King Cotton Bound: or, the New Prometheus.

FAR across Atlantic waters
Groans in chains a Giant King;
Like to him, whom Ocean’s daughters
Wail around in mournful ring,
In the grand old Grecian strains
Of Prometheus in his chains!
Needs but Fancy’s pencil pliant
Both to paint till both agree;
For King Cotton is a giant,
As Prometheus claimed to be.
Each gave blessings unto men,
Each dishonor reaped again.
From the gods to sons of clay
If Prometheus brought the flame,
Who King Cotton can gainsay,
Should he equal honor claim?
Fire and life to millions giving,
That, without him, had no living.
And if they are one in blessing,
So in suffering are they one;
Both, their captive state confessing,
That, upon his mountain chain,
This, upon his parching plain.
Nor the wild bird’s self is wanting—
Either giant’s torment sore;
If Prometheus writhed, while panting
Heart and lungs the vulture tore,
So Columbia’s eagle fierce,
Doth King Cotton’s vitals pierce.
On those wings so widely sweeping
In its poise the bird to keep,
See, if you can se for weeping,
North” and “South” are branded deep—
On the beak all reeking red,
On the talons blood-bespread!
But ‘tis not so much the anguish
Of the wound that rends his side,
Makes this fettered giant languish,
As the thought how once, in pride,
That great eagle took its stand,
Gently on his giant hand!
How to it the meat he’d carry
In its mew to feed secure;
How he’d fling it on the quarry,
How recall it to the lure,
Make it stoop, to his caresses,
Hooded neck and jingling jesses.
And another thought is pressing,
Like hot iron on his brain—
Millions that would fain be blessing,
Ban, e’en now, King Cotton’s name.
Oh that here those hands are bound,
Which should scatter wealth around!
“Not this Eagle’s screaming smothers
That sad sound across the sea—
Wailing babes and weeping mothers,
Wailing, weeping, wanting me.
Hands that I would fain employ,
Hearts that I would fill with joy!
“I must writhe—a giant fettered,--
While those millions peak and pine;
By my wealth their lot unbettered,
And their suffering worse than mine.
For they know that I would fain
Help their need, were’t not my chain!
“But I know not where to turn me
For relief from bonds and woe;
Frosts may pinch and suns may burn me,
But for rescue—none I know,
Save the millions I have fed,
Should they rise for lack of bread—
“Saying, ‘We will brook no longer,
That King Cotton bound should be:
Be his gaolers strong, we’re stronger,
In our hunger over sea—
More for want, than love, uprisen,
We are come to break his prison!’
“Welcome even such releasing,
Fain my work I’d be about:
Soon would want and wail be ceasing,
Were King Cotton once let out—
Though all torn and faint and bleeding,
Millions still I’ve strength for feeding.
“Foolish Eagle—cease your rending—
‘Tis yourself you would undo:
Know you not the strength you’re spending,
Still was put to use for you?
‘Twas King Cotton’s cost and care,
Fed you fat and sleeked you fair.
“Hold me longer bound, and wasting
Life will leave my giant frame;
Other Kings o’er sea are hasting,
On my throne to make their claim;
Once they take that seat—good-by—
You have lost far more than I.”

Title:King Cotton Bound: or, the New Prometheus (Punch)


Publication:Littell's Living Age

Published in:

Date:December 14th 1861

Keywords:trade, war


In common with many British poems of the time, particularly in the early years of the American Civil War when it was by no means clear who might triumph, this verse taken from Punch bemoans the conflict’s disastrous effect on the once-prosperous cotton trade whilst ignoring the issue of slavery. The poem uses the image of the mythic figure of the demi-god, Prometheus, bound to a rock in the middle of the ocean, to characterise the economic stasis caused by the Union’s blockade of Confederate exports. The most striking aspect of this imagery, however, is that all the use of chain metaphors refer only to the restrictions on industry and trade, and not to the very real human enslavement long associated with the cotton trade. This may reflect to some extent the fact that slavery was not seen by some as the main cause of the war in its early years, but also doubtless illustrates the wilful blindness of many British commentators to the true nature of the cotton trade. – SR