Slave’s Dream by H. W. Longfellow, Poem Analysis

Slave’s Dream by H. W. Longfellow, Poem

Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again, in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.

Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain road.

He saw once more his dark-eyed queen
Among her children stand;
They clasped his neck, they kissed his cheeks,
They held him by the hand!—
A tear burst from the sleeper’s lids
And fell into the sand.

And then at furious speed he rode
Along the Niger’s bank;
His bridle-reins were golden chains,
And, with a martial clank,
At each leap he could feel his scabbard of steel
Smiting his stallion’s flank.

Before him, like a blood-red flag,
The bright flamingoes flew;
From morn till night he followed their flight,
O’er plains where the tamarind grew,
Till he saw the roofs of Caffre huts,
And the ocean rose to view.

At night he heard the lion roar,
And the hyena scream,
And the river-horse, as he crushed the reeds
Beside some hidden stream;
And it passed, like a glorious roll of drums,
Through the triumph of his dream.

The forests, with their myriad tongues,
Shouted of liberty;
And the Blast of the Desert cried aloud,
With a voice so wild and free,
That he started in his sleep and smiled
At their tempestuous glee.

He did not feel the driver’s whip,
Nor the burning heat of day;
For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,
And his lifeless body lay
A worn-out fetter, that the soul
Had broken and thrown away!

Slave’s Dream Poem Analysis

Background

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807- 1882) is a popular American poet of 19th He was well known for the lyrical quality of his poetry.
  • He is considered as an American Romanticist.
  • According to Harman, The American Period of Romanticism (1830-1865) was “an age of great westward expansion, of the increasing gravity of the slavery questions, of an intensification of the spirit of embattled sectionalism in the South, and of a powerful impulse to reform in the North” (As cited in Scheidenhelm, 2007).
  • Literary themes were highly imaginative and subjective such as emotional intensity, escapism, common man as a hero, nature as a refuge, source of knowledge and /or spirituality.
  • Born in Portland, Maine Longfellow did not have first-hand experience on slavery.
  • The poem ‘Slave’s Dream’ was one of the seven poems on slavery included in the collection Poems on Slavery, written in 1842.
  • It was written 19 years before the American Civil war (1861-5) which led to abolishing of slavery in USA.
  • Well aware of their tepid content, Longfellow described his Poems on Slavery in a letter 23rd May 1843 to Isaac Appleton Jewett that they are “so mild that even a slave holder might read them without his appetite for breakfast.”
  • The Slave’s Dream is about a series of dreams of a victim of slavery during the 19th

Themes

  • Slavery
  • Longing for liberty and dignity

Tone

  • Wistful and poignant

Language

  • Graphic language full of vivid imagery

Summary

  • The poem starts out by positioning the slave laying down beside his work, his tool in his hand, with the “mist and shadow of sleep” about him as he dreams of his “Native Land” where he is a beloved king, with loving wife and children, who rides on a fast horse decked in gold.
  • The dream vision follows the king on a fast ride past landmarks of his beloved land where he smiles at lions, hyenas and the desert blast.
  • The ending reveals that the slave is beyond the pain of the slave “driver’s whip,” beyond the “burning heat of day,” for “Death” has “illuminated” his sleep and set his soul free.

 

Techniques and Analysis-

  • Throughout the poem the poet uses graphic images — visual, auditory and tactile, efficiently describing the slave’s picturesque “native land” and creating an atmosphere of pathos.
  • The slave, is liberated from the tyranny of slavedom symbolically in his dream and finally by death.
  • Some of the poetic techniques Longfellow uses are metaphor, simile, personification, and irony. An example of metaphor is “mist and shadow of sleep.” An example of simile is “like a glorious roll of drums.” An example of personification is “Blast of the Desert cried aloud.” An example of irony is “Death had illuminated the Land of Sleep.” This is creatively ironic because death is associated in poetic convention with darkness and chains of despair, yet Longfellow sees that for the slave death is an illumination of light and a ,freedom of release; these are the opposite of the poetic convention.

Study questions

  • Write a critical appreciation of the poem “Slave’s Dream” by H. W. Longfellow.
  • Discuss the Romantic features of the poem “Slave’s Dream” by H. W. Longfellow.
  • In your opinion, to what extent that H. W. Longfellow was able to create a realistic picture of slavery through the poem.

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