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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 1-17

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Alexander Pope's Windsor Forest: Its Context and Attitudes Toward Slavery

John Richardson

The debate about the position Pope takes toward slavery in Windsor Forest has been a private affair, conducted among literary scholars for the benefit of other literary scholars. It has, moreover, sometimes been a debate in which the participants have divided themselves largely according to their feelings about Pope. Laura Brown, for instance, sets the tone, in a book she admits might properly be taken as "an attack on Pope," by arguing that Windsor Forest "specifically defends" the increase in British slave trading effected by the Peace of Utrecht. 1 In reply to what he calls Brown's "shallow study," Howard Erskine-Hill mounts a vigorous defense of "Pope's salient and surprising denunciation of slavery in his poem." 2 But whether Pope defends or denounces slavery is not perhaps the most significant thing that can be gleaned from his poem and its context. More interesting is the question of what his muted protest, together with others' comments on the peace, reveals about linguistic habits concerning slavery and about the mental attitudes informing those habits. I argue here that it is possible to detect a euphemistic avoidance in the writing of Pope and others that betrays an unease about the slave trade and possibly about slavery as a whole. A second area of inquiry concerns Pope's motives for suppressing unease and keeping protest muted. The focus for this has to be specific to him, but consideration of the political context of Windsor Forest shows the pressures toward silence weighing on one person not directly connected with the trade. Both areas of enquiry are of more than just literary concern and both move the discussion of Windsor Forest and slavery away from a private quarrel among one group of scholars. [End Page 1]

Historians have generally assumed that early eighteenth-century Englishmen, whatever they knew, felt no discomfort about slavery in general or the slave trade in particular. G. M. Trevelyan suggested in the 1930s that the "Seventeenth Century had felt few scruples about the trade in human beings" and that the eighteenth was "scarcely more troubled in conscience until its later years." 3 Among the most influential commentators on slavery in the second half of the century, David Brion Davis takes it as the axiomatic starting point for his seminal book that the institution was a "social evil to which mankind had been blind for centuries." 4 Another leading historian, Linda Colley, argues that, throughout the eighteenth century, "Britons had seenno inconsistency whatever between trumpeting their freedom at home and buying men, women and children from trading-posts in Africa to sell into slavery abroad," 5 while the editors of a recent authoritative database begin their introduction with the assertion that "for those Europeans who thought about the issue, the shipping of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was morally indistinguishable from shipping textiles, wheat, or even sugar." 6 With the exception of Trevelyan, all these commentators employ a sleeping metaphor of blindness and sight, which assumes and implies that the failure to condemn slavery arose from a debility or incapacity rather than a decision. A different metaphor and a similar assumption are present in Gretchen Gerzina's contention that in the early eighteenth century "the complacent attitude towards slavery becomes part of the general fabric of life." 7 The metaphor of "fabric," which has associations with external manufacture and with given nature, but none with choice, suggests that indifference to slavery was an inescapable state of mind.

Windsor Forest and its context pose a challenge to the view of universal complacency and blindness. Begun as an essay in pastoral when Pope was still in his teens, then revised, expanded, and politicized in 1712-13 when he was in his mid-twenties, the poem has an important place in his writing as a whole. Indeed, it can be regarded as the culminating poem of the first phase of his career, before he virtually abandoned...


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