Abolitionist Publics in Robert Southey’s "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade" and Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere"

In his abolitionist poem "The Sailor, Who Had Served in the Slave Trade" (1799), Robert Southey ventriloquizes the story of a sailor who has murdered an enslaved woman onboard a “Guineaman.” Southey explains in a note to the poem that the sailor’s confession is a true story, which he wishes to make “as public as possible.” At the same time, however, Southey leaves many subtle clues that he is also imitating Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ballad, “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere” (1798). As he draws out the possibility that Coleridge’s mariner’s guilt is an allegory for the guilt involved in the Atlantic trade, Southey presses on the “public” uses the ballad form can be put to. A comparison between these poems therefore offers a case study for broader questions about the ethics of representation in abolitionist ballads designed to capture public feeling.