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Beyond "Poems on Slavery": Black Abolitionist Poets and Longfellow's Imperfect Allyship

Title page of "Poems on Slavery" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, third edition, Cambridge: published by John Owen, M DCCC XLIII. LONG 15236

Museum Collection, Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters NHS (LONG 15236)

Content note: This article contains discussion of historical slavery and sexual violence.

In 1842, white poet Henry Longfellow published Poems on Slavery to mixed reviews. At the time, Longfellow was one of the most well-known, but by no means the only American author writing about slavery. While there were many other writers commenting on the issue, two Black poets who make a particularly striking contrast to Longfellow are George Horton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Horton, who spent much of his life in slavery, and Harper, who spent much of her life working to advance the rights of Black women, both wrote powerful abolitionist poetry reflecting the vital importance of lived experience.

Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of the best-known American poets of the nineteenth century. His work covers a wide range of topics and moods, from brief musings on the beauty of the world around him, to book-length poems about places and cultures he never experienced, to a very small handful of poems commenting on the social issues of his day. Most of the poems in this last category are found in Poems on Slavery, a slim volume published by the Cambridge publisher John Owen1 in December 18422. The collection consists of eight poems, most of which were written while Longfellow was traveling back to Cambridge from a stay in Europe. It is unclear if he would have written anything at all without the encouragement of his friends Charles Sumner and Charles Dickens, both of whom were much stronger (and more consistent) public speakers against the social evils they saw in their countries. As a privileged white Northern man, Longfellow had no experience of slavery. As a white person and a well-known public figure, he never had to fear being kidnapped and enslaved like Solomon Northup, whose life story was recorded in the book Twelve Years a Slave; as a man, Longfellow did not have the same fears of sexual violence that haunted many in the 19th century, particularly enslaved women.

When Poems on Slavery was published in December 1842, it received a wide range of reviews. According to Charles C. Calhoun in his 2004 biography, “John Greenleaf Whittier even invited [Longfellow] to run for Congress on the new Liberty Party antislavery ticket.”3 (Longfellow declined the invitation.) On the other side of the coin, Edgar Allan Poe “dismissed the work as ‘intended for the especial use of the negrophilic old ladies of the north, who form so large a part of Mr. LONGFELLOW’s friends.’”4 Longfellow himself wrote of this collection that the poems contained within were “so mild that even a Slaveholder could read them without losing his appetite for breakfast” (HWL to Isaac Appleton Jewett, May 23, 1843). Longfellow’s goal with his Poems appears to have been to emphasize the humanity of those enslaved and to speak in broad terms about the evils of slavery, without explicitly calling for the abolition of the system. He only partially succeeded. Some of the poems are quite effective, but all of them lose much of their impact when compared to abolitionist work written by Black poets, especially Black poets who were enslaved.

Some of the Poems on Slavery reflect Longfellow’s privilege and distance from the issues he wrote about, particularly “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp” and “The Slave Singing at Midnight”. “Dismal Swamp” is a fairly short poem, only six stanzas. Of these, two are entirely about the titular Dismal Swamp, and in a third the character of the slave only appears in the fifth and final line of the verse. The stanzas that do describe the man are entirely focused on his external appearance, which is described in negative terms:

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;

Great scars deformed his face;

On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,

And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,

Were the livery of disgrace.

All of these descriptors could be argued as things that are externally imposed upon a person; the scars, rags, and brand were all placed upon the man by the malevolent force that is, through the mention of the horse and bloodhound, implied to be chasing him. The enslaver is never explicitly mentioned; the last stanza describes “the curse of Cain” falling upon the enslaved man like a flail, but Longfellow never tells the reader who is wielding that flail. “The curse of Cain” is a reference to the then-commonly held belief that Black people were descended from Cain, the figure in Christian tradition who killed his brother Abel and was punished by God for his action.

“The Slave Singing at Midnight” was originally published as the fifth of the Poems on Slavery and, aside from “To William E. Channing”, which served as the book’s introduction, is the only poem to use the first person at any point. This use of the first person means that there are two characters in this poem—the enslaved singer of the title, and the narrator. We never hear directly from the singer; the narrator tells us what the man is singing about, namely “Israel’s victory, [and] Zion bright and free.” The narrator also tells us that the singer’s voice is “so sweet and clear That [they] could not choose but hear” songs such as the ones that were sung in the Biblical story of Moses and the Jewish people fleeing slavery and being pursued by Pharaoh, who perishes. In filtering the words of the singer through the narrator’s description, Longfellow places more emphasis on the narrator’s emotional response to the song, rather than the singer himself. When hearing the enslaved man sing, the narrator starts thinking about examples of slavery in the Christian Bible, rather than thinking about the human being in front of him. In addition, the emotional response of the narrator (“And the voice of his devotion Filled my soul with strange emotion”) comes at almost the exact center of the poem, being mentioned in the 14th of the poem’s 24 lines. Longfellow literally centers the narrator’s secondhand experience of the sorrows caused by enslavement, instead of the enslaved singer’s own lived experiences.

Making assumptions about a writer’s intentions is always difficult, but other evidence from Longfellow’s life—his close friendship with Charles Sumner, the anonymous gifts of money he made to people fleeing enslavement—imply that Longfellow did not intend to write a racist poem. However, intention is not the same as effect, and with “Dismal Swamp” Longfellow did just that. He denies his main character any agency, likening him to “a wild beast in his lair” as he crouches and hides from his pursuers. Longfellow spends more of the poem’s space on describing the setting than he does on the plot. “The Slave Singing at Midnight”, in a similar vein, uses the enslaved singer’s voice as a prompt for the narrator to muse idly about how unfortunate slavery is instead of going into details about how the man feels. On the one hand, Longfellow refrains from putting words into the mouth of a Black character; on the other hand, in describing these scenes the way he does Longfellow objectifies his Black subjects and renders them almost entirely passive.

Title page: The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North-Carolina, to which is prefixed the life of the author, written by himself. Hillsborough; printed by D. Heartt, 1845

Internet Archive Open Library

Black Abolitionist Poetry

George Moses Horton

George Moses Horton was born in North Carolina around 1798; because his mother was enslaved by the Horton family, he was classified as a slave for most of his life. He learned the alphabet from nearby children, and almost immediately started composing poems. In 1815, Horton’s enslaver moved close to what has since become the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of Horton’s tasks was to carry fruit to the University, and the students discovered his ability to compose poems. In the autobiography published with his poems in 1845, Horton wrote “those criticising gentlemen saw plainly what I lacked, and many of them very generously gave me such books as they considered useful in my case, which I received with much gratitude” (pg xv). The students would pay Horton to compose poems for them, particularly love poems for the women they were courting.

On Liberty And Slavery

With the encouragement of some of the students and the assistance of Mrs. Caroline Hentz, whose husband was a professor at the university, George Horton published his first book of poems, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829. “On Liberty and Slavery” was included in that first book. On a technical level it is a relatively simple poem, consisting of ten stanzas of four lines each. Each stanza has an ABAB rhyme scheme, meaning that the first and third, as well as the second and fourth, lines of each stanza rhyme. The lines themselves alternate between unstressed and stressed syllables. The simplicity of the poem’s structure allows the meaning of the words to take center stage. Unlike many of Longfellow’s poems on slavery this one is in the first person, which makes it much more immediate and personal than poems written in the third person. The poem starts

Alas! and am I born for this,
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
Through hardship, toil and pain!

As an exclamation of woe and sorrow, “alas” immediately sets the mood for the poem. It is followed by the first of two questions that we encounter in the first three stanzas, the second one being

Oh, Heaven! and is there no relief
This side the silent grave--
To soothe the pain--to quell the grief
And anguish of a slave?

Again, there is an exclamation of some strong negative emotion followed by a rhetorical question. Neither of these questions—was the speaker born for this life, and is there any relief short of dying—is answered in the poem. This lack of answers creates a lingering tension for the reader that is the smallest, most distant echo of the poet’s own experience. The Introduction (or “Explanation”) of the book explains clearly that these poems are published to raise money to purchase his emancipation and pay for his emigration to Liberia, but there was no assurance of success. The Explanation understands that: “But should [funds from the sale of the book] ultimately prove insufficient, they will be returned to subscribers.”5 George Horton did not know if this would work; his questions remained unanswered, at least when the book first was published.6

Most of “On Liberty and Slavery” focuses on the poet’s desire for the first half of the title, which he describes as an active force, asking it to “let [his] grief in joys be drowned, And drive away [his] fears.” This force, liberty, is “the gift of nature’s God”, and therefore a natural thing—implying that slavery is unnatural. Horton also asks Liberty to

Bid Slavery hide her haggard face,
And barbarism fly:
I scorn to see the sad disgrace
In which enslaved I lie.

The last two lines of this, the eighth of the poem’s ten stanzas, is one of the few spots where Horton mentions slavery at all, and the only lines in which he expresses his opinion about his state in life. In both this stanza and the second, where he rhetorically wonders “How long [has he] in bondage lain”, he uses the verb “lie” to describe his state. While a verb, lying down is one of the least active actions, and Horton’s use of it emphasizes a feeling of passivity—even as he pursued emancipation. He laments this, calling his enslavement a “sad disgrace”, and scorns to see it. It’s not clear how much of that scorn is directed at himself, and how much of it is directed at the situation in which he lives.

Despite being written by two radically different authors, there is one similarity between “The Slave Singing at Midnight” and “On Liberty and Slavery”: the fact that they both center the experiences of Black men. Many of the early (pre-Civil War) narratives of self-emancipation gathered by the University of North Carolina in their “Documenting the American South” collection were written by men. Black women were enslaved as well; their experience of being enslaved included the same degree of physical violence as Black men, and also contained the specific threat of sexual violence and forced pregnancy.

Of Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery, “The Quadroon Girl” is about this danger, but only in careful allusions. There are three characters in the poem: the Planter, the Slaver, and the young woman of the title. The poem opens with the Slaver and his boat, and four stanzas later we meet the Planter. This character is described as smoking “thoughtfully and slow” while he and the Slaver are in the middle of a discussion over business. The Slaver is eager to leave, and seems to be waiting for the Planter to make a decision about something. Only at this point, in the sixth of the poem’s twelve stanzas, does Longfellow introduce us to the titular girl. She never speaks, even as the Slaver and the Planter discuss her fate in front of her, but instead stands quietly. Even though she is in the title of the poem, the emotional center of the poem is the debate the Planter is having with himself.

His heart within him was at strife
With such accurséd gains:
For he knew whose passions gave her life,
Whose blood ran in her veins.

“Quadroon” is an archaic word, no longer in use, that refers to people whose ancestry was one-quarter Black and three-quarters white. In this instance, Longfellow is very strongly implying that the Planter knows “whose passions gave [the girl] life”, because they were his own. His heart is “at strife” because he is debating whether or not to sell his own daughter. Eventually, though, he does decide to take “the glittering gold” that the Slaver offers him; Longfellow casts the young woman’s response to this entirely in the passive voice: “Then pale as death grew the maiden’s cheek, Her hands as icy cold.” The Slaver then leads the young woman by the hand “to be his slave and paramour In a strange and distant land.” “Paramour” is an archaic word for a lover, which implies an emotional connection that does not mesh well with “slave”. On the whole, “The Quadroon Girl” is a stylized, romanticized depiction of the sexual violence that was a very real danger for Black girls and women.
3/4 standing portrait of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

State Library of North Carolina, Government & Heritage Library

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper did not shy away from addressing that sexual violence in some of her abolitionist poems. Watkins Harper was born on September 24, 1825, to free Black parents in Baltimore, Maryland. Both of her parents died by the time she was three years old, so her aunt and uncle raised her. According to a profile of Frances Watkins Harper by the Kerri Lee Alexander for the National Women’s History Museum, Frances’ uncle William Watkins “was an outspoken abolitionist, practiced self-taught medicine, organized a black literary society and established his own school in 1820 called the Watkins Academy for Negro Youth,”7 which Watkins Harper attended until she was thirteen years old. She worked for a white family that owned a bookshop, which is where “her love for books blossomed.” Watkins Harper published her first book of poems, Forest Leaves, by the time she was twenty-one. It was followed, in 1854, by Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects. This latter collection, published in Boston and introduced by William Lloyd Garrison, contains the poems “The Slave Mother” and “The Slave Auction”. “Bury Me in a Free Land”, perhaps the most heartwrenching of all Watkins Harper’s work, was first published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle on November 20, 1858.

The Slave Mother

From the first line, “The Slave Mother" reaches out to grab the reader’s attention with a question: “Heard you that shriek?” This is a very conversational way to start a poem, as if you the reader and the narrator have been chatting about other topics and the narrator breaks off to ask the question. Harper then describes the shriek “as if a burden’d heart Was breaking in despair”; over the course of the stanzas that follow, that description turns out to be accurate. The second stanza introduces the mother by small details—her hands, her head, her overall form, her eyes—in an almost cinematic fashion, before describing her in one very simple phrase: “She is a mother pale with fear”. Harper then introduces us to the second character in the poem, namely the woman’s son, by calling him “her boy”. Unfortunately this statement is immediately contradicted, as the fifth stanza of the poem starts “He is not hers”.

This stanza, and the one immediately following, are painfully effective in laying out the violence inherent to the system of slavery:

He is not hers, although she bore
For him a mother’s pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
Is coursing through his veins!
He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.

Harper states the issue so plainly that it is difficult to find anything else to say about it. One detail worth mentioning, though, is the line about the mother’s blood “coursing through [the boy’s] veins.” When Longfellow uses the idea of blood relationships in “The Quadroon Girl”, the connection is between a planter and a young woman he is debating selling to another man. In “The Quadroon Girl”, the blood shared between the Planter and the young woman is used to underline the connection between them, even when the Planter desires a separation. In “The Slave Mother”, Harper depicts the opposite scenario, using the blood relationship between the mother and her son to underscore the cruelty of the imminent separation between the two, even though both the mother and the son wish to stay together.

Longfellow may have intended to use the blood relationship between the Planter character and the daughter he is selling to emphasize how slavery warps humanity to such cruelty, but it is less effective than Harper’s urgent depiction of a blood connection between parent and child. The image of a mother and her son, specifically, has a deep resonance in Western art; for many it brings to mind the Christian figures of Mary and Jesus. That Christian undercurrent is made stronger by a rhetorical question that comes up at the end of the eighth stanza, namely “Oh, Father! must they part?” The convention in Western literature is that “Father”, used in this manner with a capital F, is a reference to the Christian God. Given, however, that the boy’s family is discussed just a few short stanzas earlier, there is also a possibility that the unnamed hands “rudely [tearing]” the boy away from his mother belong to his father.

The poem ends with the same simplicity that began it, namely that “She is a mother, and her heart Is breaking in despair.” That simplicity is a strength of Watkins Harper’s poetry. Like George Horton, she typically writes in hymn or ballad meter, four-line stanzas that alternate between three and four stressed syllables per line. The rhyme scheme is ABCB, meaning that the second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme while the first and third do not. Because this meter is so common, it is familiar; this familiarity allows the reader to focus more on the words of the poem, rather than getting distracted by its structure.

Text of "Bury Me in a Free Land" as published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle newspaper.
"Bury Me in a Free Land" was published in the November 20, 1858 edition of the Anti-slavery Bugle.

Library of Congress.

Bury Me in a Free Land

Bury Me in a Free Land” can be called Watkins Harper’s masterpiece. It, like much of George Horton’s work, is in the first person, which gives it an immediacy that Longfellow’s poetry lacks. Over the course of the poem, the narrator describes three very vivid scenes, each with its central sound. One of those scenes is similar to what Longfellow describes in “Dismal Swamp”, but in just four lines Watkins Harper evokes a much more effective scene than Longfellow accomplishes in almost eight times as many. In the fifth stanza of her poem, Watkins Harper contrasts the sound of the bloodhounds baying with the sound of the vain pleading of their victim. She does not tell us what words the man uses to beg, but she acknowledges that he has a voice—unlike Longfellow, who renders his character entirely silent. Watkins Harper also sums up the degradation forced upon enslaved people in just two words—“human prey”. This may have been what Longfellow was trying to do with “Dismal Swamp”: contrast the humanity of the enslaved people with the animalistic qualities of their surroundings, but he missed the mark. By describing the man as prey, Watkins Harper shows how the circumstances have cruelly reduced him to the state of an animal; but she reminds us that first he is human.

Watkins Harper’s poem also speaks more directly than Longfellow's to the physical violence that was part of the system of slavery. The third stanza of the poem describes the sounds of a “coffle gang to the shambles led”; a coffle gang was a line of prisoners chained together, typically by the neck, while a shambles, per Merriam-Webster, is “a place of mass slaughter or bloodshed”. The next sound in the poem, “the mother’s shriek of wild despair”, is a blunt reminder that slavery was not just a series of atrocities committed upon individuals, but a systematic and intentional destruction of family and kinship networks.

The mother is explicitly punished for her shriek in the next stanza, as Watkins Harper describes the lash “drinking her blood at each fearful gash”. The way white enslavers actively destroyed families is reiterated immediately after the description of the beating, with the narrator describing the sight of the mother’s babes being “torn from her breast, Like trembling doves from their parent nest.” There is an important distinction to be drawn here. On the surface Watkins Harper is comparing Black children to animals, but there is a vast difference between a comparison to a specific kind of animal, and a comparison to “animals” writ large. In the Western literary tradition, the dove is a long-established symbol for peace, and the adjective “trembling” applied to the dove makes it clear that Watkins Harper is using the image of the bird to underscore the innocence and physical delicacy of the Black children.

Watkins Harper also explicitly states the sexual danger that the system of slavery held for Black women and girls. In one very blunt stanza, Watkins Harper sums up that danger:

If I saw young girls from their mother's arms

Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

The phrase “bartered and sold for their youthful charms” drives home the dehumanizing nature of slavery, as these are words typically used in the context of goods—not people. Watkins Harper also makes the reason these girls are being sold painfully clear; the girls are being sold for their physical attributes. In addition, the value is placed upon their “youthful” charms particularly. Watkins Harper does not say what will happen to the girls when they are no longer youthful, which will inevitably happen, but leaves it to the reader’s imagination.

One of the most interesting aspects of “Bury Me in a Free Land” is its structure, which makes a devastating impact in this particular stanza. The poem is written from the perspective of a person thinking about what might trouble their spirit after they are dead, and so it is phrased as a series of hypothetical scenarios. Most of the reactions the spirit will have in response to seeing or hearing atrocities—a woman being beaten, or a man being hunted—are emotional. But the selling of young girls for sexual purposes is so wrong that seeing it will cause a physical reaction in a body even after death, not solely an emotional reaction in a spirit: “My death-paled cheek [would] grow red with shame.” Immediately after this stanza, the poem shifts to what the speaker does want to see around and above their grave.

One of the problems with Longfellow’s approach to his Poems on Slavery is that he breaks each topic off into its own separate poem, when slavery itself affected every aspect of the lives of those forced to live in it. All of the issues—sexual violence against enslaved women, the dehumanizing nature of being hunted, the brutal separation of families—were intertwined and could not be separated. Because Longfellow is so mild and delicate in his handling of the issues of physical assault and sexual violence, he cushions his poems with a lot of extra detail about the setting. This ends up weakening the points that Longfellow is trying to make by diluting them so much that they can no longer be seen. Frances Watkins Harper does separate some topics into their own poems, as in “The Slave Auction”, but she uses the space far more effectively than Longfellow does by going into much more detail about how brutal and terrifying these auctions were. When she does cover multiple issues in a single poem, as in “Bury Me in a Free Land”, the simplicity and relentlessness with which she describes them makes the poem devastating to read.

Longfellow’s “The Witnesses”

With one exception, most of Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery fail to make much of an impact, especially when compared to abolitionist work written by Black poets. “The Witnesses” is far more compelling than any of the other poems in the collection, for several reasons. One of them is linguistic. Longfellow uses some language that is archaic even for the nineteenth century, namely “galled” and “gyves”. This brings slavery onto a less specific level; he’s not talking about the things that are happening in 1842, he’s talking about a semi-mythic period where he’s much more comfortable. Perhaps because he’s not writing about current events, Longfellow is more comfortable using much stronger language. He explicitly calls the deaths of these people (who have ended up as skeletons on the ocean floor) murders that “scare the school-boys from their play”; in other words, that disrupt the natural order of things. Longfellow also uses extremes to describe slavery, likening it to “All evil thoughts and deeds; Anger, lust, and pride; The foulest, rankest weeds, That choke Life’s groaning tide!” In addition to speaking in extremes, Longfellow makes it very clear that the ocean floor being covered with bones in shackles is not a natural state of affairs; the “fettered, fleshless limbs Are not the sport of storms.” Longfellow is referencing the people who were killed while being transported from Africa to North America, whose bodies were thrown overboard into the Atlantic Ocean.

The other reason that “The Witnesses” is so compelling is that Longfellow is not speaking over anyone else’s voice, the way he is in “Dismal Swamp”. There were people in the nineteenth century who could—and did—share their lived experiences of escaping from enslavement and crouching in swamps to hide from bounty hunters. But people who jumped or were thrown from ships that transported them to North America could not tell their own stories. The actions of white people reduced these Black people to skeletons, to inanimate objects, and rendered them voiceless. In “The Witnesses”, Longfellow gives them back a voice.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery remain an important part of his body of work. They are among a small group of his poems that spoke relatively directly to contemporary politics and events, instead of being about nature or emotions. At the same time, Longfellow had no direct experience with slavery, and never visited anywhere it was practiced. His one trip to Washington D.C., the furthest south he ever went in the United States, was in 1863, the year after slavery was outlawed in the city. He learned about the issue, as many other white Northerners did, through rhetoric written by white abolitionists; these second-hand accounts often cast enslaved people as victims while using dehumanizing tropes.

No matter how much time Henry Longfellow spent contemplating the issue, it remained abstract for him. This was not the case for writers such as George Horton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; for them, enslavement very real and very personal. George Horton spent most of his life enslaved, while Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was raised by a Black abolitionist and spent much of her life working to advance the rights of Black women. This deeper connection to the issue is what makes Horton and Watkins Harper’s writing about slavery so much more effective, visceral, and provocative than Longfellow’s.

-Ranger Kate Potter, 2021

Footnotes

  1. Basbanes, Nicholas A. Cross of Snow a Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), 184.
  2. Calhoun, Charles C. Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004), 156.
  3. Calhoun 157.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Horton, George Moses. The Hope of Liberty. Containing a Number of Poetical Pieces. (Raleigh: J. Gales & Son, 1829).
  6. Johnson, Lonnell E. "George Moses Horton" in African American Authors, 1745-1945: Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (Emmanuel S. Nelson, editor). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000: 240. Unfortunately, the 1829 edition of Horton’s poems did not earn enough money for his emancipation. He was not emancipated until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, after which he did emigrate to Liberia. It is not know when or where he died, but his arrival in January 1867 is the last reference to him in any written record.
  7. Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.” National Women’s History Museum. 2020. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/frances-ellen-watkins-harper.

Further Reading

Voices Beyond Bondage: An Anthology of Verse by African Americans of the 19th Century. United States: NewSouth Books, 2014.

George Moses Horton

Poetry Foundation: George Moses Horton  
The Poetical Works of George M. Horton
The Hope of Liberty

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Poetry Foundation: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Longfellow House Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site

Last updated: October 3, 2021