#CamFest Speaker Spotlight

Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi

Dr Mathelinda Nabugodi, Research Associate in the Literary and Artistic Archive at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, will take a new look at the Romantic poets in the light of their attitudes to slavery in Romanticism and the Black Atlantic on 21st March from 7.30-8.45pm. Dr Nabugodi is author of the forthcoming book [2024], The Trembling Hand: Reflections of a Black Woman in the Romantic Archive.

Why does your research matter?

We're living through a moment of reckoning with the past. More and more people are acknowledging how the racial inequalities that shape our present grow out of the long history of European colonial and imperial expansion as well as enslavement and subjugation of black and brown people across the world.

My own research, on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, is set against this backdrop. I seek to show how empire-building and its attendant racist ideologies affected British literary culture. The focus is on the Romantic poets: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. Most people will recognise their names from school or even TV and film adaptations, but I want to offer a new perspective on their work by foregrounding how their lives were shaped by the existence of slavery in the British empire of their day.

What first drew you to researching the Romantic poets and  the Black Atlantic?

When I was younger, I had ambitions to become a poet. That's why I decided to study English. I arrived at university with a very clear idea of what a poet is like - a slightly eccentric person, forever bending rules, staying up late at night drinking red wine and over-flowing with spontaneous inspiration. In the course of my studies, I came to realise that these ideas had been shaped by Romanticism, even before I could identify Romanticism as a literary movement in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In other words, I am interested in this period because the Romantics revolutionised our understanding of creativity in ways that still affect how we think about art and literature. But it is also very noticeable that the "great" Romantic poets are all dead, white men.

As I was trying to relate to them as a living, Black woman, I became interested in exploring how they would have interacted with Black people in their own time. It is almost embarrassing to admit how long it took me to realise that Romanticism coincided with the peak and later abolition of the transatlantic slave trade - this historical context had never been mentioned in the course of my undergraduate degree! And yet, freedom is one of the key themes in Romantic poetry: this can hardly be a coincidence.

How important do you think poets are in spreading toxic ideas about slavery?

Poets reflect the society in which they live, so many of the ideas found in Romantic poetry reflect more widespread beliefs of the period, some of which may appear toxic to us today. But poetry is different from a newspaper report in that there is much more room for interpretation. I am more interested in how Romantic poetry has served as a source of inspiration for liberationist struggles. Shelley's poem The Mask of Anarchy, for example, has inspired people as different as Bertolt Brecht, Mahatma Gandhi, protesters on Tiananmen Square, Jeremy Corbyn and the Occupy movement. So poetry can definitely spread toxic ideas, but it also has the potential to inspire us to fight against such ideas.

Has your research changed the way you view Romantic poets such as Coleridge?

I try to avoid passing judgement on the Romantics. If I actually met them, I would probably find them unbearable, but that's not really relevant. My main aim is to reveal the full picture, even when it seems complex or self-contradictory. To take Coleridge as an example: when he was a student at Jesus College, Cambridge, he wrote a prize-winning poem against the slave trade - the poem was written as an entry in the competition for the 1792 Browne Medal, which was annually awarded to two poems, one in Sapphic Greek and the other in Horatian Latin. At the time of writing the ode, Coleridge held a Rustat Scholarship. This had been endowed by Tobias Rustat, part of whose wealth was derived from investments in the Royal African Company, and he was also involved in the running of the company as one of its directors (called 'Assistant' in the parlance of the day). The Royal African Company is responsible for trafficking more Africans across the Atlantic than any other organisation in the history of the slave trade. It is not at all uncommon for people to have abolitionist sentiments and yet benefit directly or indirectly from the profits of slavery.

Did the Romantic poets serve to reinforce ideas which were already present in society at the time or did the fact that their works have been passed down through the ages have a more enduring effect?

As I said above, I do think that poets reflect ideas already present in society - if this wasn't the case, their works would not resonate with readers. But over time, as society changes, the meaning of their works might likewise change. I'd say that 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' is very definitely a poem about the slave trade, and this is also how some of Coleridge's contemporaries first received it. But during the next two centuries, people began to read it exclusively as a Christian parable about sin and salvation. Today, we are beginning to recover more of that original context, but we can also turn a more critical gaze on how Coleridge handles this subject.

Do you see direct links between their work and current attitudes?

Yes, absolutely. Firstly, because their works are present on school curricula, meaning that many people will encounter them as part of their education. Secondly, the fact that people are still interested in reading eighteenth and nineteenth century literature indicates that there is something in those works that resonates with contemporary readers.