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From The Negro's Complaint by William Cowper:

By our blood in Afric wasted,
Ere our necks received the chain;
By the miseries that we tasted,
Crossing in our barks the main;
By our sufferings, since ye brought us
To the man-degrading mart,
All sustain'd by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart
;

Deem our nation brutes no longer,
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard, and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted powers,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours!

I don't understand the meaning of the bolded phrase. Who taught whom?

A broken heart taught the slaves? This sounds odd.

I can't come up with any explanation. I would vaguely understand "taught us only of a broken heart" (these sufferings taught us to have a broken heart). But this by leaves me baffled.

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    In your context, patience, taught us \ Only by a broken heart could be paraphrased as patience, which we have learned only through bitter experience. Oct 7, 2016 at 12:19
  • @FumbleFingers - ah, now it clicks together. Thank you! You could post that as an answer! Oct 7, 2016 at 12:20
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    I haven't actually voted on this question, but I think that if you're going to tackle challenging texts like this in a foreign language, you must expect to do some of the "interpretation" yourself. If we replaced by a broken heart with, say, by a crazy preacher, I don't suppose you'd have had any problem. But hopefully you can see that in taught [to] us by X, the preposition by has exactly the same significance regardless of whether X is a broken heart or a crazy priest - it always means X is the "teacher", not the "lesson" being taught. Oct 7, 2016 at 12:44
  • @FumbleFingers - I understand the meaning of by, but I missed the fact that it is patience that was taught to us only by a broken heart. No matter how much I read, I'll always have snags like this. I was not thinking of "to us" but thought that someone/something "taught us". I hope I explained it well enough. O_O Multitasking.. Oct 7, 2016 at 13:06
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    @CowperKettle We are all taught by experience :) Oct 7, 2016 at 14:37

1 Answer 1

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In your passage

taught us only by a broken heart

means

taught by way of a broken heart

which is a bitter and disappointing way to learn a life's lessons.

To say

taught us only of a broken heart

would be to learn about a broken heart.

But your passage says that it was "through a broken heart", or "by having a broken heart" that the lessons were learned.

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