The Ode on the Slave Trade

Coleridge’s rooms at Jesus College Cambridge: “I became a proverb to the University for Idleness—the time, which I should have bestowed on the academic studies, I employed in dreaming out wild schemes of impossible extrication.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

From the translation by J.C.C. May in Poetical Works

O ye who revel in the ills of Slavery, O feeders on the groans of the wretched, insolent sons of Excess, shedders of own brothers’ blood, does not the inescapable Eye see these things? Does not Nemesis threaten fire-breathing reprisal? Do you hear? Or do you not hear? How winds shake the ground at its roots, and the recesses of earth groan beneath, and the depths roar terribly, pledging those below to wrath against the killers!

Rick Wilcox

This week in Chapter Two of Mariner, we see Coleridge’s developing social consciousness as he uses an academic assignment to challenge slavery.  The university offered a prize for a Greek ode in imitation of Sappho, and for Coleridge, the forum was compelling.  He joined his voice with Wilberforce and others for a cause still many years from legal resolution while it was still unpopular (if not dangerous) to do so.

As Malcolm Guite wrote:

Wilberforce introduced the bill a third time in the spring of 1792, right in the midst of the period in which Coleridge was preparing his poem. This may have influenced the Latin title he gave his Greek ode, Sors misera servorum in insulis indiae occidentalis—“The unhappy fate of the slaves in the West Indian islands.” In spite of support from Burke, Fox, Pitt, and Sheridan, in a debate which Burke described as containing “the greatest eloquence ever displayed in the House”—in spite of all that, the anti-slavery bill was again defeated. Le Grice’s account of those evenings in which Coleridge recited Burke refer in fact to 1792, while Coleridge was composing the ode, so it is clear that he was still following the debates in Parliament. Al- though Coleridge was thinking about the topic as early as 1791, and intending to write for the competition, the competition was officially announced in January 1792. Coleridge composed the poem that spring, was awarded the prize, and recited his poem on commencement day, 3 July 1792.

Did you take a public political stand as a youth? 

What were the circumstances?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.



Mariner Reading Schedule

The dates below are Mondays and we will read and discuss one chapter per week, Monday thru Friday.

Prelude: The Growth of a Poet’s Mind


04 The Kirk, the Hill, the Lighthouse Top
11 Jesus and the Dragoons
18 To Nether Stowey via Utopia
25 A Network of Friendships


02 A Visionary Landscape

Part II: The Mariner’s Tale

09 The Ship Was Cheered
16 Instead of the Cross, the Albatross
23 The Night-mare Life-in-Death
30 The Moving Moon


06 Nine Fathom Deep
13 The Two Voices
20 He Prayeth Best Who Loveth Best
27 Epilogue: The Morrow Morn



Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings.  For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page. You can read more about him on this Interviews Page

He is the author of numerous books including

Parable and Paradox: Sonnets on the Sayings of Jesus and Other PoemsCanterbury Press 2016

Waiting on the Word; a poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany Canterbury Press 2015

The Singing Bowl Canterbury Press 2013

Sounding the Seasons Canterbury Press 2012

Faith Hope and Poetry  Ashgate  2010 and 2012.

What Do Christians Believe?  Granta 2006

Photo courtesy of Lancia Smith.