Call for Essays: Slavery, Abolitionism and Poetic Form

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One of the first decisions made by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade when it was established in 1787 was to commission new works of poetry from three writers: William Cowper, Hannah More, and William Roscoe. Abolitionist poetry was already a fledgling genre, but the success of those ‘official’ poems led to an explosion in antislavery verse across the latter years of the eighteenth century and well past the Slave Trade act of 1807. Poetry played a major role both in communicating and formulating abolitionist ideas and arguments, but the sheer popularity of abolitionist verse also made it potentially lucrative. What began as a critique of commercial culture rapidly led to the commodification of antislavery forms.

                What followed for poetry was formal experimentation and innovation. Poets with genuine political and ethical agendas sought ever new ways to outpace the commodification of abolitionist forms. The hegemony of the heroic couplet, which had lasted some 150 years, gave way to the flourishing of formal types we associate with Romanticism: sonnets, songs, ballads, blank verse, odes, eclogues, hymns. The shift from a monolithic culture of epic in the eighteenth century to discrete, varied, and fragmentary lyric forms was accelerated by the politicization of poetry in the 1780s and 90s — a politicization that stemmed from history’s first major humanitarian movement, the movement to abolish slavery.

                Essays are being sought that concern British abolitionist poetry and poetic form in the period 1770–1830. Especially desirable are essays that address one or more of the following: individual forms or genres and their roles within antislavery verse cultures (lyric, sonnet, epic, ballad, hymn, eclogue, ‘complaint’); the role of formal features (including meter, rhythm, rhyme, line) in the workings of antislavery poetry; antislavery poetry’s role in shaping the history of poetic form or forms; considerations of the relation of Romantic verse practices to discourses of slavery and abolition; considerations of form’s role in the poetry of the Black Atlantic, particularly where it has bearings on British poetry; theoretical discussions of form/formalism in relation to slavery.

                The volume has been pitched to Liverpool University Press, and a full proposal will be submitted for their series ‘Romantic Reconfigurations’. Essays will ideally be between 5,000-9,000 words; if accepted, they will be due in early 2025. Please send abstracts of around 300 words, plus a short bio, to: Please feel free to get in touch with any questions or suggestions.