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 (20 August 1864)
William Blake,  "'The Little Black Boy'"  National Anti-Slavery Standard (20 August 1864): [4]View Poem Image
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"THE LITTLE BLACK BOY."[1]

     
To the Editors of The Evening Post.[2]
The following verses could scarcely have been
done better in the light of the present day, when
black folks are proving their brotherhood so convinc-
ingly
.[3] They were written about a hundred years
ago, by William Blake—the same of whom Gail
Hamilton[4] gave a brief account, under the heading,
"Pictor Ignotus," in the April number of The Atlan-
tic
Monthly
.
C. B. C.[5]
My mother bore me in the southern wild, And I am black, but oh! my soul is white; White as an angel in the English child. But I am black, as if bereaved of light.
My mother taught me underneath a tree, And sitting down before the heat of day, She took me on her lap and kissed me, And pointing to the east, began to say:
"Look on the rising sun—there God does live, And gives His light, and gives His heat away; And flowers, and trees, and beasts, and men receive Comfort in mourning,[6] joy in the noon-day.
"And we are put on earth a little space That we may learn to bear the beams of love; And these black bodies, and this sun-burnt face, Are but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
"For when our souls have learned the heat to bear, The cloud will vanish, we shall hear his voice, Saying, 'Come out from the grave, my love and care, And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.'"
Thus did my mother say, and kissed me; And thus I say to little English boy— When I from black and he from white cloud free, And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,
I'll shade him from the heat, till he can bear To lean in joy upon our Father's knee; And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair, And be like him, and he will then love me.

Notes

  1. One of William Blake's (1757–1827) "Songs of Innocence." Blake was an engraver, visionary artist, and poet.
     
    "The Little Black Boy" first appeared in Blake's 1789 illuminated book, Songs of Innocence, produced in a very limited run. The poem was available to a wide audience for the first time in 1839, twelve years after Blake's death, with the first commercial edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience. According to Marcus Wood, "The Little Black Boy" appeared in the National Anti-Slavery Standard for the first time in 1842, along with other selections from Songs of Innocence and Experience (Marcus Wood, ed., The Poetry of Slavery: An Anglo-American Anthology, 1764–1865 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003], 142). The poem was included in Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake, "Pictor Ignotus," a work that renewed interest in Blake in 1863. (Gilchrist's Life of William Blake was published posthumously in two volumes under the direction of his wife, Anne Gilchrist, and with the assistance of William Michael Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.)
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  2. Reprinting "The Little Black Boy" from the New York Evening Post, the National Anti-Slavery Standard included the letter to the editor of the former publication, introducing the work. The letter sets up the rationale for reprinting the poem in both instances.
     
    The New York Evening Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801. William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) began to write for the title in 1826, having struggled to make a living as a poet; by 1830 he was the Post's editor-in-chief, and the daily's financial prospects looked good (Allan Nevins, The Evening Post: A Century of Journalism [New York: Russell and Russell, 1968], 134-136). Committed to Free Soil principles, Bryant severed the Post's connection with the Democratic Party in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and backed the fledgling Republican Party in 1856. He threw his weight behind Lincoln's presidential campaign in 1860. Although the Post remained staunchly Republican throughout the war, Bryant did not shrink from criticizing Lincoln's policies. The Post "shared with the Tribune the advocacy of what came to be called the 'radical' Republican doctrines during the Civil War—namely, emancipation, the need of strong and swift military measures, and the removal of pro-slavery and Democratic leaders from the government and army" (Frank Luther Mott, American Journalism: A History of Newspapers in the United States Through Twenty Years, 1690–1940 [New York: Macmillan, 1941], 5:344).
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  3. Within the context of the American Civil War, C. B. C.'s comment that "black folks are proving their brotherhood so convincingly" likely refers to African American enlistment and military service. This reference suggests that C. B. C. read Blake's poem as a parable of interracial brotherhood.Go back
  4. Pen name used by Mary Abigail Dodge (1833–1896). An ambitious writer as well as a New England reformer, Dodge established herself in literary networks associated with the antislavery movement. She made frequent contributions to the Atlantic Monthly in 1863–64.
     
    The Atlantic Monthly issue for April 1864 carried "Pictor Ignotus" ("unknown painter"). Dodge took her title and most of the article's material from Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake (1863). Her essay-review touches on Blake's radical politics ("he had been an advocate of the French Revolution, an associate of Price, Priestly, Godwin, and Tom Paine"); ultimately, she was more interested in Blake as mystic and mystery.
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  5. Unidentified.Go back
  6. The word "mourning" here is either a typographical error or a creative revision. Blake's version of the poem reads "morning."Go back