Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2013, Volume 34

"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864

Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4
Complete Issue: National Anti-Slavery Standard (26 September 1863)
Rev. George Lansing Taylor, "The Scourged Back" National Anti-Slavery Standard (26 September 1863): [4]View Poem Image
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THE SCOURGED BACK*[1]

           
A wilderness of scars![3] A field, by tangled furrows torn and riven! A sea of waves, by meeting whirlwinds driven! A cloud, storm-shattered through the midnight heaven! A wreck of rayless stars!
A human form! O God! Who of one blood hast made all tribes below, Is this thy work, thy image, mangled so? Ay; thus was thy own Son, for human woe, Scourged by the soldiers' rod.
A human form! O yes: That skin had nerves as exquisite as thine; That flesh could quiver, like my child's or mine; Those muscles writhed, when floods of burning brine Drenched their gashed nakedness.
Why was it done, or borne? Behold the brow that crowns that manly form, See the strong shoulder, and the sinewy arm; 'Twas done to crush that man into a worm! 'Twas borne in hope of morn.
But all is over now: A deep sereneness of unearthly grace Sheds soft o'er every lineament its trace; Hell's mark behind, but heaven's on his face, And victory on his brow.
The sun with golden pen Has drawn two pictures here,[4] and all may read: "Curst be the fiends who wrought this devilish deed?" Nay, rather curse the worse than devilish creed That make such fiends of men.
Send such men back to chains? Not while a conscious nation feels and thinks! Not till each freeman's lifted right-arm shrinks! Not till the perjured land that dares it sinks! And God no longer reigns!
     
* A photographic picture, taken at Baton Rouge, La.,
April 2, 1863, of the back of a negro who was whipped
there during the preceding October, in so horrible a man-
ner
that, although more than five months had elapsed
when the picture was taken, the whole back was still a
horrible tissue of ghastly wounds and scars.—See Indepen-
dent
,[5] May 28, 4th page.[6]
An army officer, writing from Louisiana to the Boston
Transcript concerning the colored volunteers in Gen. Banks's
Department, says: "My surgeons report to me that not one
in fifteen is free from severe lashing. More than one-half
are rejected because of disability arising from lashing with
whips and the biting of dogs.
Hundreds of them have welts
on their backs as large as one of your largest fingers."

Notes

  1. "The Scourged Back" also appeared in the Anglo-African of October 3, 1863. The Anglo-African text is identical to the Standard text, including the points at which lines wrap in the prose note that follows the poem.Go back
  2. George Lansing Taylor (1835–1903), Methodist minister, "contributor to many papers and periodicals, advocate of every good cause" ("George Lansing Taylor, L. H. D.," Christian Advocate, July 30, 1903, 1). Taylor moved from New York to Ohio with his parents in the late 1840s and studied at Ohio Wesleyan University. He completed his degree at Columbia University. After graduation, he secured a post as the assistant editor of the Christian Advocate (July 1861–April 1862) and married Eliza Minerva French, daughter of Port Royal missionary Mansfield French. Following his marriage, he began his pastoral work and was affiliated with the New York East Conference ("George Lansing Taylor, L. H. D.").
     
    Taylor published his first book collection—Elijah the Reformer: A Ballad-Epic, and Other Sacred and Religious Poems—late in life (2nd ed., 1885), in response to the unauthorized republication of his work. Elijah the Reformer contained "miscellaneous pieces, old and new, which . . . have appeared in magazines and newspapers during the last twenty-five years" (preface, v). The volume included an unusual appendix that illuminates the margins of the late-nineteenth-century literary marketplace. Taylor tabulated each collected poem's title, "first writing-place" and date, and "first publication" and date; the long-time newspaper poet clearly appreciated the fluid nature of the text, and sought to establish his commercial claim to "original" poems. According to dates in the table, the poems were written over a period of more than thirty years, 1853–1885. Given Lansing's personal connection to the Christian Advocate, it is not surprising that twelve of the twenty-nine poems collected in Elijah the Reformer appeared there. Taylor's poems also appeared in the New York Independent, the Ladies' Repository, Scribner's Monthly, Harper's Weekly, and Zion's Herald. "The Scourged Back" was not among the pieces he selected for book publication.
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  3. The antebellum "rhetoric of the scar" encouraged sympathetic identification on the part of the abolitionist reader or viewer, to the extent that they imagined a link of sensation with the slave, which strengthened their commitment to the antislavery cause (Jennifer Putzi, Identifying Marks: Race, Gender, and the Marked Body in Nineteenth-Century America [Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006], 102–3). The strategy had obvious pitfalls and limitations; the gaze that focused on scars turned subjects into objects of fascination and pity. In this context, Taylor's opening "wilderness" metaphor articulates both fascination and disturbance. The wilderness is a site/sight to get lost in and a biblical wilderness or moral maze. At the beginning of a string of metaphors that obscure both the sensate subject and the perpetrators of violence, Taylor's wilderness figure hints at concerns about the ethics of his fascination. The first stanza's figurative displacements ostensibly prepare the way for the speaker's horrified realization, "A human form! O God!" This leads the speaker to recognize a link of common sensation (stanza 3), and to assert the former slave's irreducible manhood (stanza 4). But this narrative of triumphant manhood is troubled by the speaker's obvious fascination with the spectacle of the wounded body.Go back
  4. A poetic treatment of the photographic process, inspired by the etymology of "photograph." The conceit was common: see Oliver Wendell Holmes's "Sun-Painting and Sun-Sculpture; With a Stereoscopic Trip across the Atlantic" (Atlantic Monthly, July 1861).Go back
  5. The New York Independent, established as a Congregationalist weekly in December 1848. The title's "independent" antislavery stance prevented it from capitalizing on an affiliation with subscribers of any one political persuasion, and "its extreme position with regard to the Fugitive Slave Law almost wrecked it in its second year" (Frank L. Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1850–1865 [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938], 2:369). In spite of this beginning, the Independent succeeded impressively and had over 35,000 subscribers by the time war broke (Mott, 371). As the war progressed, editorials political and secular nudged matters of religion, Congregationalist or otherwise, to the margins.
     
    The celebrity of Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887) must have contributed to the Independent's success. "Star contributor" Beecher was named editor during 1861–1865. Theodore Tilton, his assistant, directed editorial policy and took over the editorship in all but name when Beecher embarked for Europe in 1863; two years later, he was officially recognized as editor-in-chief. By the time war broke out, Tilton had established himself as one of the young stars of the American Anti-Slavery Society. He and William Lloyd Garrison became friends after National Anti-Slavery Standard editor Oliver Johnson introduced them in 1856; Garrison described Tilton as "a fine young man . . . connected with the N. Y. Independent, who is beginning to take a vital interest in radical abolitionism" (The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison: From Disunionism to the Brink of War, 1850–1860, ed. Louis Ruchames [Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975], 4:415). Johnson, Tilton, and Garrison were united by a common profession as well as shared antislavery convictions. During the war each reprinted items from the others' newspapers.
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  6. The Independent of May 28, 1863, included an article titled "The Scourged Back." The article begins with a parable about Jesus and his disciples passing a dead dog; while the disciples remark about the stench, Jesus comments, "How white are his teeth." Following this parable, the article describes a photograph the Independent received, which Lansing references here. The Independent did not print the photograph but described it thus: "It is a terrible showing. This man was whipped,—whipped, oh hideous to think of! when crazy, at Baton Rouge, in the month of October, 1862. The eye of the sun fell on the camera which transferred his torn skin to the paper, on the 2d of April, 1863, five or six months after the scourging, when the frightful laceration was partially healed, and only scars remained. But what must the whipping have been to leave such scars! The back looks like a plate of iron, eaten by acids and corroded by rust; or like a walnut-table honey-combed by worms. From the shoulders to the waist, great welts and furrows and ridges, raised or gouged by the lash, run crosswise and length-wise, mingling in the middle in one awful mass of scab. Bits as big as the hand seem to have been cut out of the flesh. No wonder that, at this distance of time, the man looks thin and ghastly, though he was a strong man and must be a man of fine physique and presence. The shoulders are broad; the muscles of the back firm. The left arm, the only arm visible, is long and sinewy. The head is well placed, and the profile—not a profile of the extreme African type—is full of manly energy. A strong short whisker and beard give power to the jaw which needs no such evidence to show its manliness; for resolution and force are stamped on the whole formation of the face. We look on the picture with amazement that cannot find words for utterance."Go back