in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) had seemingly been secured by the French government’s 1794 decree that outlawed slavery. But Napoleon and his cohorts broke the rebel army’s power, and promises made to Louverture in return for his surrender were betrayed. He was arrested, shipped to France and imprisoned in the bleak Fort de Joux in the Jura mountains.

After a ringing first line, as Wordsworth prepares to address Louverture directly, the pastoral detail concerning the milk-maid’s song seems a slightly lame distraction. Yet it helps establish the idea of the prisoner’s inconsolability, regardless of whether any sound is audible in the awkwardly phrased “earless den”. After the preamble, gathering confidence in the direct address, a stronger voice breaks through with “O miserable Chieftain! where and when / Wilt thou find patience?” Now it’s almost as if Wordsworth was speaking to “his” chieftain, imagining himself as one of Louverture’s men. As Cora Kaplan points out in Black Heroes, White Writers… this is the single occasion in the poem where Louverture’s ethnicity seems to be acknowledged. It also marks the moment when Wordsworth’s Romantic-heroic identification with the leader combines with an imagined role as his comforter and adviser.

Louverture’s survival was a possibility in Wordsworth’s imagination at the time of writing, and the poem expresses hope of that outcome. But it also acknowledges that he is “fallen” and “never to rise again”: his life as now conceived is already taking a form of resurrection. In the last segment of the sonnet, Wordsworth’s evocation of “[p]owers that will work for thee” brings Louverture into the circle of the Romantic poets – exalted by their calling in a timeless super-reality, a natural environment identified with the force for good. The sympathetic “powers” are “air, earth and skies” and the “great allies” are expressed by particularly Romantic signifiers: “exultations, agonies, / And love…” As if the author’s revolutionary spirit had ignited on entry into its own sphere of idealised pastoral, the poem soars with optimism, and rediscovers its initial grandeur of diction in the final image of human perfectibility that Louverture’s attainment represents: the power of “Man’s unconquerable mind.”

While on the ship deporting him to France, according to his biographer, Louverture told his captors, “In overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are numerous and they are deep.” The metaphor is a powerful one, and rather Wordsworthian in spirit. It reads almost like a continuation of the sonnet by the voice of its dedicatee.

To Toussaint Louverture was first published in The Morning Post in February 1803, when Louverture had little more than two further months to live. The text of the Poem of the Week is the slightly revised version of 1807.

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