In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Poetry in the British Atlantic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Primary Texts
  • Publishing Poetry: (Trans-)Atlantic Print Culture
  • The Poetry of Slavery and Abolition
  • Afterlives: Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Poetry in the Atlantic World

Atlantic History Poetry in the British Atlantic
Tim Sommer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0391


Poetry in the Atlantic world is a vast subject whose critical study has bourgeoned since around the turn of the millennium, in tandem with the rise of Atlantic Studies as a historiographic paradigm and the emergence of transatlantic scholarship as an important subfield in literary and cultural studies. Theorized as a site of encounters and entanglements between European, African, Caribbean, and North and South American cultures and traditions (both indigenous and imported), the Atlantic has been at the heart of important recent work on key topics such as slavery, colonialism, nationhood, empire, and race. In its cultural heyday during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, poetry reflected all of those issues and made their discussion accessible to large and diverse audiences in a range of different media (with verse circulated in manuscript or printed in broadsides, newspapers, journals, and various types of book formats). Although poetry was a major literary genre and public forum, however, in literary-critical accounts of Atlantic culture its importance has long been overshadowed by that of other text types, the novel and nonfictional prose (slave narratives, autobiographies, travel writing) chief among them. Part of this neglect—which recent research is beginning to address—has had to do with the persistence of the nation as an analytical frame of reference (a context in which Atlantic literature fails to align with, say, the English, American, or Caribbean traditions). Another factor has been the ostensible absence of major canonical authors writing poetry that was either produced in the Atlantic world or that explicitly engages with the Atlantic on the level of theme or content. Scholarship on the early Black Atlantic, in particular, has revised this earlier consensus, rediscovering poets such as Phillis Wheatley as major figures working in a historical context irreducible to a single national tradition. Slavery, abolition, and the Black diaspora have, as a result, been major themes in recent discussions of Atlantic poetry. This bibliography mostly focuses on 18th- and 19th-century anglophone verse, given that this body of texts has occasioned most of the important newer scholarship on poetry in the Atlantic world. (Other languages and later periods are included on a selective basis.) The critical discussion of these primary texts has mostly taken the form of historicist readings that foreground the intersections between poetry and various forms of cultural context. Recent contributions to the growing secondary literature on the subject continue in this vein but are also increasingly highlighting formal aspects along with questions of poetics and aesthetics (which includes discussions of the impact of European neoclassical and Romantic styles on poets writing verse in the Atlantic context).

General Overviews

As a literary-critical subject, Atlantic poetry has been approached from a number of different geographical and theorical angles. Shields 1990 and Kaul 2000, for example, focus on 18th-century anglophone poetry by (mostly) white writers (with Shields discussing North American colonial verse and Kaul reading English metropolitan verse about colonial expansion). Giles 2001 is another important study on the 18th-century Anglo-American tradition. By contrast, Paul Gilroy’s influential writing (Gilroy 1993 and Gilroy 1997) draws attention to Black voices and has provided a theoretical basis for much later work on this particular aspect of Atlantic poetry. Fleshing out this approach through recourse to rich historical evidence, Vincent Carretta has done important scholarship to recover early Black writers and their texts: Carretta 2010 offers a chapter-length exploration of early Black authorship, while Carretta and Gould 2001 gathers a series of useful essays on “literature of the early Black Atlantic” (some of which specifically address poetry). Baugh 2001 is helpful as additional reading because of its geographical focus on the Caribbean (and because of a comprehensive literary-historical narrative that extends from the early origins of poetry in the region to the late twentieth century).

  • Baugh, Edward. “A History of Poetry.” In A History of Literature in the Caribbean. Vol. 2, English- and Dutch-Speaking Regions. Edited by A. James Arnold, 227–282. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2001.

    Extensive overview that summarizes the history of Caribbean poetry from its local oral origins via 18th-century colonial verse by British authors to 20th-century postcolonial poetry. Especially strong and detailed on modern and contemporary writers and texts but also worth consulting on earlier traditions. Baugh’s focus on the Caribbean allows him to write about texts not usually covered in similar surveys which are framed as either (Black) British or (early) American.

  • Carretta, Vincent. “Back to the Future: Eighteenth-Century Transatlantic Black Authors.” In A Companion to African American Literature. Edited by Gene Andrew Jarrett, 11–24. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    Concise overview chapter from one of the major scholars of early Black Atlantic writing. Carretta usefully troubles notions of “British” and “African American” literary nationality through reference to the broader transnational context of the 18th-century Atlantic. The chapter discusses authorship and publishing as key contexts through which Black voices became heard and perceived in the period.

  • Carretta, Vincent, and Philip Gould, eds. Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

    Foundational collection of critical essays on Black writers and writing in the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century. The main focus of the individual contributions is on prose (with chapters on Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Briton Hammon, and Mary Prince), but there are also instructive discussions of the verse of Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon (by Frank Shuffelton and Rosemary Fithian Guruswamy, respectively).

  • Giles, Paul. Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730–1860. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812200690

    Pioneering contribution to the field of Anglo-American literary studies. Giles argues that English and American literature were reciprocally defined as recognizable individual traditions as the result of a transatlantic dialogue during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Opens with two strong chapters on echoes of British neoclassicism in early American poetry (mainly focusing on Mather Byles and John Trumbull).

  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

    Highly influential monograph that helped to define Atlantic literary and cultural studies as a field. Although Gilroy here is not writing about 18th- and 19th-century poetry per se, this is indispensable theoretical reading that has informed many subsequent critical discussions of poetry in the Atlantic world. Can usefully be read alongside Gilroy 1997.

  • Gilroy, Paul. “Diaspora and the Detours of Identity.” In Identity and Difference. Edited by Kathryn Woodward, 299–346. London: SAGE, 1997.

    Offers, among other things, a discussion of early Black Atlantic writers (including the poet Wheatley) and features themes not covered in Gilroy 1993.

  • Kaul, Suvir. Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

    Highlights nationalism and imperialism as major concerns in classic 17th- and 18th-century English poetry, mostly through discussions of (canonical) figures such as Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, William Cowper, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Charts how British verse of the period mirrors colonial (political and economic) expansion overseas. Includes an important final chapter on antislavery poetry (pp. 230–268).

  • Shields, David S. Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690–1750. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226752990.001.0001

    Rich study that situates 18th-century North American poetry and its political and economic entanglements in the context of British colonial activity in the region (the present-day United States, Canada, and the West Indies). Recovers many largely forgotten texts.

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