Slavery has been much in the news and on social media lately, so we thought we’d do something that’s long overdue here at Interesting Literature: share some of the most powerful, damning, and emotionally moving poems about slavery and the plight of African slaves over the centuries, from poets writing both in Britain and America, both black and white. The following list of some of the best slavery poems also includes some early poems by African-American poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – but have we left any good poems about slavery off this list? Let us know in the comments …
Anna Letitia Barbauld, ‘Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade’.
Wrung Nature’s tortures, shuddering, while you tell,
From scoffing fiends bursts forth the laugh of hell;
In Britain’s senate, Misery’s pangs give birth
To jests unseemly, and to horrid mirth—
Forbear!—thy virtues but provoke our doom,
And swell th’ account of vengeance yet to come;
For, not unmarked in Heaven’s impartial plan,
Shall man, proud worm, contemn his fellow-man?
Written in 1791 after Wilberforce and the British abolitionists had been defeated in parliament, this poem responds to the impassioned (but failed) speeches of Wilberforce and others before turning to the corrupting influence of the slave trade.
Hannah More, ‘Slavery’.
If Heaven has into being deigned to call
Thy light, O Liberty! to shine on all;
Bright intellectual Sun! why does thy ray
To earth distribute only partial day?
Along with Barbauld, Hannah More was one of the most prominent female writers championing the abolitionist cause in eighteenth-century Britain. In this long poem, More beseeches Britain to ‘Redeem or fame, and consecrate our age’ by getting rid of the monstrous blight of slavery.
Phillis Wheatley, ‘To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth’.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress’d complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t’ enslave the land.
Wheatley (c. 1753-84; pictured below right) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in 1773 when she was probably still in her early twenties. Wheatley had been taken from Africa to America as a young girl, but was freed shortly after the publication of her poems.
Robert Burns, ‘The Slave’s Lament’.
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthrall
For the lands of Virginia-ginia O;
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more,
And alas! I am weary, weary O!
This poem is a controversial choice for a list of the best poems about slavery, perhaps, but the contradiction it exposes only makes the need for debate about the history of slavery – and for education around it – all the more important. Burns (1759-96), who was a champion of the oppressed and whose work displays genuine humanity and sympathy, also accepted a job as a bookkeeper on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. In the end, Burns didn’t end up going, and in the mid-1780s the abolitionist cause hadn’t gathered any real steam in Scotland. He wrote ‘The Slave’s Lament’ in the early 1790s, suggesting that he had modified his views on the slave trade by then.
William Wordsworth, ‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’.
Oh miserable Chieftain, where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not! Do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow;
Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort!
One of two famous poems about slavery Wordsworth wrote (the other poem, ‘The Mad Mother’, is a bit more controversial, and Wordsworth’s relationship with slavery was far from straightforward), this poem praises Toussaint, leader of the first successful revolution against slavery in Haiti. Wordsworth celebrates the revolutionary spirit of the dying Toussaint, reassuring him – and the world – that the fire Toussaint has lit will not go out.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’. Elizabeth Barrett Browning also often tackled social issues in her poetry. In this poem, a dramatic monologue, she writes in the character of a black female slave in the United States, on the run having endured a series of horrors. A tragic poem (we won’t give away the ending here though the stanzas below provide a clue), the poem is still a powerful indictment of the treatment of black slaves in nineteenth-century America. The poem was written to raise funds for the abolitionist cause:
Our wounds are different. Your white men
Are, after all, not gods indeed,
Nor able to make Christs again
Do good with bleeding. We who bleed . . .
(Stand off!) we help not in our loss!
We are too heavy for our cross,
And fall and crush you and your seed …
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’. The prolific American poet Longfellow (1807-82) is probably best known for ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, but in this poem, the poet listens to a slave singing about his wished-for freedom:
In that hour, when night is calmest,
Sang he from the Hebrew Psalmist,
In a voice so sweet and clear
That I could not choose but hear …
John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘Abolition Of Slavery In The District Of Columbia, 1862’.
When first I saw our banner wave
Above the nation’s council-hall,
I heard beneath its marble wall
The clanking fetters of the slave!
In this poem, written as the American Civil War was still raging, the American Whittier (1807-92) reflects on the abolition of slavery in the United States. ‘Glory to God!’ he wrote to Charles Sumner in April 1862 upon hearing the news. ‘Nothing but this hearty old Methodist response will express my joy at the passage of the bill for the abolition of slavery in the District, in the Senate of the United States.’
Samuel Wright, ‘Address to Slavery’. Of course, as Wheatley’s poem above shows, there is a long history of African-American poets writing about slavery. The poem was written in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, and sees an abolitionist expressing sympathy for the slave’s plight:
Slavery, O Slavery! I cannot conceive
Why judges and magistrates do not relieve
My down-trodden people from under thy hand,
Restore them their freedom, and give them their land …
Langston Hughes, ‘Remember’. Hughes (1901-67) was one of the most celebrated poets of the Harlem Renaissance. In ‘Remember’, he reminds his fellow African-Americans that they remain ‘slaves’, even after the abolition of slavery, because of ‘the white hand’ that steals and the ‘white face’ that lies. This white hand is everywhere in the world and keeps African people in thrall – even after the end of slavery – all over the globe.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.
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A flawed list, you forget both Blake (who had The Little Black Boy but also a passage in the epic America) and more shamefully Robert Hayden’s great poem about slavery.
William Blake deserves an honourable mention for coming to abolitionism very early and for a poem entitled The Little Black Boy which is worth a look. Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake is a great book.
Interesting – Burns has adapted a late18th century broadside ballad, called ‘The Trapanned Maiden’ narrated by a young woman who has been persuaded to go to Virginia – presumably as an indentured servant – and found the conditions there very unpleasant – http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/32779/xml to the terrible fate of a man taken from Senegal into chattel slavery in America.
Most of these poems are polemics designed to make the poet feel good about himself. Two poems which really get to grips with the human issues involved are Longfellow’s The Quadroon Girl and Whittier’s A Sabbath Scene. If anybody knows how to post these as part of a reply, they will be doing us all a service.
I was set to suggest Longfellow’s “The Quadroon Girl” too. It’s harrowing, something we don’t associate with Longfellow. I performed it as part of my ongoing project, but badly, as I couldn’t bear to perform it enough to see to it get it done well.
Here’s the text of the poem, part of series Longfellow published in furtherance of the abolitionist cause.