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William Cowper’s “The Negro’s Complaint"

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

William Cowper

Source

Use of the Term, "Negro"

Please note that William Cowper wrote this poem circa 1788 when the term "Negro" was the proper term. The term "African American" did not come into vogue until 1988, two hundred years later, when Rev. Jesse Jackson announced his preference for the term.

Commentary

William Cowper’s “The Negro’s Complaint” features seven octave-stanzas and speaks in first person from the point of view of an African slave questioning the motives of his captors.

First Stanza: "Forc'd from home and all its pleasures"

The speaker begins his complaint by stating what has happened to him. He was bought by Englishmen, taken from his home in Africa, and forced to endure a grueling voyage across the “raging billows.”

Those buyers purchased the slave with “paltry gold,” but though they own him, they now must train the heretofore free man to be a slave. But the “slave” avers that “[m]inds are never to be sold.” The mind is far superior to money, as freedom is superior to slavery.

Second Stanza: "Still in thought as free as ever"

The speaker again testifies to the strength of the mind when he says, "Still in thought as free as ever.” He adds that England has no legitimate controls over him. His dark skin and hair do not give those of differing complexion the right to take him from his home, “torture" him, and compel him to labor. The inner life of each human possess the same “affection,” which "Dwells in white and black the same.”

Third Stanza: "Why did all-creating Nature"

Now addressing the issue of the cotton plant for which the slave toils for his captors, the speaker asks, "Why did all-creating Nature / Make the plant for which we toil?” He metaphorizes “God the Creator" as “all-creating Nature” in order to distinguish his complaint from the internal spiritual search. His complaint is solely focused on the physical and mental plane.

The “nature" of the plant requires much labor to thrive. The speaker colorfully describes that labor as “sighs must fan it, tears must water, / Sweat of ours must dress the soil.” He thus personifies nature's wind and rain by likening their part in sustaining the cotton plant to his own labor in that same endeavor.

Fourth Stanza: "Is there, as ye sometimes tell us”

Delving into the religious realm, the speaker wonders, if there is a Higher Power, that is, “one who reigns on high,” does he condone the brutal methods of those who toil to keep slaves in line? He commands his listeners to “ask him”—that Creator—if he means for them to use “knotted scourges / Matches, blood-extorting screws.”

Fifth Stanza: "Hark! he answers—Wild tornadoes"

The speaker thinks he knows the answer to his question, and the answer is no. The Creator “on high” shows the wrong done by the captor's cruelty, which has heralded catastrophes such as tornadoes that demonstrate that answer.

Sixth Stanza: “By our blood in Afric wasted”

Again the speaker offers evidence that the miseries produced through enslavement go against all that is holy and moral. The misery of any man diminishes the stature of all men.

Seventh Stanza: "Deem our nation brutes no longer"

The speaker again commands his captors to change their thoughts from being “slave of gold” — mere money grubbers, to reasonable people. They should judge Africans not by the pigmentation of their skin but by their behavior. He commands his captors to "Prove that you have human feelings, / Ere you proudly question ours!”

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently put it: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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