Form and Meaning in “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce”, or “The Slave Trader in the Dumps”

In William Cowper’s Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce, or The Slave Trader in the Dumps, the conflict between form and meaning leaves the reader with a complex understanding and perspective in interpreting this poem. Throughout the poem, the consistent use of the repetition of “Which nobody can deny, deny, Which nobody can deny”, ultimately evokes a jolly and upbeat feeling which can be attained by the reader. The presence of repetition in the poem gives it a singsong feel, drawing the reader in and making them more attentive. Within the verses containing rhyme, the content provided by the narrator contradicts this upbeat mood by providing horrific detail and description in the life of a slave. Though, this conflict between form and meaning ultimately amplifies this attentiveness gained by the reader, providing a shock factor in the conflicting aspects of the poem.

Another aspect of the poem that stood out to me was the title, or the two titles, rather. Cowper is seemingly utilizing metaphorical language with “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce” through multiple ways. “Sweet Meat” is a metaphor for the benefits that privileged people have gained because of slavery, specifically the sugar trade, as well as benefits that are “sweet” to those in power. The “Sour Sauce represents the “sour” reality of how the “sweetness” has come to be: from the horrors of slavery.

The significance of the title also calls back to the form of the poem which works to elucidate its meaning. For example, the juxtaposition, or contrast between “Sweet” and “Sour” ultimately factors back into the form of the poem in the juxtaposition between form and mood.

Though, with the other title, “Slave Trader in the Dumps”, the meaning is less metaphorical, and more so stating the perspective of the narrator. This leads to a question I would pose in interpreting the titles in relation to the meaning of the poem: Why did Cowper include two different titles?

3 thoughts on “Form and Meaning in “Sweet Meat has Sour Sauce”, or “The Slave Trader in the Dumps””

  1. I liked the way you dissected the contrast between the “sweet” and “sour” elements of this poem. I wanted to add one more contrast to what you discuss in your first paragraph. I noticed that the poem uses a mix of “sweet” and “sour” diction, much like how the tone is upbeat while the message is depressing. For example, Cowper employs the word “fine” to describe the chains restricting the slaves, and writes that the padlocks, bolts, and screws “squeeze them so lovingly til the blood comes.” The two different types of diction contrast to further confuse the tone of the poem as Cowper pairs words like “fine” and “lovingly” with “chains” and “blood.”

  2. I liked how you mentioned the singsong feeling that the poem provides. As talked about in class, it turns the poem into something like ring around the rosie. I found that this part of the poem provided eeriness for me as I read it because it was so upbeat but still saying “no one can deny” as though no one can deny all the horrible things taking place. To attempt to answer your ending question, I think Cowper included two different titles so that the poem not only calls out the slave trader, but also those that support his trade.

  3. I agree that the form of this poem works so well for a satirical piece. The refrain definitely gets annoying for readers, and the insistence on “deny, deny” instead of just saying it once is so over-the-top. The aaabb rhyme scheme is repetitive and overly simple. Repeatedly rhyming “deny” with itself, it’s as if the rhyme scheme is mocking the slave traders. The use of first-person perspective as well, is for sure irritating for the slave traders who would be reading this. The use of two titles adds to the sentiments of irony for this poem. As you said the first title is metaphorical while the second one is quite straightforward, as if to say “in case you didn’t get what I mean by the first title, let me spell it out for you.”

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