The poet Tristan l’Hermite is the seventeenth century poet and dramatist, not the mediaeval general who served Louis XI, and from whom the poet borrowed his name. This is a sonnet, which celebrates the beauty of a dark-skinned Moorish (North African) slave-girl. At the same time it contains many elements of Baroque sonnetry, in its oppositions, its structure, its word-games and imagery, while also to the modern reader being a chilling reminder of racial attitudes in the not-so-distant past.
La Belle Esclave more
Beau Monstre de Nature, il est vrai, ton visage
Est noir au dernier point, mais beau parfaitement :
Et l’ébène poli qui te sert d’ornement
Sur le plus blanc ivoire emporte l’avantage.
Ô merveille divine, inconnue à notre âge !
Qu’un objet ténébreux luise si clairement ;
Et qu’un charbon éteint, brûle plus vivement
Que ceux qui de la flamme entretiennent l’usage !
Entre ces noires mains je mets ma liberté ;
Moi, qui fus invincible à toute autre Beauté,
Une More m’embrase, une Esclave me dompte.
Mais cache-toi Soleil, toi qui viens de ces lieux
D’où cet Astre est venu, qui porte pour ta honte
La nuit sur son visage, et le jour dans ses yeux.
The elements of racism are everywhere – first of course in the title where it would be evident to poet and reader that the beautiful Moorish girl must be a slave. Then the fact that she is referred to as a monster of nature, because of her dark skin; then in the second line where her face is portrayed as perfectly beautiful, in spite of being black. And so on, and so on right through the poem. This is shocking to the modern reader, but would probably have been considered just an interesting curiosity in the seventeenth century, when upper class western European classes would have been almost invariably white.
The poet’s intent of course is to write a sonnet praising the beauty of the girl and describing how he falls under her spell, despite her colour and despite the difference in status between the two. This is the source of the Baroque paradox which runs through the poem – she is dark-skinned, a slave girl, and yet she is outstandingly beautiful and has captured the poet’s heart. We even see ebony winning out over ivory (350 years before Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney). The final line sums it up – night on her face, daylight in her eyes, the marriage of opposites for an irresistible appeal.
The Poetry Dude