Document 05: Haiti and Ideal

To Toussaint L’Ouverture

 Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men
   Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough
   Within thy hearing, or thy head be now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;
O Miserable Chieftain! Where and when
   Wilt thou find Patience? Yet die not; do thou
   Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
   Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
   That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
   And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

—William Wordsworth

Wordsworth’s sonnet to Toussaint L’Ouverture, incarcerated by Napoleonic fiat, came to mind some ten days after the Haitian earthquake. It is ironic as Wordsworth is motivated, in part, by his suspicion of French republicanism, whose values of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” did not extend to the enslaved. C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins retells the episode from their position, as slaves took up arms and, in the process, destroyed the country’s colonial aristocracy. James argues for the necessity of violence as a fact of material history.

The poem is ironic in another sense: the claim that the “powers” of nature would work in sympathy with Toussaint’s liberationist spirit. In Haiti, we see an opposite relation: nature as unmanageable force, and a power vacuum where once was liberation. The “great allies” that contained Haiti for two centuries are now summoned to provide restitution in the form of humanitarian aid.  Where Wordsworth once predicated freedom on Toussaint in chains, the Americans, the UN, and NGOs can hardly make up the difference of Haiti’s dispossession.

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