Sonnet to Liberty By William Lloyd Garrison
Historical Period: National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860
In 19th century America, the poetry section of the newspaper was a good place to go for a fight. At that time, poems could be found in a wide variety of venues, from magazines and books to street-corner pamphlets and signboards, and they covered a great range of subjects, from humor to science to religion. Politics was a favorite topic for poetry published in newspapers, and well-known writers and anonymous amateurs alike would regularly send in verses that took a stand—often a very strong one—on the urgent issues of the day. Some of these poems were carefully crafted and were intended to be lasting works of literary art. Many, however, were blunt instruments, designed to get a point across quickly, efficiently, and memorably.
One poet who attempted to bridge the gap between politics and literature was the fiery abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, who published an anti-slavery newspaper called the Liberator. In issue after issue, Garrison and other writers railed against the evils of slavery, until the Liberator became so notorious that it was outlawed in several Southern states. Pro-slavery forces put a price on Garrison’s head, but he continued to write poems that still stand as some of the fiercest, most eloquent indictments of America’s slave economy ever written.
Garrison’s poetry was not limited to political topics, but his fame as an activist may have damaged his reputation as a poet. The great New England poet Ralph Waldo Emerson admired Garrison’s moral courage, but said he was "far more likely to be the subject than the author of good poems." As you read this poem, you might ask yourself whether the poem is more successful as a political argument or as a work of art.
For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.
- American Memory Timeline (National Expansion and Reform)
- America’s Library — Jump Back in Time (Western Expansion & Reform)
- An African American Odyssey: The Quest for Full Citizenship