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Black PrometheusRace and Radicalism in the Age of Atlantic Slavery$

Jared Hickman

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780190272586

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190272586.001.0001

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Byronic Abolitionism

Byronic Abolitionism

Chapter:
(p.352) 8 Byronic Abolitionism
Source:
Black Prometheus
Author(s):

Jared Hickman

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190272586.003.0009

Abstract and Keywords

The Promethean personae of Byron’s antiheroes—including Byron’s own Promethean posture, which made him a transatlantic celebrity—proved enormously influential for Atlantic antislavery writing. Clinching the argument for a fully integrated historicization of the Romantic Age and the Age of Abolition, this chapter ventures both to read the fantastic ontology of a poem like Manfred in relation to nineteenth-century racial hierarchy and to account for explicit Byronic borrowings and stylizations in the work of Henry Highland Garnet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Brazilian abolitionist-poet Antônio Castro Alves, and others. In following the travel of Byron’s famous lines from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage—“Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not / Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?”—from the freedom struggle in modern Greece (in which Byron died) to the freedom struggle in plantation America and beyond, I trace the circuits—and important short-circuits—of nineteenth-century Atlantic radicalism.

Keywords:   George Gordon, Lord Byron, race, slavery, abolitionism, Romanticism, Henry Highland Garnet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Antonio Castro Alves

Nineteenth-century Atlantic antislavery discourse has a bad case of “Byromania.”1 Witness Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier reading Manfred in the Alps, “blending [himself] in sympathy with [Byron’s] heroes.”2 Or Freedom’s Journal’s passing mention of Byron’s swimming prowess, his “fondness for the element of fishes.”3 Or Douglass’s offhand inside joking on Byron’s “horror of growing fat.”4 Or, more seriously, his reproduction of the London Inquirer’s obituary notice for the Countess of Lovelace, Byron’s daughter.5 Or the Liberator’s swooning—while she was still alive—over the phrenological perfection of her skull, which displayed the same moral development evident in her father’s poetry.6 Or the fact that the estate of the poet’s widow, Lady Byron, an ardent supporter of the US antislavery cause and subscriber to The Liberator, The North Star, and Frederick Douglass’ Paper, became a site of pilgrimage for white and black abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Ellen Craft.7 Something substantial—indexed by the very insubstantiality of many of these casual Byronic references—is clearly going on here, a cathexis not merely attributable to the kind of abolitionist Anglophilia that Elisa Tamarkin has so comprehensively explored.8

The only book-length study of Byron’s influence in America does not at all address his impact on American abolitionism.9 Marcus Wood can only find the rage strange, given the fact that Byron never “wrote about Atlantic slavery directly.”10 This is true but also somewhat deceiving, as Eva Beatrice Dykes long ago demonstrated in The Negro in English Romantic Thought. Dykes cites several examples, from Don Juan in particular, where Byron sympathetically represented African slaves on the auction block, albeit, given Byron’s Orientalist proclivities, in eastern slave marts. He even paid explicit tribute to Wilberforce in the poem as the “moral Washington of Africa” and “worth a million fighters,” “whose merit none enough can sing or say.” Even amid the acidic ironies of the poem, the tribute seems somewhat genuine, although, it has to be said, the homage ends rather lightly with the speaker hoping that Wilberforce’s epic stature in “free[ing] the blacks” will now allow him (p.353) to “pray shut up the whites.” That Byron’s cynicism eventually did envelop Wilberforce is perhaps evident from a striking note to a later canto of Don Juan, where he takes Wilberforce to task for having “little to say in reply” to George Canning’s use of Christianity “to sanction Negro slavery,” prompting the ever perverse poet to ask, “Was Christ crucified, that black men might be scourged? If so, He had better been born a Mulatto, to give both colours an equal chance of freedom, or at least salvation.” This backhanded double blasphemy—against both Christian doctrine and white supremacy—perhaps suggests the extent to which Byron understood slavery as a theological problem, rather than simply a political one. In a journal entry of late 1813, he did not hesitate to cast the abolition of slavery as a cosmological revolution, in the most literal sense, writing that if he could have made a speech against “the Slave Trade in Africa … my vertex sublimis would certainly have displaced stars enough to overthrow the Newtonian system.”11

To my mind, it is as much the recognizable bravura of this statement as its explicit antislavery content (which, in the end, does not feature prominently in Byron’s private or public musings) that attracted abolitionists to Byron. As Ethan J. Kytle has recently written, “romanticism”—Byronism in particular—“provided a lexicon for militant abolitionists,” a claim whose full vindication demands close reading of the sort Kytle, a historian, is not prepared to deliver and that this chapter supplies.12 Although no doubt some abolitionists may have succumbed to Byromania out of an Anglophilia that transgressed its initial political impetus, I argue it was a particular style of (re)presentation they found useful in him—namely, his poetic and personal titanism. In his classic study, Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry, Douglas Bush asserts, “If one who knew a good deal of Byron were told that he had written only one poem on a mythological character, a character in whom he could project himself, the answer would be an easy guess”: Prometheus. Bush points out that Byron’s Prometheus is “the Prometheus of Shelley’s opening lines; he would have uttered the curse against Jupiter, he would never have retracted it … [Byron] cannot find relief in a Shelleyan gospel of love, for the sense of inward discord and the reality of evil is in his bones.”13 In Byron’s Promethean-Satanic antiheroes, of which he himself was perhaps the apotheosis, the abolitionist could discover and develop the heresy that haunted antislavery argument.

Pursuant to my project of reconceptualizing Romanticism, and to preempt apprehending the analysis that follows as a mere catalogue of something like abolitionist appropriations of Byron, I want to attempt to imagine a reading of Manfred from something like the perspective of the abolitionist Whittier in the Alps, perhaps in one of his less pious moods. Byron wrote his requisite “Prometheus” poem in 1816, but unlike those of Goethe, Shelley, and Lowell, his does not explicitly invoke slavery. However, the Promethean Manfred, composed around the same time, certainly does. In the poem, Count Manfred, (p.354) circled at one point by an eagle no less, replaces Prometheus, and the Swiss Alps the Caucasus, but the verse drama is, rather transparently, Byron’s version of Prometheus Unbound, complete with Zoroastrian flourishes.14

The poem’s drama arises from the tension between Manfred’s sense of utter imprisonment by a mysterious past transgression, likely incest, and his countervailing sense of radical autonomy from any force except that of his own will, paradoxically, precisely the will whose exercise led to the titanic transgression that has made him so hopelessly melancholy. Significantly, Manfred expresses this radical autonomy in the related terms of Promethean defiance, slave rebellion, and racial vindicationism. It is on the basis of the fact that “the mind, the spirit, the Promethean spark” still “pervad[es]” Manfred’s being that he steadfastly refuses to “be the slave/Of those who served me,” a refusal he reiterates throughout to all would-be “superhuman aid,” which, by definition, would require his submission.15 Indeed, Manfred’s insistence on the exalting sufficiency of his own honed human powers arguably transforms the poem into a critique of the Great Chain of Being, albeit of the celestial rather than terrestrial end. On multiple occasions, Manfred refers us back to a primeval age of what can only be called “racial” equality in the cosmic sense I’ve outlined. He recalls that “early nature” ’s “vigorous race of undiseased mankind,” of which he himself seems to be a pure descendant, were “giant sons/Of the embrace of angels with a sex/More beautiful than they, which did draw down/The erring spirits who can ne’er return.”16 The lines cleverly conflate several episodes from Genesis—the early existence of antagonistic, nonhuman “giants in the land,” the inappropriate reproduction of angels and humans, the primeval longevity of the earliest patriarchs—in order to create an alternative creation myth of gloriously transgressive titanism with potentially subversive racial implications. In Manfred’s alternative myth, the prelapsarian state of nature is defined by interracial harmony and equality: it was a time “when the earth/Saw men and spirits walking side by side/And gave [spirits] no supremacy.”17 It is on the ground of these natural rights, as it were, that Manfred dares to “make himself” the “equal” of the spirits who would enslave him.18

Playing in the celestial octave of the Great Chain of Being begs to be transposed into a terrestrial key, especially when the language of race and slavery is so prevalent. Cosmogony and ethnogenesis converge in a global modernity in which society itself has become the site of the articulation of the religious. In this reading, Manfred’s Promethean refusal of metaphysical slavery on the grounds of his dignity as a human being maps onto the slave rebel’s equally Promethean rejection of physical slavery on the grounds of his dignity as a member of both the human and the African race. The poem’s curious preoccupation with inappropriate sexual relations of all kinds further supports this claim. The implied incest of Manfred and Astarte (and perhaps, by extension, as many critics have argued, of Byron and his half-sister Augusta), the driving mystery at the center of the poem, maps onto the celestial miscegenation (p.355) of angels and humans, which then maps onto the terrestrial miscegenation of blacks and whites, the ultimate taboo of white hegemony because the ultimate evidence of racial equality, precisely the “racial” equality that Manfred claims.

Werner Sollors, among others, has perceptively pointed to the links between incest and miscegenation.19 Arguably, Manfred simply forges additional links in the chain, extending it into the heavens, thus further reinforcing the inextricability of religion and race. All these tropes acquire titanic heft insofar as the transgression of the titan Prometheus (undoubtedly the master-trope behind Manfred’s “quest of hidden knowledge”) in condescending to help the human race is also a transgression of a perceived ontological—we might well now say, racial—line.20 Manfred’s susceptibility to this reading need not be taken to suggest that Byron was, deep-down, an abolitionist poet, or that he even had modern racial slavery in mind when he wrote his verse drama. Rather, it suggests the extent to which slavery was fundamentally a cosmological problem whose resolution at a metacosmic level occasioned Promethean imaginings of various kinds, some more poetically abstract and some more politically concrete.

A Story of Atlantic Radicalism in a Couple of Lines

On one level, abolitionist Byromania might be traced to a vague but potent titanism that saturated Byron’s poetry and personae, a titanism that betokened a pertinent metaphysical critique of slavery. But we might also work on another scale altogether by attending to the significant influence on Atlantic antislavery argument of two lines from Byron’s corpus—the stirring couplet from the 76th stanza of the second canto of his 1812 Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “Hereditary bondsmen! Know ye not/Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.”21 These lines achieved great stature in antislavery discourse in part because they provided an essential point of reference in distinguishing between an orthodox abolitionism that awaited revolution from above and a heretical abolitionism that agitated for revolution from below. Byron originally composed these lines with a very specific context in mind. Fresh off his two-year sojourn in Greece and Asia Minor, Byron utters them as a call to his beloved Greek brethren to reclaim the “Spirit of freedom” that once animated “the Attic plain,” a cause he himself embraced, of course, leading to his death in Missolonghi in 1824. Not surprisingly, the surrounding stanzas are full of images of Promethean fire. In the eye of each benighted modern Greek there is “fire still sparkling.” The perceptive pilgrim can see in this outward fire an inward one—“their bosom burn’d anew/With thy unquenched beam, lost Liberty!” Such inward fire promises not only to “tear their name defil’d from Slavery’s mournful page,” but to burn it in the “flame” of “Freedom’s (p.356) altars,” an image of pagan ritual that well recalls the “fathers’ heritage,” which modern Greeks would rekindle through their revolution. Indeed, insofar as modern Greece has become “the sad relic of departed worth,” its revitalization through revolution would mean its reinstatement as a new ritual object—Freedom’s altar, where Promethean fires burn ceaselessly. Byron thus establishes the Greek mythological titan—the Romantic spirit of freedom—as, fittingly, the icon of the cause for which he died, modern Greek independence.

But just as abolitionists in the heretical mode conceived the black freedom struggle as the most obvious modern staging of the drama of Prometheus’s unbinding, so they saw Byron’s lines as being as or more relevant to themselves than the Greeks for whom Byron intended them. No group of people, some argued, matched the description of “hereditary bondsmen” better than African American slaves. As black abolitionist James McCune Smith, writing as the correspondent Communipaw in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, asked rhetorically: could Byron’s lines better “fit any others than ourselves?”22 The currency of Byron’s lines in African America is suggested by the ubiquity of the phrase “strike for freedom” in African American popular rhetoric, a phrase often repeated by scholars without ever considering its source. Evidently, African American orators successfully converted Byron’s high-Romantic couplet into a radical colloquialism. Indeed, African Americans had long considered and contested the meaning of these lines in conceiving their strategies for emancipation. An 1839 article in The Colored American took great pains to interpret the lines figuratively as an African American call to rhetorical rather than physical arms, to wield those “weapons of truth” that “none except ourselves” could properly wield. The lines subsequently provided the opening text for the 1840 African American New York State Convention’s rousing address “to their colored fellow citizens.”23 Martin Delany adopted the lines as a motto on the masthead of his Pittsburgh newspaper, the Mystery, likely as a result of direct inspiration by Henry Highland Garnet’s “Address to the Slaves of the United States.”24

Garnet’s “Address” was at the heart of the first of two formative controversies of African American political life in which Byron’s couplet prominently featured. Given at the 1843 African American National Convention, Garnet’s “Address” passionately called for a general insurrection by American slaves and reportedly reduced much of the audience to tears, engendering nothing short of a crisis among black abolitionists who, to this point, had remained primarily in the Garrisonian fold of moral suasion. Largely thanks to the efforts of the young Frederick Douglass, who urged his fellow agitators to try the path of least resistance—nonresistance—a little longer, Garnet’s scheme failed to pass by a single vote. Around this fateful vote unfolded what Eddie Glaude deems “the tragedy of African American politics,” that is, the constant pressure on African Americans to choose between US and black nationalism, between redemptive liberalism and defiant radicalism, between (p.357) nonviolence and violence, and, I would add, between orthodox and heretical abolitionism.25

Garnet’s “Address” articulates a Romantic theology of rebellion whose crux is Byron’s couplet.26 Sterling Stuckey calls the speech “one of the most original formulations of its time.” By “original” he seems in part to allege its rootedness in the African origins of American slaves. Highlighting Garnet’s pride in his Mandingo warrior-prince grandfather, Stuckey draws attention to what he discerns to be elements of African cosmology in the speech. At certain points, Garnet’s “Address” does seem quite strikingly to presume the continuity between this life and the next that is often seen as characteristic of African religion. For Garnet, the reason to rebel now is that the slave in life remains a slave in death: he or she “return[s]‌ again to the world of spirits, cursed and ruined by American slavery” (160). In this statement, we can perhaps perceive the logic behind the mythology of the “flying African” or the slave-ship suicide, both of which express a determination not to die in the land of slavery for fear that this will mean continued enslavement in the next life.27 The speech also toys with more familiar, figurative interpretations of this startling claim, suggesting, for instance, that “the evil of [slaves’] bondage [did not] end at their emancipation by death,” precisely because “succeeding generations inherited their chains” (160). In either case, Stuckey argues, “by arguing from ancestral ground,” the speech advances an “African conception of freedom.”28

Garnet’s “Address” is certainly obsessed with the meanings of “blood.” In a sense, the grim logic of his argument hangs on the repetition of the image: “Tens of thousands” of Africans have been borne into mortal and postmortal slavery upon “streams of blood,” blood which has “enriched” the American “soil” and thus “cursed the earth”; consequently, “there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood”; American slaves must muster the courage for such bloodshed by rekindling “the blood of [their] fathers,” which Garnet hopes has not “run out of [their] veins” (160, 161, 163, 164). One of the speech’s main justifications for resistance rests upon the affirmation of blood ties to Africa: “It is as wrong for your lordly oppressors to keep you in slavery, as it was for the man thief to steal our ancestors from the coast of Africa. You should therefore now use the same manner of resistance, as would have been just in our ancestors when the bloody foot-prints of the first remorseless soul-thief was placed upon the shores of our fatherland.” Slave rebellion is thus a response to “your dead fathers [who] speak to you from their graves” (162). For Stuckey all this suggests that Garnet’s “Address” “was a contribution to nationalist theory, because it was anchored in a conception of ancestry that seems to derive directly from African values,” presupposing what Dwight Hopkins and others describe as a distinctly African conception of divine-human relations between this world and the other as “an extended family … a broad kinship network.”29

(p.358) However, Eddie Glaude is right to point out that Stuckey’s reading does not tell the whole story, for the Christian God of “Heaven” also “calls on [slaves] to arise from the dust” (164). The same topos of blood redemption that signals ennobling African ancestry in Stuckey’s reading can underpin a Christian reading of the speech. In Glaude’s mind, “Garnet’s formulation of the reciprocity between the living and the dead” is primarily “an attempt to redirect the Christian energies of the slave,” rather than evidence of an African cultural survival.30 Garnet’s “Address” also contains perhaps the most succinct and powerful distillation of orthodox antislavery, made all the more radical therein because of its direct address to those still in bondage: “Slavery sets [the biblical commandments] at nought, and hurls defiance in the face of Jehovah. The forlorn condition in which you are placed, does not destroy your moral obligation to God. You are not certain of heaven, because you suffer yourselves to remain in a state of slavery, where you cannot obey the divine commandments of the Sovereign of the Universe.” “TO … THE DEGRADATION” of slavery, “IT IS SINFUL IN THE EXTREME FOR YOU TO MAKE VOLUNTARY SUBMISSION,” Garnet harangues (161–62). He expresses the utmost confidence that “the God of heaven would smile upon every effort,” including physical rebellion, “which the injured might make to disenthral themselves” from their sad state of forced “heathenism in the midst of Christianity” (162). For Glaude it is clear that the “Address” is really an exercise in radical Christianity.

But between and beyond the African and Christian rationales for insurrection lies another, precisely the sort of Romantic metacosm to which I’ve been alluding. In a manner similar to Crèvecoeur’s Letters, Garnet provides a mythic narrative of Atlantic slavery that seems distinctly modern in its recognition of the nontranscendence of all gods:

The voice of Freedom cried, “Emancipate yourselves.” Humanity supplicated with tears for the deliverance of the children of Africa. Wisdom urged her solemn plea. The bleeding captive plead his innocence, and pointed to Christianity who stood weeping at the cross. Jehovah frowned upon the nefarious institution, and thunderbolts, red with vengeance, struggled to leap forth to blast the guilty wretches who maintained it. But all was in vain. Slavery had stretched its dark wings of death over the land, the Church stood silently by—the priests prophesied falsely, and the people loved to have it so. Its throne is established, and now it reigns triumphant (161).

This, I want to suggest, is Garnet’s encompassing and ultimate rationale for rebellion. The reification of “Africa” and “Christianity,” not to mention the depiction of their terrestrial inefficacy, suggest their subordination within a larger global or, so to speak, metaphysical framework. Garnet’s opening explanation for his radical turn from moral suasion to physical rebellion has (p.359) already established the gut-wrenching topos of the vanity of belief in providential progress toward goodness this brief mythic narrative expresses: “We have been contented in sitting still and mourning over your sorrows, earnestly hoping that before this day your sacred liberty would have been restored. But, we have hoped in vain” (160). We might fruitfully take the repetition of “vain” as a pun on “vein,” that is, as a denial of the redeeming power of the blood of either African ancestry or Judeo-Christian salvation in abolishing slavery. Hence, although Garnet’s startling cosmological account of slavery might be taken to exhibit African features—it is implicitly polytheistic and imagines the battle against slavery as racialized religious warfare of the sort that James Sweet attributes to Afro-Atlantic slave rebellion—it also must be noted that Garnet seems to imply the African “fathers” whose “blood” courses through the bodies of his audience are somewhat complicit with slavery. The burden that African American slaves now bear to throw off slavery’s yoke, it is suggested, is a legacy of their fathers’ unwillingness or inability to do so. Enslaved African Americans are forced to do what would have “been just in our ancestors,” but was nonetheless left undone “when the bloody foot-prints of the first remorseless soul-thief was placed upon the shores of our fatherland.” Long before Slavery gained power and took up her throne, the African fathers had a chance to destroy her and to save their countless descendants from her tyranny, but they failed. All was in vain.

By the same token, as much as one might be given to interpret Garnet’s metacosmic cameo of slavery in Christian terms as an imagination of the dire conditions immediately preceding the apocalypse, with Slavery playing the role of the Antichrist, problems of interpretation arise. For both the merciful blood of the Son offered in the meridian of time—the Cross—and the blood of justice that the Father would require at the end of time—Jehovah’s thunderbolts, red with vengeance—can’t seem to depose Slavery. As Glaude concedes, Garnet rather breathtakingly repudiates Judeo-Christian salvation history in terms that had special meaning for African Americans: “It is impossible like the children of Israel, to make a grand exodus from the land of bondage. The Pharaohs are on both sides of the blood-red waters!” (163). This extraordinary figure can be taken in many ways in the context of Garnet’s speech: oppression lies on both sides of the Ohio River, on both sides of the Afro-Atlantic, on both sides of death. In any or all cases, the point is that the Judeo-Christian God is not waiting around the corner to eclipse evil. Glaude rightly argues that if Garnet embraces an apocalyptic vision in his call for a slave insurrection, if he proves willing “to force the End,” it is certainly not out of any theocratic certainty of redemption waiting on the other side of revolution, but rather out of existential desperation requiring radical redress.31

If neither African nor Christian gods can put down Slavery, then it all comes down to the slaves’ own willingness to shed their own and others’ (p.360) blood, to “rather die freemen, than live to be slaves.” If there is a wisdom tradition that sustains this call “to act for yourselves,” it is the “old and true saying,” as Garnet puts it, “that, ‘if hereditary bondmen would be free, they must themselves strike the blow.’ ” Garnet is certainly being coy here. Educated in New York City’s African Free School, the experimental Noyes Academy, and the Oneida Institute, along with Afro-Atlantic luminaries like Alexander Crummell and James McCune Smith, Garnet certainly knew that what he passes off as an “old and true saying” was actually a recent Romantic outburst.32 To put it crudely, Garnet’s theology of rebellion is neither straightforwardly Christian nor African, but Romantic. It is to Byron he turns for a rationale for slave rebellion, for a metacosm in which the abolition of slavery can be imagined. However, one does not want to miss the profound politics of quotation at work. In casting Byron’s couplet as an anonymous “old and true saying,” Garnet imbues a controversial modern imperative with the authority of antiquity but also unmoors it from the immediate European context in which it was produced and to which, we have seen, it was addressed. McCune Smith’s rhetorical question of how these lines could “fit any others than ourselves” is here transformed into an implicit claim that these lines, relocated to some distant past, could not have been written exclusively by and for European revolutionaries and thus can indeed find their aptest referent or prophetic fulfillment in African Americans. Something more substantial than garden-variety appropriation is happening here—the knowing elision of the lines’ admired author amounts to an assertion that Byron was at best a vehicle for an expression whose ultimate source is transhistorical and ultimate target is obviously Afro-Atlantic slave rebellion. Garnet makes Afro-Atlantic people the true subjects of Promethean cosmic-political revolution.

Recall that it was Frederick Douglass who turned aside Garnet’s brave Byronic charge, but Douglass himself seems later to have adopted Byron’s lines on the “hereditary bondsmen” as rallying cry as well.33 In fact, one can chart Frederick Douglass’s political trajectory from Garrisonian to political abolitionism and from an abolitionism largely in the orthodox mode to one given to cultivating the heretical by reference to his relationship to Byron’s lines. After his abandonment of Garrisonian nonviolence and conversion to political abolitionism in the early 1850s, Douglass claimed these lines as personal mantra. As his friend and, we have seen, fellow Byronist, McCune Smith described in the preface to Douglass’s 1855 second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, it was “the stirring thought” embodied in these lines that “pledged” Frederick Douglass to “the life-battle against slavery and caste.” McCune Smith cannily attributes the lines only to “the evangel of freedom,” which, one can’t help but cynically note, conveniently places them in a radical public domain from which Douglass can appropriate them without incurring the charge of hypocrisy, given his previous rejection of the lines’ (p.361) “stirring thought” when it came from the mouth of Garnet just twelve years before (MBMF, 12).

However, it seems that the lines had acquired genuine personal meaning for Douglass, perhaps as a result of his showdown with Garnet, and even proved conducive to his exit from the Garrisonian camp. They are the triumphant note sounded at the end of the chapter of My Bondage and My Freedom that details his successful physical resistance of the overseer Covey (MBMF, 142). As Douglass had written in a letter to one of his English antislavery correspondents, Quaker Mary Howitt, shortly after his public repudiation of Garrisonian nonresistance:

Whenever I sit thinking over any of the sermons which have been preached to me by my good peace friends, in relation to the subject [of slavery], I am invariably haunted by the lines of Byron, so often quoted by O’Connell:

  • Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
  • Who would be free themselves must strike the blow”

and visions of Salamis and Marathon, and Thermopylae, came up before me, or I stand in the Finstermuntz of the Tyrol, as once I stood, and I see how a little band of brave men, and true, have, in every age of the world, withstood the oppressor.34

Byron’s lines clearly gave Douglass a sense of the world-historical import of the black freedom struggle. They empowered him to push back against the pressure exerted upon African Americans by their “good peace friends” to interpret slavery as an entirely “peculiar institution” subject to peculiar remedies that absolutely could not include the most obvious recourse—self-determining violence. Furthermore, it seems significant that the lines transport him back to ancient Greece and the Promethean exploits of Leonidas and other pagan worthies. Here, as elsewhere in Douglass’s work, there is a subtle valorization of a pagan warrior ethic over and against the martyrology that underwrites Christian radicalism. Byron’s lines thus bring out the heathen and heretic in Douglass.

The second, less momentous controversy of African American politics in which Byron’s lines played a part occurred in relation to the visit of the Hungarian revolutionary, Lajos Kossuth, to the United States in 1851–1852. Even before Kossuth’s much heralded arrival, black abolitionist William Wilson, writing as “Ethiop” in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, gave voice to the great “anxiety … felt here, as to [Kossuth’s] sympathy for, and opinions relative to the oppressed in this country.” He suggested that black Americans could ensure the sympathy of the likes of this “APOSTLE OF LIBERTY” only if they followed Byron’s injunction to “strike the blow.”35 Whether Wilson’s quotation of Byron’s lines in relation to Kossuth was prophetic or Kossuth’s quotation of Byron was already a well-known shtick, when Kossuth gave his December 20, 1851 “Speech Before (p.362) the Ladies of New York” at the beginning of his remarkable US tour, he reportedly declared: “My axiom is … ‘Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.’ ” McCune Smith confirms the utterance: “[Kossuth] had scarcely touched our shores when he thundered in our ears, ‘Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not/Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow?’ ”36

Romanticized in the US press as a race warrior of sorts, Kossuth’s leadership of Hungary’s “hereditary bondsmen” in their strike for freedom resonated profoundly with African American abolitionists.37 Upon first seeing him, McCune Smith noted with great glee that Kossuth “is not a Caucasian, and, thank God, he is not an Anglo Saxon. Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Confessedly the greatest man in Christendom is not a white man! His complexion is swarthy, between a mulatto and a quadroon … Moreover, he is a Sclave, not a Magyar. And Sclaves are the race from whose condition the word Slave has been Anglicised.” In his etymological note on the origin of “slave” in “Sclave” and his ethnological deductions from Kossuth’s appearance, McCune Smith posits a genetic relation between Kossuth’s violent revolution and the black freedom struggle. The hereditary bondsmen of Hungary and African America thus share, in some sense, a common heredity, he seems to pun. McCune Smith was convinced that, through his quotation of Byron’s lines, Kossuth was sending a clear signal of his sympathy for African Americans: “And yet you say he steers clear of the slavery question … American slavery is receiving and will receive telling blows from him.” For his part, McCune Smith seemed ready to respond to that signal, expressing the hope that African Americans would “warm up and scintillate in [Kossuth’s] presence,” as “Seward, Sumner, Beecher, and such like” did. He believed that Kossuth’s person and rhetoric would strike the match beneath the black community that would lead them to strike their own blow.38

But this insinuation of a common “heredity” implied a heresy regarding the cosmography of race and revolution. As we have seen in previous chapters, it was precisely such a genetic relation between revolution and slave rebellion that the forces of proslavery and orthodox abolitionism often sought to sever. Hence, just a couple of months into Kossuth’s tour, black abolitionist Joseph Cephas Holley, in a letter to Frederick Douglass’ Paper, was already decrying New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley for “repeat[ing] with Kossuth the sentiment” of Byron’s spur to “hereditary bondsmen,” but refusing to apply the same to the African American case, further evidence that “all rules, all maxims, are reversed in two cases; in favor of slavery, and against American blacks.”39 Byron’s lines were clearly becoming a proverbial line in the sand between two increasingly incompatible philosophies of abolitionism: the largely white advocacy of Christian moral suasion and the increasingly black support for Promethean political daring, including violent slave insurrection. To wit, at a banquet held in Edinburgh for Harriet Beecher Stowe a couple years later, the Scottish divine and abolitionist Thomas (p.363) Guthrie sharply defined moral suasion and physical revolt as “the only two ways of putting [slavery] down.” Significantly, in doing so he pitted the bracing sentiment of Byron’s call to the hereditary bondsmen, against the pacifistic “religion” of “Wilberforce.” “America,” Guthrie says, still “has to choose between the one or the other. She must choose between the jubilee trumpet of Jamaica”—this would be the pacifistic “religion” of Wilberforce—“or the wild war shriek of Haiti”—here imagined as a response to Byron’s call to the hereditary bondsmen. Guthrie emphatically concludes: “but I pray to God, that the masters and not the slaves, will commence the work of liberation; if the former do not do so, land will be deluged in blood, and the oppressed will have their vengeance.” Byronism is thus aligned with the heretical abolitionism of the slaves themselves, which Guthrie and other abolitionists in the orthodox mode sought to discredit.40

Byronic Abolitionism Across the Color Line and Around the Atlantic: Brown, Stowe, Castro Alves

Other bits of Byron’s work and aspects of his persona cast their shadow over Atlantic antislavery. Perhaps no abolitionist embodied “the spirit of Lord Byron” better than William Wells Brown.41 Not only do the poet’s lines often appear as animating epigraphs and chapter titles in Brown’s work, but Brown himself, in his traveled sophistication and intellectual pursuits, seemed self-consciously to emulate the poet’s idiosyncratic blend of dandyism and contrarianism.42 In The American Fugitive in Europe, Brown details his pilgrimage to Byron’s ancestral home at Newstead Abbey. Brown’s account of the Byronic cradle is itself coyly Byronic, from his sly notice of the “remarkably good-looking” housekeeper; to his strangely disproportionate and ultimately deflating focus on Boatswain, Byron’s beloved dog (next to whom the poet was buried); to his melancholy meditations on genius, mortality, and mutability, all punctuated by generous quotations of Byron’s work, which Brown clearly knew quite well. The experience left Brown acutely aware of the “ever … growing charm” of “the interesting scenes associated with Byron’s strange and eventful history.”43

More substantively, we might see Byron’s influence on Brown’s own literary practice. Hilton Als captures something essential in his claim that Brown “was a good Christian who wanted to be his own God, which is to say a writer.”44 The flip side of Brown’s oft-noted tricksterism—his unabashed pastiche of various sources and his subversive satire of white supremacism—is his less-noted titanism, just as Prometheus’s noble theft of fire in some versions of the myth was preceded by his much more prankish absconding with the delicious meat of animal sacrifices to Zeus. Brown conspicuously leaves his authorial and editorial fingerprints all over everything he writes, dutifully enumerating his “sources” at the end of Clotel, for instance, only to subtly (p.364) reclaim them as “resources” entirely subject to his creative manipulation.45 Hence, when he abruptly and grandiloquently intones during Clotel’s near-escape scene, “But God in his Providence had otherwise determined. He had determined that an appalling tragedy should be enacted that night,” we are perhaps invited to redirect our attention from the booming divine voice left hanging in the air to the man behind the curtain, as it were, from the inscrutable Providence of God to the contrived providence of the human author, a gesture strikingly similar to the one in Douglass’s The Heroic Slave discussed in the previous chapter.46 As Als suggests, the “good Christian” is here playing God. The Omniscient Narrator gets upstaged by the omniscient narrator, the Omnipotent Author by a human one. Such strategic pulling-aside of the narrative curtain could certainly serve to vindicate the race on two counts: it highlighted the individual agency of the black author in crafting a literary plot, thus flagging his achievement as learned artificer; and it also insinuated that the fate of slavery depended on the plotting of blacks as a collective agency. Such auto-deconstructive deviations from narrative realism thus cast the antislavery crusade as a narrative of human struggle rather than divine prerogative, as a human plot, in the most political sense of conspiratorial contrivance, rather than a superhuman plan that demanded patient “waiting on the Lord.” In these alternately light and dark satirical gestures, we can certainly see the imprint of Byronic irony-verging-on-blasphemy. Byron’s self-reflexive, metaliterary cunning supplies a skill set for abolitionists wary of orthodoxies on all sides. Again, Byron leads the way to heretical abolitionism.

As odd as it may first seem, if there was an abolitionist who surpassed William Wells Brown in devotion and debt to Byron, it was Harriet Beecher Stowe. Over the course of her long life, Stowe remained a devoted Byromaniac. As a child she first discovered “a stray volume of Lord Byron’s poetry” in her aunt Esther’s room and was swiftly swept up along the lyric seas of “The Corsair.” According to one biographer, one of Stowe’s first literary endeavors, a tragic verse drama set in Nero’s court, took as its protagonist a thinly classicized Byron, “her first love.”47 Harriet’s passionate interest made Byron the subject of family dinner-table conversation, as her father, the prominent New Light Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher, recounted the controversial events of the poet’s life.48 Oddly enough, Beecher, the staunch Calvinist, had an affection for the anti-Calvinist Byron and took his death very hard, as did Harriet. Upon hearing the news, Harriet remembered her father exclaiming, “Oh, if Byron could only have talked with Taylor and me, it might have got him out of his troubles.”49 Beecher even preached a funeral sermon for Byron that, while it moralized upon the immortality of goodness alone, also sympathetically celebrated the poet’s genius, the first of her father’s sermons the eleven-year-old Harriet remembered comprehending.50 Stowe would adopt a similar tone of fascination, simultaneously utter and reluctant, in her early literary criticism of Byron, a fascination that would flourish in memorable (p.365) characters like Aaron Burr in The Minister’s Wooing.51 The entire Beecher family was apparently caught up in an elaborate and agonizing fantasy in which they wished they could turn back the clock in order to turn Byron to salvation.

After the poet’s death, Byron’s widow, famously estranged from him after their first year of marriage, became a patron of the American abolitionist cause after meeting Charles Lenox Remond and William Lloyd Garrison at the World Anti-Slavery Congress.52 Through her transatlantic abolitionist connections, Stowe was thus able to indulge a childhood fantasy: she became intimately associated with her beloved Byron through her friendship with his wife, precisely the woman whom Johanna Johnston quaintly suggests the young Harriet, along with a host of other girls, must have seen as a villain and longed to replace.53 After their friendship had deepened, Lady Byron confided in Stowe the secret she had kept from virtually everyone else, reportedly because she felt confident that Stowe, given her lifelong passion for the poet, “could have understood him.” Indeed, she confessed that it was Stowe’s evidently legendary love of the poet—which Lady Byron had heard about from someone else—that had first motivated her to make Stowe’s acquaintance, as though she had been preparing Stowe all along to be the recipient of her shocking revelation: the long-dismissed rumors were actually true—Lord Byron had indeed committed incest with his half-sister, and this was the reason Lady Byron had left him.54

Significantly, the revelation did not shatter Stowe’s obsession with Byron so much as complicate and deepen it, enmeshing her as it did in the poet’s inner life as never before. Although she subsequently had plenty of nasty things to say about the ever “sneering” Byron in her defenses of Lady Byron, her view of the poet then—and perhaps ultimately—was tempered by Lady Byron’s own attitude toward the husband who had wronged her. Lady Byron’s saintliness, which Stowe celebrated, was predicated on seeing Byron as a fallen angel, a noble but overreaching Prometheus. The disclosure of Byron’s secret even took on a theological quality insofar as Stowe portrayed the episode as a quasi-religious experience in which she was almost converted to Lady Byron’s somewhat impious belief that her departed husband, despite his grievous sins, was “a redeemed spirit.” Byron’s anti-Calvinist titanism, which championed the human will even against the superhuman, thus indirectly insinuated itself into Stowe’s mind, which had long been susceptible to the “indulgence” of notions like universal salvation, notions that would have appalled her father.55 Not only for Stowe but for a whole generation of women writers “still struggling to throw off their Calvinist heritage, Byron’s poetry articulated the outright rebellion [they] most feared within themselves.”56

Hence, in 1869 when Stowe happened upon the tell-all memoir of Byron’s last mistress, Countess Guiccioli, in a Boston bookshop, she was outraged at the aspersions it cast on her “dearest English friend,” now nine years dead, (p.366) the coldness of whom Guiccioli portrayed as the cause of the poet’s exile to the Continent.57 Stowe, of course, knew better. In an attempt to vindicate her friend, and despite her family’s cautions, Stowe published an irate article in The Atlantic Monthly professing to tell “the true story of Lady Byron’s life,” complete with details of Byron’s incestuous affair with his half-sister. She followed up the article with Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy from Its Beginning in 1816 to the Present Time, a book that reveals the fervency with which Stowe had followed every step of Byron’s life and career. The publication of both the article and book sparked a firestorm of criticism—alternately on the grounds of Stowe’s crass indiscretion in repeating such a salacious story and dim-witted gullibility in believing it in the first place, especially considering the source.58 Despite the fact that it has been largely forgotten today, it is hard to downplay the enormity of the transatlantic controversy that ensued. The scandal ensured, as Forrest Wilson put it, that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “name” would be “linked … in public remembrance”—at least for a good while—“with Lord Byron’s … almost as closely as … with Uncle Tom’s” and “never again would she stand alone as the supreme female figure in the American scene.” But perhaps Harriet finally made her peace with her beloved Byron in September of 1876 during a séance held at her sister Isabella’s home in which the spirit of the poet supposedly manifested itself and urged Isabella to take a letter from the medium’s pocket, supposedly a letter from Lady Byron to Stowe.59 Perhaps Byron was also trying to make peace with his wife through the mediumship of Stowe, a role she no doubt would have relished. Near the end of her life, Stowe’s lifelong anxiety regarding the afterlife and lifelong obsession with Byron thus perhaps converged in a fantasy of mutual redemption.

Needless to say, then, Byron permeated Stowe’s consciousness through various means. But his ultimate impact was on her literary art. Critic Alice Crozier calls Byron “the single greatest literary and imaginative influence on the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and this despite her very considerable debt to Scott and, somewhat less, to Dickens.” Certainly, one sees that influence in her titanist depiction of a villain like Simon Legree.60 But Stowe’s Byronism manifests itself nowhere more clearly than in Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, her second, still understudied, antislavery novel, which centers on an eponymous slave rebel, modeled on Nat Turner, whose apocalyptic vision of revolt is grandly portrayed but ultimately unrealized.61 Gail Smith has argued that Dred, in its concern for the effect of difference (particularly racial difference) on hermeneutics (particularly biblical hermeneutics) marks a “watershed” in Stowe’s career, a salutary crisis in the midst of her project of “feminization,” a point at which she confronts “radical indeterminacy,” à la Hawthorne and Melville.62 Another way of saying this is that in Dred Stowe is at her most Byronic, countenancing—albeit perhaps through squinched eyes—the ruin of sacred truths: biblical authority, epistemological (p.367) transparency, national unity, providential design. The unleashing of Stowe’s Byronism in Dred, among other things, amounts to a trenchant revision of Uncle Tom’s sentimentalism.63 The slave rebel Dred, Samuel Otter writes, with a seeming nod to Romantic Prometheanism, is “George Harris … unbound.”64 Similar instances of pointed rewriting might be observed in other characters and plots. Nina’s death “possesses none of the resonances of Little Eva’s death,” William Mullaney points out, and Milly—“often … referred to … as Uncle Tom’s figurative sister”—is given a “portrait [that] achieves a much harder-edged reality than that of Uncle Tom,” as I will shortly elaborate.65 The deconstruction and decentering of these already classic figures (Eva and Tom) in Dred suggests Stowe’s questioning of the adequacy of any previous conviction that antislavery was seamless with Christian metanarrative.

Smith characterizes Dred as a study in what she calls “cross-reading,” an ethic of interpretation under which “the only way to approach truth is to read with others unlike yourself.”66 The novel’s mode of dealing with the problem of perspectival disparity and the accompanying possibility that, as the narrative voice puts it, “one might almost imagine that there were no such thing as absolute truth,” is evinced in a common pattern across three narrative sequences (445): (1) “The Camp-Meeting,” “Life in the Swamps,” and “More Summer Talk”; (2) “The Clerical Conference,” “The Result,” “The Slave’s Argument,” “The Desert,” “Jegar Sahadutha,” and “Frank Russel’s Opinions”; and (3) “Lynch Law,” “More Violence,” “Engedi,” “ ‘All Over,’ ” “The Burial,” and “The Escape.” The pattern goes as follows: (1) a scene of largely white hermeneutical debate about slavery (involving an overlapping set of minor clerical characters) tragicomically ends in the triumph of proslavery argument despite the exposure of its incoherence and interestedness (“The Camp-Meeting”; “The Clerical Conference”/“The Result”; “Lynch Law”/“More Violence”); (2) the narrative voice superciliously intervenes to provide a rich behind-the-scenes representation of black radical antislavery arguments (“Life in the Swamps”; “The Slave’s Argument”/“The Desert”; “Engedi”); (3) those black radical antislavery arguments are then, in turn, overrun by a return to narrative focalized by white characters (“More Summer Talk”; “Frank Russel’s Opinions”; “The Escape”). Hence, in these sequences, a failure of cross-reading on a mimetic level (the scenes of white hermeneutical debate) is seemingly remedied by a diegetic performance of cross-reading (the narrator’s escorting of us into Dred’s swamps) only to be followed by a backsliding into a narrative discourse that privileges white (-friendly) characters and solutions and thus seems to undermine the cross-reading imperative.

The question is whether this structure simply symptomatizes Stowe’s complicity with her white characters, who can’t countenance slave rebellion (the standard reading), or whether—on the basis of my analysis of Atlantic fictions of slave rebellion in the previous chapter (especially Benito Cereno, to which Robert Levine has compared Dred)—we might read this as a (p.368) paradoxically dynamic dramatization of sociocosmic inertia that raises questions about the Euro-Christian/God’s ability to cross-read when it comes to racial slavery.67 The novel’s much-criticized conclusion, I want to suggest, is self-consciously anticlimactic. The deferral of Dred’s apocalyptic eclipse of racial slavery gives way to what seem to me an array of patently suboptimal and temporary sociopolitical configurations: Clayton presiding over a free black community in Canada much as he did over his nominal slaves on his South Carolina plantation, Milly informally running an interracial orphanage in a New York tenement, and Old Tiff doing his darnedest to rehabilitate his mistress’s family name by raising her children right in Boston. All this is conspicuously provisional and partial in anticipation of the transformation to come through abolition. In other words, what I want to suggest is that the novel, like its eponymous protagonist, assumes a posture of waiting on the Lord, but with increasing—and, with every passing moment, faith-challenging—impatience, not merely looking for signs of God’s just intentions but provoking God toward justice through the production of its own signs. Dred’s ultimate function is summed up in the titular character’s dying words: “ ‘Lay me beneath the heap of witness. Let the God of their fathers judge between us!’ ” (513, my italics). The hastily composed Dred, I want to suggest, is (as its preface explicitly suggests) written and addressed to the providential moment of the mid-1850s, when slavery seemed to be growing in strength even as its necessary destruction had been uncompromisingly prophesied. Dred asks of the Euro-Christian God—“the God of their fathers,” as Dred pointedly puts it—when, if ever, He is going to provide a more satisfying conclusion to the cosmic story of racial slavery than the novel itself, as of 1856, can provide. Dred’s Byronism is most fundamentally evident in its animation by this blasphemous daring of the Euro-Christian God to break His silence regarding racial slavery if He ever will. It is a speech act, a witness. The novel reflects precisely that aspect of Stowe’s spiritual life that caused her, like Byron, to stray from the default determinism of her childhood Calvinism for the mythic dynamism of literary romance and spiritualist science.68

Tellingly, Dred had induced in Lady Byron a nightmare full of “horrible spectres” of the sort in her husband’s poetry. One of the specters the book seemingly raised for her was in fact that of Lord Byron himself, whose dictum that “works of fiction live only by the amount of truth which they contain,” she had cited in a letter to Stowe praising Dred’s truthfulness. Stowe’s white male lead, Edward Clayton, espouses precisely this sentiment when he “venture[s]‌ to say there’s no romance can come up to the gorgeousness and splendor, and the dramatic power, of things that really have happened. All that’s wanting is to have it set before us with an air of reality” (121). It is worth noting that Byron’s related dictum that the “truth is oft times stranger than fiction,” like his spur to “hereditary bondsmen,” became another antislavery mantra, especially in affirming the truth of slave narratives.69 Lady Byron’s (p.369) uncharacteristic mention of her dead husband, occasioned by Dred’s gothic-Byronic atmospherics, piqued Stowe’s attention. She took it as occasion, when she was in London procuring the British copyright for the novel, to engage Lady Byron in discussion of the poet’s “peculiar qualities of mind,” a discussion which led to the fateful revelation at a later meeting.70 Dred was thus bound up in a strangely intimate manner with the revelation of the Byrons’ dread secret.

Dred further reveals its Byronic provenance in its casting of both the white abolitionist, Clayton, and the black slave rebel, Dred, as Promethean defiers of an order that would establish itself as divinely ordained. In Clayton’s case the Byronic casting is explicit. Our first introduction to the man comes from his coy soon-to-be wife Nina Gordon, who calls him “proud as Lucifer … one of your high-and-mighty people—with such deep-set eyes—eyes that look as if they were in a cave—and such black hair! And his eyes have a desperate sort of sad look, sometimes—quite Byronic” (9). Clayton’s Byronism extends beyond appearance and temperament, however. His moral determination to abolish slavery in the South from within the South marks him as a tragic titan in the eyes of his friend Russel, who warns him that he “will always be an unhappy, dissatisfied aspirant after something too high for mortality” (25). Stowe goes out of her way to pigeonhole Clayton as an agonized idealist, à la Byron: he is “ideal to an excess; ideality colored every faculty of his mind, and swayed all his reasonings, as an unseen magnet will swerve the needle. Ideality pervaded his conscientiousness, urging him always to rise above the commonly received and so-called practical in morals” (27). The lighter side of this all-coloring ideality, much as in the case of Byron, is Clayton’s arch unconventionality of opinion, the cause of constant concern to Nina’s Aunt Nesbit, “well-trained conventionalist” that she is (254): he can playfully consider himself “a tree-worshiper” who has “no respect for a man who can’t appreciate a tree” (114), he can nonchalantly read Episcopal prayers at a funeral even though he is a Presbyterian (123), he can appreciate the grandeur of slave spirituals (283), and celebrate the “wildness” and “freedom” of “African” worship at a camp-meeting (245), as well as the “shocking, unsightly growths” of chthonic nature (254). All of this marks Clayton as a man of impassioned but idiosyncratic morality who is unable “to receive any common form of faith, though I respect and sympathize with all” (261). In other words, Clayton is a man strikingly similar to the Byron captured in his published Conversations on Religion with the Presbyterian doctor Kennedy, a book that Stowe—not surprisingly, given the markedly theological nature of her obsession with the poet—eagerly devoured.71

But the Byronic parallels don’t end there. Stowe goes so far as to mix an incest motif into her novel, hard to understand without the Byronic background. “The intimacy,” Stowe writes, between Clayton and his happily (p.370) unmarried sister Anne “had been more than usually strong … she had an almost idolatrous veneration for her brother” (28). Anne puts up quite a resistance to Clayton’s engagement to Nina, the depth of her worshipful “attachment” to her brother “render[ing] the first announcement of a contemplated marriage somewhat painful” (28). The subsequent success of Clayton’s marriage to Nina, his self-extrication from an overheated intimacy with his sister, perhaps marks Stowe’s attempt to fulfill, through fiction at least, her family’s mission to redeem Byron. In the same opening chapter in which Nina introduces us to Clayton as a Byronic melancholic, not coincidentally a conversation arises about the propriety of reading Byron’s Don Juan. While Clayton reveals that he has read it, he declares that “he should lose all respect for a lady friend who had read that” (12). The controversy that ensues—with Nina charging Clayton with sexist hypocrisy—eventually leads to the first formative moment in Clayton and Nina’s relationship—he “own[s]‌ that he was in the wrong,” that “men ought to be as good as [women] are,” as Nina puts it (13). Clayton may be akin to Byron, then, but he’s no Don Juan. Stowe thus carefully distinguishes positive and negative Byronic traits, imbuing Clayton only with the former. He is Byron perhaps as Lady Byron eventually imagined him, a “redeemed spirit.”

In Dred, as in many of Stowe’s novels, the “balancing [of] opposites” becomes nothing short of a structuring principle, and so she readily establishes Nina’s wicked brother, Tom Gordon, as a Byronic point of contrast (17, 185). Unlike the steady Clayton, Tom “never is himself—always up on a wave, or down in a trough,” a stock trope in anatomies of Byron’s character, as in the description Lady Byron gave to Stowe of the poet’s violent mood-swings (195).72 Like Byron and Clayton, Tom is also frankly unconventional in his opinions, albeit savagely rather than quaintly so. He is a gothic villain, who criticizes the proslavery preacher Mr. Jekyl for making “hypocritical sneaks” of slaves by convincing them that their labor is actually a religious duty to be performed (159-60). Tom, like Byron in his more threatening guises, has no patience for such religious obscurantism, but instead cynically operates according to the doctrine of “might makes right” (168). Tom is the heretical slaveholder orthodox abolitionists imagined. He is also apparently enmeshed, at least when drunk, in an incestuous attachment to his sister, Nina. When he first staggers into the novel, while Nina is entertaining some gentlemen callers, Tom devilishly declares: “Some of your beaux, hey? Well, I am as good a fellow as any of ‘em,” a sentiment that not only reveals a chip-on-the-shoulder inferiority complex but also insinuates a desire for incestuous substitution (134). But, unlike Clayton, he gives himself over to this desire. Harassing Nina further, he eventually assaults her, catcalling, “Come here, now you little kit, and sit in my lap” (135). It was a casual and inappropriate sexual gesture like this one, as she related to Stowe, that first alerted Lady Byron to her husband’s ongoing affair with his half-sister.73 (p.371) Stowe’s passionate ambivalence about the poet thus results in the doubling of Edward Clayton and Tom Gordon as the good Byron and the bad Byron.

However, the most compelling of the Byronic personae in the novel is the mysterious slave rebel, Dred. Alice Crozier has suggested that in his mysterious identification with the sublime wildness of the swamp, Dred seems very much modeled on Byron’s Promethean Count Manfred.74 I would contend, however, that Dred has a more relevant Byronic model—the equally Promethean Cain. Stowe had clearly read Byron’s 1821 verse drama, Cain: A Mystery, quite closely, for when Lady Byron related to her the arguments that her husband had deployed to defend his incest with his half-sister—that it was no sin, that the world had been peopled that way—she did not hesitate to point out that “those are the very arguments given in the drama of ‘Cain.’ ”75 Cain presents a more grimly fitting model for Dred, because Stowe knew what Byron himself perhaps did not know, namely, that proslavery intellectuals had long identified Cain as the cursed father of the African race, his “mark” a skin of blackness. Stowe was surely familiar with the racist theory of the curse of Cain. When Dred’s Mr. Jekyl is relaying his racist theology, he invokes the curse of Canaan, the son of Ham, as a justification for the enslavement of Africans, a curse that was often conflated with the curse of the almost homonymous Cain, as Werner Sollors has shown (169).76 Byron himself represents the marking of Cain as a burning of the brow that might simultaneously suggest Promethean fire, black skin, and the practice of branding slaves. His references to Cuvier and pre-Adamites in both the preface and body of the poem also suggest his at least oblique familiarity with racial theories in which the curse of Cain might have been discussed.77

Stowe’s implicit racialization of Byron’s Cain through the figure of Dred presents an exemplary instance of heretical, Byronic abolitionism. Stowe insinuates Byron and his Cain into Dred’s first appearance in the novel. Like the biblical Cain, Dred is “a fugitive and vagabond in the earth,” who emerges mysteriously out of the wilderness, notably in sympathetic response to the “bitter cursing” of Harry Gordon, Nina and Tom’s outraged mulatto half-brother (276). Stowe’s Dred exhibits symptoms of what can only be called a multiple personality disorder through which abolitionism’s oscillation between its dominant orthodox wavelength and heretical undercurrent are forcefully thematized. Like Douglass’s Madison Washington, as we saw in chapter 4, Dred literally speaks “alternately in two different languages,” the transition between which is registered by bodily contortion. He has “a high tone” of prophetic denunciation whose entire content is a cobbling-together of apocalyptic passages from the Bible, a trance-like recitation of imminent doom. This is the orthodox abolitionist who is, in the end, the mere instrument of the Christian God. But Dred has also has a low tone of “common conversation … and bitter irony,” an animated mockery of plantation mores that makes him sound like an infidel provocateur (199, 275, 499). This is the (p.372) heretical abolitionist who converts other slaves into allies in the accomplishment of his rebellious designs. Dred’s low tone, in which he expresses “fierce impatience, at the toleration of that Almighty Being” for injustice of all kinds, sounds a lot like Byron and his Cain (276).

Through his potent rhetorical blend of apocalyptic wrath and savage irony, Dred “rais[es] the very devil” in Harry, who resolves “not … to be good any longer,” perhaps even to kill Tom, who has threatened to sell his wife, Lisette, and worse (199, 201). Stowe’s compulsion to balance opposites occasions the subsequent entrance of the pious Milly on the scene, who poses to Harry that fundamental dichotomy between strategies for surviving slavery—Christian patience and Luciferian rebellion—in biblical terms: “O! O! Honey! Dere’s a blood of sprinkling dat speaketh better things dan dat of Abel” (201, 462). Milly’s distinction between the redeeming blood of the crucified Christ, associated with her practice of seeming resignation, and the wasted blood of the murdered Abel unambiguously aligns the first murderer, Cain, with the insurrectionary Dred. Dred thus represents a radical revision of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s romantic racialism, which linked the protagonist’s blackness to Christ’s redemptive shedding of his own blood rather than to Cain’s apocalyptic shedding of another’s.

Even more significantly, Stowe subsequently gives Dred a Byronic monologue, worthy of Byron’s Cain, that explicitly invokes the primeval perpetrator of the first fratricide. Having rescued a wounded fugitive slave and then helplessly watched him expire, the furious Dred embarks upon the following tirade:

“What harm had this man done? Was he not peaceable? Did he not live here in quietness, tilling the ground in the sweat of his brow? Why have they sent the hunters upon him? Because he wanted to raise his corn for himself, and not for another. Because he wanted his wife for himself, and not for another. Was not the world wide enough? Isn’t there room enough under the sky? Because this man wished to eat the fruit of his own labor, the decree went forth against him, even the curse of Cain, so that whosoever findeth him shall kill him. Will not the Lord be avenged on such people as this” (242)?

More than an homage to Lockean possessive individualism, Dred’s barrage of rhetorical questions echoes those of Byron’s Cain: “What had I done in this … Why did [Adam]/Yield to the serpent and the woman?/Or yielding, why suffer? What was there in this?/The tree was planted, and why not for him?” (II.i.67–72). More specifically, the question of Byron’s Cain (“The tree was planted, and why not for him?”) is the implicit question of Stowe’s Dred (Why can’t the fugitive slave “eat the fruit of his own labor”)? Of course, Cain and Dred are speaking about very different fruits—the prelapsarian fruits of the mythical trees of knowledge and of life and the postlapsarian fruits (p.373) of humble toil. Or are they? The reluctance of Byron’s Cain to sacrifice the latter to God—the fruits for which he has “toiled and tilled and sweaten in the sun”—arises from his fundamental sense of ingratitude to God for previously denying Adam and Eve the fruits of the tree of life, which would have allowed them to escape death’s horrors (III.i.109; I.i.33–34, 210). Cain’s reluctance, as well as Dred’s, is thus both practical and metaphysical.

In the end, both Byron’s Cain and Stowe’s Dred reject the logic of sacrifice on the same grounds: it renders them slaves. Cain’s refusal to sacrifice to the omnipotent God, the “blessedness” of whose creatures “consists in slav’ry,” according to Byron’s Lucifer, maps onto Dred’s refusal, as a fugitive slave himself, to surrender the fruits of his own labor to the white slavemaster (I.i.419–20). Dred’s resistance of the regime of divine whiteness, his alternative Judeo-Christianity of justice and liberation, constitutes a forbidden path to eternal life, like the one Lucifer suggests to Cain when he holds out that the fruits of the tree of life can also be his “By being/[Himself] in [his] resistance. Nothing can/Quench the mind if the mind will be itself/And centre of surrounding things” (I.i.212–15). Dred’s rebel camp—very much the creation of his indomitable mind, with its “golden haze,” “whispering revery” of “dreamily drifting “tree-tops,” and perfectly harmonious “little settlement,” all amid the terrible sublimity of the swamp—is precisely the picturesque paradise that Byron’s Cain seeks to regain against the will of God (Dred, 445–46; Cain, III.i.30–38).

If both Byron’s Cain and Stowe’s Dred finally capitulate to the logic of sacrifice in their murderous thoughts and deeds, however, they can do so only with nihilistic irony.78 For his part, Byron represents the murder of Abel not as Cain’s but God’s crime. Abel’s God rejects Cain’s offering of his first fruits, which is “without victim … without gore,” and accepts Abel’s offering of the firstlings of his flocks, because he “loves blood” (III.i.266–67, 310). The final scenes are a rhetorical—and literal—bloodbath. Cain’s murder of Abel with a fiery brand snatched from Abel’s divinely approved altar becomes a grimly fitting propitiation of a bloodthirsty God. Abel even becomes a type of the crucified Christ, “forgiv[ing] his slayer, for he knew not what/He did,” thus fulfilling Lucifer’s dread prediction to Cain that God would “make/One day a Son unto himself, as he/Gave you a father, and if he so doth,/Mark me! That Son will be a sacrifice” (I.i.163–66). Milly’s redeeming “blood of sprinkling” and Dred’s murdered “blood of Abel” thus finally mingle.

On the one hand, Stowe’s Byronic blending of these two streams of blood allows her to represent Dred’s dreadful prophecies rather sympathetically as the logical product of applying a slave hermeneutics to the Bible, that is, as a valid interpretation of the word of God, given the slave’s position (210–11). By circulating Dred’s insurrectionary preachings through the system of Byron’s Cain, Stowe can ironically represent the bloodshed entailed by Dred’s apocalyptic slave rebellion as a terrible reflection of the divine’s own logic, rather (p.374) than the mere steam given off by human hotheadedness or, worse, an African “tropical” temperament. Dred’s monotonous recitations of biblical wrath and final unwillingness to “smite” without a positive sign from the Almighty more than suggest that his willingness to sacrifice the blood of his white brethren is merely an effort to speak the divine’s language (460). Like Byron’s Cain and unlike the biblical Cain, Dred does not want to mute the propitiatory voice of blood crying from the earth. Virtually his last words are “O earth, earth, earth! Cover thou not my blood!” (513). Hence, if Dred’s insurrectionary visions are “thick with blood,” it is only because that is what the divine seems to require and what he grimly would supply (III.i.285).

By the same token, Milly’s seeming devotion to Christ’s merciful “blood of sprinkling” is perhaps bought with the blood of Abel, much as the blood of Byron’s Christlike Abel is represented as the propitiation of the Father’s murderous bloodlust.79 It is precisely Stowe’s Byronism that intervenes to keep Milly from playing Dred’s Uncle Tom. Milly’s story is twice the bloodbath that the concluding act of Byron’s Cain is, Stowe’s clear homage to and one-upping of her precursor. What we learn is that Milly can perhaps afford to practice Christian resignation, because she has already experienced the satisfaction of a personal apocalypse. Milly relates to Nina the harrowing tale of how her Christian mistress “Miss Harrit” (a telling masochism, perhaps) sold every one of her fourteen children and instigated the cold-blooded murder of her most beloved and youngest son, Alfred, “de last drop of blood in [her] heart” (180). Milly’s extraordinary trials mark her as a Job figure who does not hesitate to “order [her] cause” before the Lord (182). In fact, she mounts a “case” with “arguments” to bring to the bar of God, confident that if any God worth His salt exists, He will hear her cries (180, 182). And her curses. For when Milly sees the jacket of her shot son, Alfred, with “de hole, cut right round in it, like it was stamped, and his blood running out on it… . I walked up into missis’ room, and she was dressed for church, sure enough, and sat dere reading her Bible. I laid it right down under her face, dat jacket. ‘You see dat hole!’ said I; ‘you see dat blood! Alfred’s killed! You killed him!” (181). Subsequently, Milly curses “every cent of dat ar money” gained by the sale of her children, as well as Miss Harrit herself and her bloodline, for the blood of Alfred (180, 181). And Milly expects “de Lord” in whose name she uttered these curses to make good on them (180). In an extraordinary way, God thus becomes the instrument of Milly’s will, rather than vice versa. Dred acknowledges as much when he attributes the postponement of his apocalypse to the power of Milly’s prayers to sway God (461).

Hence, as much as Milly seems to be “overcome by de blood of de Lamb,” it is perhaps the Lamb who is finally drowned in the blood of Milly’s revenge (183). In a way, Milly’s seeming conversion to Christianity through the blood of the Son is actually a conversion to the religion of the vengeful Father who awaits his opportunity to unleash his wrath on a world that spilled His (p.375) child’s blood. The sermon that induces her blood-drenched vision of Christ “bleeding, bleeding, and bleeding … bleedin’ for us like he did on Calvary, and willin’ to bleed” first catches her ear because it speaks of a Father-God who’d lost his son, just as she had (183, 182). The central figure in Milly’s salvation drama is thus not the sacrificed Son who dispenses mercy but the tormented Divine Parent who insists upon justice. Whatever love Milly displays toward her former enemy, Miss Harrit, after her conversion may be a luxury afforded by the ongoing fulfillment of eye-to-eye justice. For when Milly goes to repent and to render herself Miss Harrit’s “sister in Jesus,” it is revealed that Miss Harrit has “been sick” for some time, not to mention abused by her drunkard son (183). In other words, Milly’s vengeful Parent-God has arguably begun to honor her curse, subsequently culminating in the perfectly symmetrical death of Miss Harrit’s son, who “shot hisself right through de heart, trying to load a gun when he was drunk,” which, in turn, breaks Miss Harrit’s heart and takes her “down to de grave” (184). Milly later reveals that she clearly interprets these events as fulfillment of her curse: “De Lord judged [Miss Harrit’s] poor soul! She wan’t let off from her sins. Her chil’en growed up to be a plague and a curse to her! Dey broke her heart” (462).

So much for mercy, then. While Miss Harrit is “saved,” she is “saved by fire,” with emphasis on the fire rather than the salvation, the hell rather than the heaven, as it were (462). All of Milly’s words and deeds of seeming Christian consolation in her two narrations of Miss Harrit’s deathbed scene can be taken as reiterations of her pagan curse. First, as she tells Nina, she “watched” Miss Harrit die and then “laid her down like she’d been one o’ my babies,” a disturbing image, given Milly’s history with Miss Harrit, that recasts a gesture of gentleness as a stroke of the sword of justice (184). Not only does the metaphor render the mistress the dependent of the slave, it also instrumentalizes Miss Harrit as metaphorical substitute in Milly’s post-traumatic fantasy of regaining her children. Even more cruelly, perhaps, when her mistress cries out in desperation for her sins, Milly says, “Don’t think of it no more; de Lord’s hid it in his own heart” (184). In effect, this seeming verbal caress is actually a twisting of the knife, reminding Miss Harrit as it does of the manner of both Alfred’s and her own son’s death and insinuating that the Lord has perhaps especially “taken to heart” the dying woman’s sins as a personal grudge—sins he will punish rather than forgive (184). Most strikingly, perhaps, Milly offers Nina the dangerously ambiguous advice that “if ever ye’re tempted to hate anybody, think how’t’ll be with’em when dey comes to die” (184). Does this mean that one should curb one’s desire for revenge against someone out of mercy, in view of the pathetic state to which they will inevitably be reduced upon death? Or that one should curb such desire out of justice, because perfect revenge will come not through one’s own efforts in this life, but through God’s punishments in the next? When Milly retells the (p.376) story to the slave rebels in Dred’s camp, she makes clear that she means the latter: Miss Harrit “died with her poor head on my arm—she dat had broke my heart! Wan’t better dan if I’d killed her” (462). Milly’s God thus ministers to the broken-hearted and the captive by breaking the hearts of their heartbreakers and making of their captors captives left to lean upon their arm.

Significantly, it is this second telling of her story in the rebel camp that finally short-circuits Dred’s insurrection. The hymn that Milly sings upon her entrance into the camp—most fittingly, “And did my Saviour bleed”—effectively staunches the bloody plot of the conspirators (461). Or does it? As the foregoing suggests, Milly ultimately does not present an argument against the apocalypse of slave rebellion on the grounds that such an action is biblically indefensible or morally reprehensible, but rather because such a human-engineered apocalypse is bound to offer cold comfort in contrast to the heavenly fire of Divine Apocalypse. Milly forestalls Dred’s apocalypse only because she knows from personal experience that the Divine’s will be so much sweeter. Better to leave the murder of Abel to the Heavenly Father than the human brother. We might say that black Milly has made a deal with the devil, which is to say the God of the Bible, whom she implicitly identifies as white; or, rather, that the white God has made a deal with the black devil, Milly (180). Milly has restrained her hand on the condition that He unleash His in all its fury. Orthodox abolitionism collapses into heretical abolitionism. Hence, as John Carlos Rowe argues, “Stowe’s decision not to stage slave rebellion” cannot be taken as a repudiation of “the revolutionary politics of the novel,” which, if “Christian,” are not straightforwardly so.80

In an ironic way, it is the active Dred rather than the passive Milly who finally waits on the Lord. Dred scans the surface of the heavens for divine signs: “Behold those lights in the sky—the lights in his hands pierced for the sins of the world, and spread forth as a cross! But that day shall come that he shall lay down the yoke, and he will bear the sin of the world no longer. Then shall come the great judgment” (279). In the meantime, Milly has also “looked up to de [same] stars” that “never say a word,” but she has not satisfied herself with such silence. That “hole” in Alfred’s jacket, which left a hole in her heart, has driven her to “tear a hole through de sky, ‘cause I must find God; I had an errand to him, and I must find him” (182). In her mad grief she has done what the Promethean Ahab could not do—she has struck through the “pasteboard masks” and seized the Almighty with her own mighty hand. She has sent Him on her “errand” rather than being sent on His. Or, even more blasphemously, insofar as Dred figures the stars in the heavens as holes in the crucified body of Christ, Milly’s act of “tear[ing] a hole through de sky” is, in effect, a crucifying of the Lord afresh. In any case, Milly has not converted to the Christian God so much as the Christian God has converted to Milly. The sheer brutality of slavery, evident in a life like Milly’s, affords the (p.377) slave a significant bargaining chip with the divine. The slave has a right to answers and solutions regarding the extraordinary evil of her plight. Within the Christian Milly a Promethean pagan glows, an African fetish-priestess who demands reciprocity from the heavens. As she herself reveals, that heart of hers burns “like a red-hot coal” (180). Our first view of her has already hinted as much: “a tall, broad-shouldered, deep-chested African woman,” Milly is “a fine specimen of one of those warlike and splendid races, of whom, as they have seldom been reduced to slavery, there are but few and rare specimens among the slaves of the south” (49–50). True to her African heritage—which, as we saw in chapter 4, was often aligned with Promethean daring—Milly ultimately refuses, in high-Promethean fashion, to be the slave of God or man.

A final example of Byronic abolitionism will remind us of the black Prometheus at its core. If the Promethean personality and poetry of Byron had an unexpected influence on US abolitionism, it also did on Brazilian abolitionism in the person of Antônio Castro Alves, popularly known in Brazil as “O Cantor dos Escravos [the Poet of the Slaves].” If anyone was a victim of the so-called “Mal Byrônico [The Byronic Malady]” that afflicted Brazilian Romanticism, so prevalent and penetrating it even led some students at the Academy of São Paulo to perform Manfred-like rituals in emulation of the darkest and most macabre aspects of the English poet’s work and life, it was Castro Alves.81 Born in Bahia in 1847 to a well-to-do family, in many ways Castro Alves seemed to be the reincarnation of Byron in Brazil: like Byron, he walked with a limp (the result of a hunting accident that led to the amputation of his foot); like Byron, he gained a reputation as a Casanova whose theatrical nature and undulating dark locks left women powerless before his gaze; like Byron, he alternated between world-weary melancholy (he added seventeen lines to one of Byron’s darkest poems, “Darkness,” when he translated it) and passionate activism in various causes; like Byron, he tragically died young, of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. But, above all, like Byron—indeed, directly inspired by Byron, whose work he had loved since adolescence—Castro Alves was a cosmopolitan republican attuned to the freedom struggles of various oppressed peoples in Poland, Greece, France, Hungary, and Mexico.82

But Castro Alves was also attuned to the freedom struggle at home. In the early 1860s when abolitionism was still scarcely a presence on Brazil’s political landscape, the sixteen-year-old Castro Alves was writing his early poem, “A Canção do Africano [The African’s Song],” which insisted upon the centrality of abolition to the republican dreams of Brazilian intellectuals, who had come out from under Portugal’s Old World empire in 1822 only to find themselves the subjects of a New World empire.83 In his abolitionist poems, presented and published in various venues during his lifetime then collected posthumously in 1883 as Os Escravos [The Slaves], Castro Alves, like Byron at his most Promethean, “speaks out as an individual against the (p.378) cosmos, against whatever part of the established order serves to perpetuate injustice.” In fact, it was precisely as Prometheus that Castro Alves, “though white, male, and grossly implicated by his social status in the institution of slavery,” dared “to imagine the voice of Africa within his own voice, and to cry out against the displacement of millions.”84 These experiments in empathetic imagination—from the juvenile “Canção do Africano [African’s Song]” to the mature masterpiece, “Vozes de Africa [Voices of Africa]”—in which he speaks for and/or as Africa(ns) are also searing adaptations of the Promethean personae of Byron’s works. In his “Tragédia no Lar [Tragedy at Home],” for instance, Africans become “uma raça de novos Prometheus [a race of new Prometheuses],” a race eviscerated by the modern slave trade just as Prometheus had his entrails torn by Zeus’s punishing eagle. Likewise, in his own “Prometheu” (that Romantic rite of passage), Castro Alves makes it clear that to address Prometheus is necessarily to address that “povo infeliz [unhappy people]”—the African race—who are, in their captive state, “o Prometheu moderno [the modern Prometheus].”85

Simply put, for Castro Alves, Prometheus is not only black but African, a slave brutally torn from his homeland and, as a result, given to rebellious tendencies and blasphemous accusations, as becomes clear in his dramatic “Vozes de Africa [Voices of Africa],” conceived and composed over the course of the 1860s.86 “God! O God! Where are you that you do not answer,” Castro Alves’ bold Africa begins, “On what world, what star have you hidden yourself/Veiled in heaven?” This psalmic plaint, à la Du Bois in his “Litany at Atlanta” and elsewhere, quickly and explicitly turns to Promethean denunciation in the second stanza when Africa charges, “Like Prometheus, one day you bound me/To a desolate, blood-stained boulder, Perpetual galley-labor! … For a vulture—I am given the broiling sun!/And the land of Suez—was the shackle/That bound me by one foot …” With the primeval Prometheus as seeming cue, the poem proceeds to chart a cosmography of the modern world, insinuating a racial theodicy of sorts by pointing out the relative blessedness of Africa’s sister continents—Asia enjoying her “voluptuous shade” and Europe “always Europe, the glorious one … Wearing the laurels of every contest.” Yet Africa is “sad, abandoned,” her tearful pleas evidently unheard by an avowedly “merciful God” who, from her perspective, can only be “terrible”: “Is this enough pain yet, o terrible God?!/And perhaps your eternal spirit is not drained/Of vengeance and rancor?/What have I done, Lord? What horrifying crime/Have I ever committed, that you oppress me/With your double-edged vengeance?!”

According to the poem, the original crime seems to be the African continent’s hospitable reception of the cursed Ham after the flood. “From that day the wind of disgrace” has howled through Africa, hastening the ancient flight of wisdom from Egypt and, ultimately, the modern flight of predatory Europe, that “domesticated falcon,” to Africa, where she has “snatched up” (p.379) in her “talons” “my disgraced progeny.” Africa, like Prometheus, has been unjustly cursed for a benevolent act that enables the (re)commencement of human civilization. The titan’s theft of life-sustaining fire maps onto Africa’s acceptance of the cursed, “collapsing wanderer” at her hearth fire, as it were. The poem emphasizes the arbitrariness of the divine punishment of Africa: Africa is suddenly bound “one day” for what seems to be a reflexive act of unwitting disobedience—taking in the cursed Ham—that, by another standard, might well seem like obedience to the best and highest in human beings made in the image of God. In a sense, Africa’s accursedness thus begins to seem a brave badge of honor, marking a purposeful prioritization of human rights over a divine right that seems all too willing to exercise its power for its own sake and without any sort of recognizable sense, punishing even virtue if it sees fit. Africa’s barrage of increasingly impudent interrogations of Deity seems rather transparently modeled on Romantic Prometheus poems like that of the young Goethe, and, as Goethe’s poem does, Castro Alves’s poem eventually gives way to the kind of outright blasphemy that a poem like Cowper’s “The Negro’s Complaint” seeks to contain and explain away as the sad consequence of slavery and the pressing reason for its abolition. At its despairing conclusion, “Vozes de Africa” mounts a rather extraordinary charge: “Christ! In vain you died on a mountain …/Your blood will not cleanse my brow of/The original stain.” This reference to an “original stain” upon the brow moves us past Ham to even mistier origins, namely, back to Byron’s Cain, whose curse was made physically evident as a mark on the brow, which many subsequent commentators took to be the black skin characteristic of his supposed African descendants.

The fact that the poem recedes so relentlessly from the present of slavery into an increasingly remote past, ultimately taking us all the way back to biblical beginnings, suggests that Africa’s outbursts of blasphemy are a long time coming, the product of at least “two thousand years” of antagonism between Africa and the Absolute. Cain and Christ, and the opposing tides of blood they ride, come to seem like primordial opponents rather than successive figures in a linear salvation narrative, iconic figures in a timeless opposition. Or rather, Prometheus and Zeus, for the poem returns from the biblical to the classical at its conclusion. Castro Alves’ Africa ultimately settles into the Promethean persona: “Today my blood feeds America/—Condor you have made yourself into a vulture,/Bird of slavery./She draws nearer, … traitorous sister.” We might see the poem’s containment of the biblical within a classical frame as a reiteration, on a formal level, of the poem’s culminating blasphemy regarding the inadequacy of Christian salvation when it comes to Africa, that is, as an attempt to suggest a different, pagan narrative for Africa of a proud Promethean rebellion that embraces its divine punishment as a sign of merit. Unrepentant of the original sin manifested in her “original stain,” Castro Alves’s Africa stridently (p.380) refuses the Christian redemption that even many die-hard black nationalists deemed necessary for the continent’s millennial fruition. It is God, not Africa, who must initiate any reconciliation. Given the poem’s sense of deep time, this figuration suggests that insofar as the slave trade is merely the latest manifestation of an age-old antagonism between Africa and the Absolute, then Africa is not just “the modern Prometheus,” but perhaps the ancient, timeless one as well.

Notes:

(1.) The term was contemporaneous with Byron himself, see Frances Wilson, ed., Byromania: Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

(2.) John Greenleaf Whittier, “Byron’s Writings,” The Liberator, October 13, 1832. Whittier had earlier produced a deeply ambivalent reckoning with Byron—on the one hand, Byron is, problematically, “a wretched infidel”; on the other, he undeniably possesses “the power of controlling at will the passions of his readers,” “Lord Byron,” Essex Gazette, May 8, 1830.

(3.) “Swimming,” Freedom’s Journal, August 3, 1827.

(4.) “A Mistake in the Weight,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, September 1, 1854.

(5.) “The Countess of Lovelace,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, January 21, 1853.

(6.) “The Hon. Ada Byron,” The Liberator, December 6, 1834.

(7.) See William Wells Brown, The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of People and Places Abroad (Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1855), 300–302; McFeely, Frederick Douglass, 153; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy from Its Beginning in 1816 to the Present Time (London: S. Low, Son, and Marston, 1870).

(8.) In her essay, “Black Anglophilia; or, The Sociability of Antislavery, American Literary History 14:3 (Fall 2002), Elisa Tamarkin notes black abolitionists’ “extravagant fixation on aspects of British culture far removed from, and far surpassing, the political imperatives of abolition itself,” for example, Byron’s horror of getting fat, and argues that such eccentric and excessive celebrations of Englishness offered African Americans “a wider field within which [they] could operate in ways not circumscribed by the project of abolition,” affording them the opportunity to become public intellectuals (446, 447).

(9.) See William Ellery Leonard, Byron and Byronism in America (New York: Gordian Press, Inc., 1965). Leonard very briefly discusses the Byronic attachments of a few prominent antislavery poets—Whittier, for instance (29–30)—but not in any substantive way.

(10.) Wood, “Key Notes,” xlvi.

(11.) All cited in Eva Beatrice Dykes, The Negro in English Romantic Thought or, A Study of Sympathy for the Oppressed (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, Inc., 1942), 85–87. The 1813 journal entry was in public circulation by 1830 thanks to Byron’s devoted first biographer Thomas Moore’s, Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1830), 1:337. For a more recent, long overdue discussion of Byron’s grappling with (p.464) racial slavery, specifically in Don Juan, see Mark Canuel, “Race, Writing, and Don Juan,” Studies in Romanticism 54, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 303–28. For a suggestive reading of Byron’s “notorious friendship” at Cambridge with a tame bear as somehow resonant with the ongoing abolition of the British slave trade, see Fiona MacCarthy, Byron: Life and Legend (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 68. Byron’s anarchist tendency (alongside his aristocratic reflex), which implied abolitionism, is well expressed in one of the “detached thoughts” of his journal of 1821-22: “But there is no freedom – even for Masters – in the midst of slaves. – – it makes my blood boil to see the thing. – I sometimes wish that I was the Owner of Africa – to do at once – what Wilberforce will do in time – viz – sweep Slavery from her desarts – and look on upon the first dance of their Freedom. – – – As to political slavery – so general – it is men’s own fault – if they will be slaves, let them! – – Yet it is but “a word and a blow” – see how England formerly – France – Spain – Portugal – America – Switzerland – freed themselves! – – there is no one instance of a long contest, in which men did not triumph over Systems. – If Tyranny misses her first spring she is cowardly as the tiger, and retires to be hunted” (quoted in Dykes, Negro in English Romantic Thought, 87; see also MacCarthy, Byron, 222, 285).

(12.) Ethan J. Kytle, Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 4.

(13.) Douglas Bush, Mythology and the Romantic Tradition in English Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969), 77, 79.

(14.) On Manfred as Promethean production, see G. Gillespie, “Prometheus in the Romantic Age,” 206–207.

(15.) Citations from Manfred are drawn from George Gordon, Lord Byron, Byron’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Alice Levine (New York: Norton Critical Editions, 2010), 247–83, but are given by act, scene, and line number(s) rather than page, I.i.153–56; II.ii.155–59; I.ii.4–7.

(16.) Byron, Manfred III.ii.4–8.

(17.) Byron, Manfred III.ii.117–19.

(18.) Byron, Manfred III.ii.106–107.

(19.) See Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 285–335.

(20.) Byron, Manfred II.ii.110.

(21.) All quotations from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage occur in Canto II, stanzas 74-76 and are drawn from Byron’s Poetry and Prose ed. Alice Levine (New York: Norton Critical Editions, 2010), 76–77. For Kytle’s brief discussion of the significance of these lines for Delany, Douglass, and others, see Romantic Reformers, 4, 22, 77, 86–88, 173, 266.

(22.) Communipaw [James McCune Smith], “For Frederick Douglass’ Paper. New York, Dec. 18, 1851,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, December 25, 1851.

(23.) “The Condition of Our People,” The Colored American, October 12, 1839.

(24.) See John Ernest, Liberation Historiography, 114. Ernest also notes that Garnet continued to deploy Byron’s lines, for instance, in an 1847 tract on the need for a national printing press controlled by and directed toward African Americans (283).

(25.) Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 160–67.

(26.) Henry Highland Garnet, “Address to the Slaves of the United States,” in Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature, 17901860, ed. Richard Newman, Patrick Rael, and Philip Lapsansky (New York: Routledge, 2001), 160–64. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

(27.) On death and Afro-Atlantic resistance to slavery, see V. Brown, Reaper’s Garden; and Mullin, Africa in America, 62–74.

(28.) Stuckey, Slave Culture, 155–56, 197.

(29.) Stuckey, Slave Culture, 155–56, 187; Dwight N. Hopkins, Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 111.

(30.) Glaude, Exodus, 155–56.

(31.) Glaude, Exodus, 156–59.

(32.) Garnet received a classical education from an early age, loved the Aeneid, claimed that if Socrates had lived in his day he would have been an abolitionist, and wrote youthful Sturm und Drang poems like “Alonzo,” which was likely modeled on the poem of the same name by the Gothic writer, Romantic Satanist, and heretical antislavery man, Matthew “Monk” Gregory Lewis, see Joel Schor, Henry Highland Garnet: A Voice of Black Radicalism in he Nineteenth Century (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), 17–19; see also Martin B. Pasternak, Rise Now and Fly to Arms: The Life of Henry Highland Garnet (New York: Garland, 1995), 10–15.

(33.) For an account of Douglass’s interest in Byron as arising from his 1845–1847 trip to the British Isles, see John Stauffer, The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 60–61; also Hong Gia Phan, Bonds of Citizenship: Law and Labors of Emancipation (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 160–63.

(34.) Frederick Douglass, “Letter No. XIV,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, October 9, 1851.

(35.) Ethiop [William J. Wilson], “From Our Brooklyn Correspondent,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, December 11, 1851. For the fullest discussion to date of Wilson and his “Ethiop” persona, see Ivy G. Wilson, Specters of Democracy: Blackness and the Aesthetics of Politics in the Antebellum U.S. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 145–68.

(36.) Henry W. De Puy, Kossuth and His Generals; With a Brief History of Hungary; Select Speeches of Kossuth; Etc. (Buffalo: Phinney & Co., 1852), 383; J.M. Smith, “For Frederick Douglass’ Paper.”

(37.) Kossuth himself and others continually emphasized his “oriental character” even as he disavowed the charge that he was at heart an ethnic nationalist rather than a republican, see De Puy, Kossuth and His Generals, 368–69, 373, 378.

(38.) J.M. Smith, “For Frederick Douglass’ Paper.” In an 1894 commemorative address on Kossuth, Parke Goodwin even went so far as to attribute the resurgence of US antislavery zeal in the wake of the Compromise of 1850 to Kossuth’s stirring oratory, which could not but help raise the question Kossuth himself was careful never to ask explicitly: “Why should we sympathize with the oppressed people of Europe, and be indifferent to the oppressed Africans within our threshold,” Parke Goodwin, Commemorative Addresses: George William Curtis; Edwin Booth; Louis Kossuth; John James Audubon; William Cullen Bryant (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1895), 140.

(39.) Joseph C. Holley, “Letter from Joseph C. Holley,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, February 5, 1852.

(40.) “Banquet at Edinburgh in Honor of Mrs. Stowe (Concluded),” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, June 3, 1853.

(41.) Tamarkin, “Black Anglophilia,” 448; see also Ezra Greenspan, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), 250–51.

(42.) See, for instance, W. W. Brown, Clotel, 169, 198.

(43.) W.W. Brown, American Fugitive, 147–53.

(44.) Hilton Als, “Introduction” to Clotel, xvii. On Brown’s heterodoxy, see Greenspan, William Wells Brown, 174-75,

(45.) W.W. Brown, Clotel, 206; Brown’s biographer, Ezra Greenspan, sums up Brown as “a man who devoted his life to playing variations on a favorite instrument, the American archives … [who] put more distance than meets the eye between his personal self and his published works, even those written in his shifty first person. A trickster of uncommon guile… .” (William Wells Brown, 5); see also Lara Langer Cohen, “Notes from the State of Saint Domingue: The Practice of Citation in Clotel,” in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Stein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 161–77.

(47.) Johanna Johnston, Runaway to Heaven: The Story of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1963), 41–42.

(48.) Anne Fields, ed., Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1897), 38.

(49.) Forrest Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1941), 62; see also Fields, Life and Letters, 38–39. On Byron’s “Prometheus” as a critique of the Calvinism he grew up with, see Raizis, From Caucasus to Pittsburgh, 82. Joan Hedrick, Stowe’s most recent biographer, reaffirms the fact that Beecher was not “immune to the appeal of romanticism” in the form of Byromania, see Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 21.

(51.) Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe, 156.

(52.) McFeely, Frederick Douglass, 153. See also “Prejudice in England,” The Colored American, October 3, 1840, for an account of black abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond’s meeting with Lady Byron.

(53.) Johnston, Runaway to Heaven, 8–10. Johnston really plays up the romantic infatuation angle in her account of Stowe’s Byronic attachment. For instance, Byron’s death was “a sharper blow to her than the news of Professor Fisher’s death,” because he “was more real to her than Professor Fisher, his image the central one in her heart” (31).

(54.) Stowe, Lady Byron Vindicated, 143–44; Johnston, Runaway to Heaven, 10, 309–13.

(56.) Caroline Franklin, “Stowe and the Byronic Heroine,” in Transatlantic Stowe: Harriet Beecher Stowe and European Culture, ed. Denise Kohn, Sara Meer, and Emily B. Todd (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006), 7.

(58.) Some of the more prominent contemporaneous responses to the book are collected in Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1980), 169–99. It is no doubt a measure of the eclipse of the significant Byron episode in Stowe criticism that the most recent biography, Hedrick’s, devotes but a few pages, whereas the late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century biographies devote whole chapters to it. However, the episode may be in the process of critical revival given the transatlantic turn in US literary studies: see Jennifer Cognard-Black, Narrative in the Professional Age: Transatlantic Readings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (New York: Routledge, 2004), 63–85; Michelle Hawley, “Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lord Byron: A Case of Celebrity Justice in the Victorian Public Sphere,” Journal of Victorian (p.467) Culture 10, no. 2 (Winter 2005): 229–56; Susan McPherson, “Opening the Secret: The Stowe-Byron Controversy,” Victorian Review 27, no. 1 (2001): 86–101.

(59.) Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline, 620, 551, 602. In her recent religious biography of Stowe, Nancy Koester specifies that Stowe came to spiritualism by way of one Dr. Taylor, whose Swedish Movement Cure she had sought in response to “stress over the Lady Byron affair,” Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 294.

(60.) Alice C. Crozier, “Harriet Beecher Stowe and Byron,” in Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1980), 195–97. Crozier duly notes that the epigraph of chapter 35 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and thus draws an explicit analogy between Legree’s superstitious obsession with the lock of Eva’s hair, which reminds him of his dearly departed mother, and Childe Harold’s meditation on “the weight” that certain “things” rediscovered can “bring / Back on the heart.”

(61.) As Judie Newman sums up, “For most literary historians, Dred remains a novel without descendants, written in such immediate response to particular historical events as to have subsequently perished without trace from the literary canon,” “Was Tom White? Stowe’s Dred and Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson,” in Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition, ed. Karen L. Kilcup (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999), 67. That situation is beginning to change in part with the investigation of the particular historical events that so informed the writing of Dred. David Grant, for instance, reads it as a Republican “campaign novel,” “Stowe’s Dred and the Narrative Logic of Slavery’s Extension,” Studies in American Fiction 28, no. 2 (Autumn 2000): 151–78. In particular, much of the recent criticism has centered somewhat narrowly on representations of law in the novel, playing up the role of the legal research that Stowe undertook in preparing A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the years leading up to Dred. “Legal matters are so central to Dred that it seems to have been written primarily to give them a context,” writes Lisa Whitney, “In the Shadow of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Stowe’s Vision of Slavery from the Great Dismal Swamp,” New England Quarterly 66, no. 4 (December 1993): 555. For more in this legalist vein, see Gregg D. Crane, “Dangerous Sentiments: Sympathy, Rights, and Resolution in Stowe’s Antislavery Novels,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 51, no. 2 (1996): 176–204; Jeannine Marie Delombard, “Representing the Slave: White Advocacy and Black Testimony in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred,” New England Quarterly 75, no. 1 (March 2002): 80–106; and Laura H. Korobkin, “Appropriating Law in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 62, no. 3 (December 2007): 380–406.

(62.) Gail K. Smith, “Reading with the Other: Hermeneutics and the Politics of Difference in Stowe’s Dred,” American Literature 69, no. 2 (June 1997): 306. Smith sees Stowe as subsequently “attempt[ing] in her remaining works to produce unity and certainty through feminized discourse,” a view ultimately consistent with Ann Douglas’s critique of Stowe in The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon Books, 1978).

(63.) On Dred as a critical rewriting of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, see Maria Karafilis, “Spaces of Democracy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred,” Arizona Quarterly 55, no. 3 (Autumn 1999): 23–49; Newman; Samuel Otter, “Stowe and Race,” in The Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Cindy Weinstein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 15–38; John Carlos Rowe, “Stowe’s Rainbow Sign: Violence and Community in (p.468) Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp,” Arizona Quarterly 58, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 38–55; Whitney, “In the Shadow.”

(64.) Otter, “Stowe and Race,” 33.

(65.) William P. Mullaney, “Ecstasy in Excess: Mysticism, Hysteria, and Masculinity in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred,” in Beyond Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Essays on the Writing of Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Sylvia Mayer and Monika Mueller (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 162.

(67.) Robert S. Levine, “Introduction” to Dred, xx.

(68.) Koester, Stowe: A Spiritual Life, 219–21, 292–99. For potentially congruent recent readings of the novel attending to its “incarnational logic” and maledictive performativity, respectively, see Kevin Pelletier, Apocalyptic Sentimentalism: Love and Fear in U.S. Antebellum Literature (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 120–49; and Caleb Smith, The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 151–75.

(69.) See, for instance, W.W. Brown, Clotel, 169.

(70.) Stowe, Lady Byron Vindicated, 142–43; Noel B. Gerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Biography (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1976), 122.

(72.) Stowe, Lady Byron Vindicated, 156; see also Stowe’s “physiological argument” regarding Byron’s character (247–61).

(74.) Crozier, “Stowe and Byron,” 197.

(75.) Stowe, Lady Byron Vindicated, 160. See also Truman Guy Steffan, ed., Lord Byron’s Cain: Twelve Essays and a Text With Variants and Annotations (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968), 429. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text. On Byron and, specifically Cain’s, unsettled and unsettling relation to biblical literalism—a fundamental aspect of Dred as well, see Ian Dennis, “Cain: Lord Byron’s Sincerity,” Studies in Romanticism 41, no. 4 (Winter 2002): 655–74; Wolf Z. Hirst, “Byron’s Fidelity to His Source and His Originality in His Rewriting of Six Verses from Genesis,” in Byron’s Religions, ed. Peter Cochran (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011), 190–96; Robert Ryan, “Byron’s Cain: The Ironies of Belief,” The Wordsworth Circle 21, no. 1 (December 1990): 41–45; and Paul Whickman, “ ‘The Snake Spoke Truth’: Scripture and ‘The Truth’ in Byron’s Cain,” in Byron’s Religions, ed. Peter Cochran (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2011), 181–89.

(76.) Sollors, Neither Black Nor White, 95, 98–100.

(77.) For a pertinent treatment of the significance of Cuvier’s geologic catastrophism to the apocalyptic form and content of Cain, see Dimitri Karkoulis, “‘They pluck’d the tree of Science/And sin’: Byron’s Cain and the Science of Sacrilege,” European Romantic Review 18, no. 2 (April 2007): 283–91.

(78.) For a good discussion of Cain’s rejection of Romantic millennial hope, see Cantor, Creature and Creator, 135–55. On Dred as trapped in a Girardian cycle of reciprocal violence, see Richard Boyd, “Violence and Sacrificial Displacement in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred,” Arizona Quarterly 50, no. 2 (Summer 1994): 51–72.

(79.) Here I am indebted to my former Harvard tutorial student Glenn Kiyoshi Lashley’s important discussion, “Undermining Authority in Dred and Benito Cereno.”

(80.) See Rowe, “Stowe’s Rainbow Sign,” 44, as well as Karafilis, “Spaces of Democracy.” For important critiques of Dred’s political theology that, nonetheless, fail to account for its nuances, see Mark Randall Gruner, “Stowe’s Dred: Literary Domesticity and the Law of Slavery,” Prospects 20 (1995): 1–37; and Theodore R. Hovet, “Christian Revolution: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Response to Slavery and the Civil War,” New England Quarterly 47, no. 4 (December 1974): 535–49.

(81.) To date the most complete study of Byronism in Brazil is a master’s thesis by Matthew Lorin Squires, “The Byronic Myth in Brazil: Cultural Perspectives on Lord Byron’s Image in Brazilian Romanticism,” M.A. Thesis, Brigham Young University, 2005. As Squires notes, Onédia Célia de Carvalho Barbosa’s Byron no Brasil, Traduções (São Paulo: Editora Ática, 1975) frankly acknowledges that it is merely “a preliminary study” (28).

(82.) Squires, “Byronic Myth,” 71–72; Alberto da Costa e Silva, Castro Alves (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2006), 40.

(83.) Costa e Silva, Castro Alves, 29, 45–46.

(84.) Amy A. Peterson, “Introduction,” in Antônio de Castro Alves, The Major Abolitionist Poems, trans. and ed. Amy A. Peterson (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990), ix–xix.

(85.) See Antônio Castro Alves, Obras Completas de Castro Alves (Rio de Janeiro: Z. Valverde, 1947).

(86.) All citations are from Peterson’s translation, 2–9.