Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a Victorian poet that is renowned for her poetry that focuses on the social conscience of people in western culture. One of Browning’s most controversial poems is called “A Curse for a Nation,” which is a didactic poem that aims to persuade its target audience to speak out against the slave trade. This didactic poem uses ethos, logos, and pathos as forms of persuasion. The target audience for this poem is the United States because at the time that Browning wrote this poem the slave trade was abolished in England.
Browning utilizes rhetorical tactics to persuade Americans to abolish the slave rade. The prologue of the poem is a unique feature that Browning uses to address the objections that the target audience might raise in regard to the creation and sentiment of her poem. Through her rhetorical argument, Browning silences any potential criticism or backlash from writing on the slave trade and reinforces her authority to write about the subject matter.
It is interesting that Browning creates her own ethos considering that many other Victorian and Romantic poets wrote poems centered around the slave trade, but they seemingly did not have to justify their authority on the topic. The inclusion of the prologue creates an interesting contrast between the reception of poems written about the slave trade and how they are received by their perspective audiences based on the gender of the poet. An example of Browning creating her own ethos is when she has the speaker explain why it is her moral responsibility to write this poem.
Browning creates a conversation between the speaker and an angel, in order to grant the speaker divine authority to speak about the slave trade. The depiction of the angel telling the speaker to write is an allusion to many classical epic poems that use the muses or a ivine source to grant them permission to write as a form of authority. By granting the speaker divine authority, the angel argues that it is the speaker’s moral and religious responsibility to speak out against the injustice of the slave trade.
Another way that Browning deflects a potential objection that the target audience may have is that she gives the angel a gender. Since angels are typically not assigned a gender in literature, Browning’s gendering of the angel as male gives the female speaker an authority that she would not otherwise have, which helps to establish her ethos. This appeal to ethos is specially important because the notion of separate spheres is remarkably prominent in the Victorian era. The male angel granting the speaker authority essentially allows for the female voice to enter into the public sphere.
The creation of a male authority figure has a similar effect to women poets and writers having authenticating documents of male approval attached to their works as a form of verification that their work is valuable. While Browning creates a male figure to grant her a voice in the public sphere, she also subtly critiques the notion of separate spheres. When the speaker says “To curse, choose men” (I. 8), she is met with the angel’s response that this curse is more valid coming from a woman. Browning’s argument centers around the ideal Victorian model of the domestic woman or angel in the house.
Since women were seen as the moral centers of the household, whose morality and faith are not tainted by the public sphere, Browning implies that the speaker has more authority as a woman. The speaker preeminently addresses the stereotype that women are emotional beings by having the angel reply that her emotion gives her more authority because it is “natural. ” This critique of gender allows for Browning to establish her own ethos and to ubtly suggest that women’s voices belong in the public sphere.
Browning also addresses the potential criticism over her authority because she is British. She suggests that the love she feels towards “brothers of mine across the sea” (I. 11) is the same that England feels for the United States and that this curse is not out of spite or malicious intent towards Americans in general, but out of care. Browning demonstrates that her acknowledgment of the slave trade in the United States does not mean or imply that England does not have its own issues. “What curse to another land assign, / When heavy-souled for the ins of mine? ” (I. 31-32).
Essentially, Browning insinuates that looking outwards does not mean that she does not recognize the issues at home, but rather that recognizing the morality of the issues in England allows her to have the ability to recognize them in the United States. Browning has the speaker write this curse “from the summits of love” (I. 15) to make an appeal to pathos and ethos in hopes that her audience will be persuaded to take action or speak out against the practice of slavery. The prologue is composed in rhyming couplets, reinforcing the relationship between the United States and England as allies.
Furthermore, the prologue aids to the structure of the text and allows the poem to persuade without having to address the speaker’s authority. The speaker does not wish to write the curse as a rejection of her own agency until she is told by a divine being that it is her moral responsibility to write this curse. With the inclusion of the prologue, Browning creates an argument that uses logos to persuade her audience through inductive reasoning that she has the authority to write this poem.
After the angel grants the speaker authority in the prologue, the speaker uses her curse to demonstrate the inequality and njustice of the slave trade that has been established through an illogical ideology. The first argument that the speaker makes for the curse is that the United States was founded on the principle of freedom and that all men are created equal. The first stanza of the curse demonstrates how Browning constructs her argument on logos and pathos while creating a narrative centered on historical events.
The speaker says, “Because ye have broken your own chain/ With the strain/ Of brave men climbing a Nation’s height” (II. 1-3), which alludes to the historical events that led to the founding of the United States and what as fought for in its creation as a nation. “Yet thence bear down with brand and thong/ On the souls of others” (II. 4-5). This line points out the hypocrisy of building a country founded on freedom when that freedom only applies to a specific selection of the population.
The speaker argues about the morality of practicing slavery through Christian ideals, and suggest that the United States cannot claim that they are followers of Christ when they commit such atrocities towards their fellow man. Browning uses this argument to appeal to ethos and logos when she has the speaker say, “ye prosper in God’s name” (1. 13). The speaker’s rgument that people of faith cannot claim to be Christian’s when they profit over others own livelihoods is an appeal to ethos, pathos, and logos.
Through the terministic screen, the curse seems to imply eternal damnation for not only the individuals that continue to support the slave trade but also for the United States itself should it continue to support the atrocities committed towards its fellow man. This is shown through the emphasis on words that are associated with fire such as flame, burn, smouldering, heat, scorn, brand, and writhing. These words create an image of eternal damnation, which appeals to pathos through guilt nd ethos through projecting the potential of God’s punishment.
The use of repetition in the poem, specifically for the word “write” can be interpreted in two ways. The word “write” links back to the prologue in which the angel told the speaker that it was her moral duty to write this curse. To “write” suggest that people need to use their voices to express their disapproval and highlight the injustice committed towards others. Through the word “write,” the speaker commands the addressee to speak out against the practice of slavery. The word “write” can also be interpreted to have a double meaning or be an implied etaphor for the word “right.
The word right could allude to the inalienable rights of man or as a plead to the target audience to right the wrong. This reading as a potential double meaning is meant to awaken a sense of guilt in the reader. Browning creates consubstantiation through her use of rhetoric and specifically her appeal to her target audience’s morality. However, her arguments could still be seen as polarizing to a specific audience regardless of whether she preeminently addressed the main potential points of criticism in the prologue simply because of their ideology.
Browning’s rguments are persuasive because she appeals to a variety of rhetorical modes and uses many rhetorical strategies. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Curse for a Nation” is one of her most controversial poems and it is not difficult to see why. The medium of communication that Browning chose for her argument projects that art is an invaluable mode of expressing values and critiquing social norms. Throughout literary history, art has been a tool that creates awareness and allows people to critically engage their culture. Ultimately, Browning demonstrates how art can be used as a persuasive tool to change the hearts and minds of people.