Sonnets to the Memory of Frederick Douglass
Memorial sonnets for Frederick Douglass by abolitionist Theodore Tilton. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Theodore Tilton (1835-1907), journalist and poet, was born in New York City. In the years just prior to the Civil War, Tilton was a well-known abolitionist lecturer. He represented a younger activist generation that endorsed immediatism, or immediate emancipation of slaves. Tilton spoke passionately in praise of John Brown upon his 1859 execution; advocated for radical Reconstruction after the war; was deeply involved in women’s suffrage issues; and later supported the cause of the Paris Commune.
During the post-war years he became an editor at The Independent, a largely religious journal, and the Brooklyn Union newspaper. He was dismissed in late 1870 amid private gossip that served as a prelude to a public scandal that received national attention. He then became editor of The Golden Age, a newspaper financed by reform friends, and a renowned lyceum lecturer.
In 1872, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, edited by feminist Victoria Woodhull and her sister, revealed that famed minister Henry Ward Beecher, Tilton’s once-patron, had been holding an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, Theodore’s wife. This resulted in a lawsuit by Tilton against Beecher for “criminal intimacy”, the five month-long Beecher Trial that began in 1875 and was followed by newspapers around the United States and abroad. For further, see Richard Wrightman Fox, Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). A figure of national notoriety, Tilton left for France in 1883, lived as a poet and figure of the American community in Paris, and never returned to the United States.
Frederick Douglass, as a fellow abolitionist and supporter of women’s suffrage, worked with and admired Tilton. The pair were long-time correspondents. Douglass gave Tilton and Anna Dickinson credit for organizing political support for the U.S. constitution’s 15th amendment, “forcing that amendment upon the Nation at the right moment and in the right way to make it successful.” FD to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 31 January 1882, in The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, edited by Ann Dexter Gordon (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997) 150. When traveling in Europe in 1886, Douglass visited with Tilton in Paris.
Tilton returned this friendship and admiration in this 269-line set of 19 memorial sonnets, published in Paris shortly after Douglass’ death. Beginning with the first line – “I knew the noblest giants of my day” (line 1) – the poems revisit the abolitionist struggle as an era when a great personality like Douglass could respond to and frame the political call against slavery. It is not only the charge of the times that creates such personalities, Tilton argues, but shared racial oppression and impoverishment that creates leaders like Douglass. (30-44) He expands on this theme of a leadership born of oppression by charging that the United States has not learned the lessons of the Civil War, and that millions of hungry industrial workers will rise and seek new leaders in their revolt. (lines 69-77) Tilton advances Douglass as a model for such leadership. (lines 80-86) A following sonnet compares Douglass to Spartacus and Toussaint L’Ouverture, suggesting that he is even greater for achieving his victories without bloodshed. (lines 96-101) Several sonnets address Tilton’s personal friendship with Douglass and provide an appreciation of his personality. The poems conclude in a retrospective voice, remembering “In these degenerate days, how great and grand, / How plain and simple, were the noble band / Who cried to Heaven against that crime from Hell / Which to the auction-block brought Babes to sell.” (lines 245-248) For Tilton, Frederick Douglass and the struggle against slavery represent a simple and noble fight against social evil, one that he contrasts with modern complexities.
Tilton published some novel fiction, but was best-known as a poet during his life. See Tilton, Poetical Works of Theodore Tilton (London: Unwin, 1897).
- Joe Lockard