Slavery has been a part of human history from the earliest times to the present day. At the same time, the voice against it is also recorded in history.
Although it is no longer legal anywhere in the world, the traces and impact are prevalent among people and in literature. The most dominant impact of this is visible among black people and African history. In poetry, poets, both black and white, dealt with the plight of African slaves through emotionally moving poems.
In this section, poems that deal with the life and emotions of slaves, across cultures, nationalities, and religions are explored. A special focus is given to the poems written by African-American poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Moving Poems about Slavery
- 1 Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V by Robert Southey
- 2 The Little Black Boy by William Blake
- 3 Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade by Anna Letitia Barbauld
- 4 Slavery by Hannah More
- 5 The Death of Slavery by William Cullen Bryant
- 6 To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth by Phillis Wheatley
- 7 The Slave’s Lament by Robert Burns
- 8 The Negro Girl by Mary Darby Robinson
- 9 The Dying Negro by Thomas Day and John Bicknell
- 10 To Toussaint L’Ouverture by William Wordsworth
- 11 The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- 12 The Slave Singing at Midnight by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- 13 Abolition Of Slavery In The District Of Columbia, 1862 by John Greenleaf Whittier
- 14 Address to Slavery by Samuel Wright
- 15 Remember by Langston Hughes
Poems On The Slave Trade – Sonnet V by Robert Southey
Southey’s ‘Sonnet V’ demonstrates a full-blooded and realistic acceptance of slave violence as the inevitable consequence of physical and psychological brutalism imposed on the African people. The poem attempts to give justification for a slave revolt. For the African brought as a slave, sleeplessly weeps for his wife left behind in Africa. As a result, he is maddened by his sufferings, he revolts against his masters.
Did then the Negro rear at last the sword
Of vengeance? Did he plunge its thirsty blade
In the hard heart of his inhuman lord?
Oh, who shall blame him? in the midnight shall
His wrongs and wretchedness, when hope can go
No consolation, time can bring no cure?
But justice for himself he yet could take,
And life is then well given for vengeance sake.
Read more Robert Southey poems.
‘The Little Black Boy’ is published in Blake’s collection “The Songs of Innocence” published in 1789. In this poem, Blake speaks about a black African-American child and his struggles with slavery. He expresses the way white suppress the blacks through the speaker, a young African-American boy. The speaker in the poem has a dream that one day all the slaves will be free.
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
( . . . )
Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.
Read more poetry from William Blake.
Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade by Anna Letitia Barbauld
Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem “Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. On the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade” published in 1791 deals with the subject “abolishing slave trade”. It is structured as a response to Wilberforce, one of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement, after their failed attempt to abolish slavery in the House of Commons in 1789. Wilberforce in his speech touched upon various reasons for the abolition of slavery, and Barbauld uses some of these reasons in her epistle to help put forth her point.
Cease, Wilberforce, to urge thy generous aim!
Thy Country knows the sin, and stands the shame!
The Preacher, Poet, Senator in vain
Has rattled in her sight the Negro’s chain;
While faithful History, in her various page,
Marking the features of this motley age,
To shed a glory, and to fix a stain,
Tells how you strove, and that you strove in vain.
Read more poetry by Anna Lætitia Barbauld.
Slavery by Hannah More
Hannah More was one of the most prominent eighteenth-century female writers who stood up for the abolitionist cause in Britain. She intensely criticizes the slave trade in the poem, while attempting to persuade her readers and listeners to stand for the anti-slavery movement. The poem is her plea to Britain to get rid of slavery: ‘Redeem or fame, and consecrate our age’.
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?
Disperse her shades of intellectual night,
Repeat thy high behest — Let there be light!
Bring each benighted soul, great God, to Thee,
And with thy wide Salvation make them free!
The Death of Slavery by William Cullen Bryant
Bryant wrote this poem ‘The Death of Slavery’ a year after the close of the Civil War. He was the first American poet to attain international prominence. In this poem, he celebrates the demise of slavery. He is excited for the “cruel reign” has come to an end.
O THOU great Wrong, that, through the slow-paced years,
Didst hold thy millions fettered, and didst wield
The scourge that drove the laborer to the field,
Moulder and rust by thine eternal seat.
There, ‘mid the symbols that proclaim thy crimes,
Dwell thou, a warning to the coming times.
Read more poetry by William Cullen Byrant.
“To the Right Honorable William Earl of Dartmouth” was written in the hopes that the new earl would relieve the African’s from the tyranny that they faced with the previous ruler of England. Wheatley was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry: “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” which appeared in 1773. The poem stands to symbolize her courage and her desire and appreciation for freedom from tyranny as rooted in her subjugation and enslavement. On a biographical note, she had been taken from Africa to America as a young girl but was freed shortly after the publication of her poems.
Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
But to conduct to heav’ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th’ ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God.
Read more of Phillis Wheatley’s poems.
The Slave’s Lament by Robert Burns
Robert Burns’ works display genuine humanity and sympathy towards the oppressed. His ironical perspective of social injustice is visibly seen through. In this poem, ‘The Slave’s Lament’, published in 1792, Burns emphasis his views on the inhumane lies in slavery. For, he has witnessed the sufferings of the slaves, when he worked as a bookkeeper on a sugar plantation in Jamaica.
It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
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:
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
Read more poetry by Robert Burns.
The Negro Girl by Mary Darby Robinson
Mary Robinson’s ‘Negro Girl’ is a sorrow-filled and love-struck woman who has been taken into slavery. Through her speaker, Robinson boldly voices the injustices done to the African people. She has employed a subtle and two-toned approach which attributes to a more personal situation. Looking at the time of the poem, it was a bold attempt, especially for a woman to speak about slavery.
Dark was the dawn, and o’er the deep
The boist’rous whirlwinds blew;
Long, on the swelling surge sustain’d
Brave DRACO sought the shore,
Watch’d the dark Maid, but ne’er complain’d,
Then sunk, to gaze no more!
Poor ZELMA saw him buried by the wave–
And, with her heart’s true Love, plung’d in a wat’ry grave.
The Dying Negro by Thomas Day and John Bicknell
‘The Dying Negro: A Poetical Epistle’ was first published in 1773. Bicknell wrote the original poem which was then expanded and revised by Thomas Day in 1774. It was an abolitionist poem published in England and widely recognized as “the first significant piece of verse propaganda directed explicitly against the English slave systems”.
ARM’D with thy sad last gift—the pow’r to die,
Thy shafts, stern fortune, now I can defy;
Thy dreadful mercy points at length the shore,
Where all is peace, and men are slaves no more;
I woke to bondage and ignoble pains,
And all the horrors of a life in chains *.
Ye Gods of Afric! in that dreadful hour
Where your thunders and avenging pow’r!
To Toussaint L’Ouverture by William Wordsworth
‘To Toussaint L’Ouverture’ is one of the famous poems by Wordsworth that deals with the subject of Slavery. In this poem, he glorifies Toussaint, leader of the first successful revolution against slavery in Haiti. The poem celebrates the revolutionary spirit of the dying Toussaint. Also, he reassures him that the fire he has lit will not go out and the world will act accordingly.
Toussaint – the most unhappy of men! –
Whether the rural milkmaid by her cow
Sing in thy hearing, or though liest now
( . . . )
That will forget thee! Thou hast great allies:
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.
Read more of William Wordsworth’s poetry.
The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ deals with the undeniable sufferings of black slaves, especially women, in nineteenth-century America. The narrator of the poem, a fugitive slave woman, ironically “STAND on the mark” – Plymouth Rock, the mythological point of origin of American freedom – and recounts the incidents and circumstances, that deprived her of her maternal instincts. She explains why she killed the child to which she gave birth after gang-raped.
I STAND on the mark beside the shore
Of the first white pilgrim’s bended knee,
Where exile turned to ancestor,
And God was thanked for liberty.
In the name of the white child waiting for me
In the death-dark where we may kiss and agree
White men, I leave you all curse-free
In my broken heart’s disdain!
Read more poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The Slave Singing at Midnight is told from the point of view of a slave singing about freedom. It is one of the eight poems Longfellow crafted during one of his trips home from overseas. Ironically, the poem focuses on an enslaved person, while the writer, Longfellow is a White American male. The poet listens to a slave singing about what it would be like to be in a free world, and dreaming of the rivers he would cross and the places he would travel in life. He emphasizes how slaves longed to be free of the horrors they faced as themselves in the world.
Loud he sang the psalm of David!
He, a Negro and enslaved,
Sang of Israel’s victory,
Sang of Zion, bright and free.
But, alas! what holy angel
Brings the Slave this glad evangel?
And what earthquake’s arm of might
Breaks his dungeon-gates at night?
Read more of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems.
John Greenleaf Whittier played an important role as a poet, as a politician, and as a moral force in the 30-year struggle to abolish slavery. In this poem, ‘Abolition Of Slavery In The District Of Columbia, 1862’ he reflects on the abolition of slavery in the United States. The poem explains his excited heart upon hearing the news about the bill passed for abolishing slavery.
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!
Rejoice in hope! The day and night
Are one with God, and one with them
Who see by faith the cloudy hem
Of Judgment fringed with Mercy’s light!
‘Address to Slavery’ written in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, is from the perspective of an abolitionist. He feels pity and expresses his sympathy for the slave’s plight. Also, the speaker speaks about the skills of the slaves, especially how they work hard in the hot sun. On the whole, the poem talks about the energy with which the slaves contributed, still, they are neither treated with respect nor expect any gain out of it.
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.
Hope God by His power will save them at last,
And bring them as Israel in ages that’s past,
Out of the reach of proud slavery’s chain,
To enjoy the sweet comfort of freedom again.
Remember by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes, celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance, explains the way black people were treated in America in this poem. He reminds his fellow African-Americans how they still remain ‘slaves’, even after the abolition of slavery. For, it feels that the white people are everywhere in the world, and have power over the African people. Also, it reminds us how the people tried to escape slavery.
The days of bondage—
Do not stand still.
That makes of you
The hungry wretched thing you are today.
Read more poems from Langston Hughes.