‘Bury Me in a Free Land’ is a poem written by African-American poet and abolitionist Frances Harper. In this poem, Harper strongly protests against slavery, a curse to humankind. She wants to be buried in a “Free Land” where no man calls his brother a slave. Moreover, the poet uses vivid imagery and metaphors for portraying the oppression of the slaves. Being an activist of human rights, she became extremely angry whenever she heard of this heartless custom and the torturing slaves endured. In this poem, she projects those images which make it clear how cruel the institution of slavery was.
Summary of Bury Me in a Free Land
In this poem, the speaker wants to be buried among the graves of humble people. It can be anywhere in this world but it should be at a place where slavery doesn’t exist in any form. She can’t rest at a place where slaves tread on and a mother cries out of wild despair for the loss of her innocent children. Moreover, she can’t be buried at a place where a white ruthlessly tortures his fellow brother only for his color and young girls are sold as objects. All the speaker wants is to be buried “not in a land of slaves”.
‘Bury Me in a Free Land’ consists of eight quatrains. In each quatrain of this poem, the poet uses a regular rhyme scheme and the rhyme scheme is AABB. This scheme goes on like this. So, the rhyming lines, like a rhyming couplet, present a single idea. Apart from that, there is a regularity in the syllable count of the lines. There are a total of nine syllables in each line. Here, the poet uses both the iambic meter and anapestic meter. However, the overall poem is composed of iambic tetrameter with a few variations.
There are several literary devices used in this poem that make the poet’s idea more vibrant and picturesque. Likewise, Harper uses litote in the lines such as, “But not in a land where men are slaves”, for emphasizing more her hatred towards the custom of slavery. The poet uses alliteration, consonance, and assonance for creating an internal rhythm in the poem. As an example, the second line, “In a lowly plain, or lofty hill”, contains a repetition of the “l” sound. It’s an example of alliteration. The poet also uses personification in the poem and it is present in the phrase “silent tomb”. There is a simile in the line, “Rise like a curse on the trembling air”. Alongside, in “trembling air” the poet uses pathetic fallacy. However, Harper also uses several important metaphors in the poem such as the “bay of bloodhounds” and “death-paled cheek”.
Analysis of Bury Me in a Free Land
Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
‘Bury Me in a Free Land’ emphasizes the main idea of the poem in the first stanza. The poetic persona says she doesn’t care if her grave is in a “lowly plain” or on a “lofty hill”. The speaker will not mind if her grave is among “earth’s humblest graves”. But, she strictly prohibits a land where men are slaves. She abhors the custom of slavery in any form. Moreover, it seems that the speaker isn’t afraid of death at all. What haunts her, is the idea of slavery.
I could not rest if around my grave
I heard the steps of a trembling slave;
His shadow above my silent tomb
Would make it a place of fearful gloom.
What the speaker has said in the first stanza, is a statement. From the second stanza, she talks about the reasons that have made her say so. According to the speaker, she can’t rest if she hears the steps of a “trembling slave” all the time around her grave. Here, the “trembling slave” depicts what a slave goes through. He can’t even stand on his feet. Moreover, the speaker says his shadow above her tomb will make the graveyard “a place of fearful gloom”. Slavery, without any doubt, makes a place fearful. This custom implies how cruel a man can be to his fellow being.
I could not rest if I heard the tread
Of a coffle gang to the shambles led,
And the mother’s shriek of wild despair
Rise like a curse on the trembling air.
Thereafter, in the third stanza, the speaker says she can’t rest if she hears the tread of a “coffle gang” led to the shambles. Here, “coffle gang” depicts an image of a group of slaves chained together and moving in a specific direction slowly. Moreover, the speaker can’t lie at a place where a slave mother’s shriek rises “like a curse on the trembling air”. Here, the poet uses a metaphor to compare the mother’s shriek to “wild despair”. Her screaming is wild as it reflects how much pain she is going through. At the same place, it also reflects a sense of despair as she can do nothing to proclaim her rights. Her shriek is so powerful that it even makes the air tremble as if it is also mourning her condition.
I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood at each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Bury Me in a Free Land’, the speaker says she can’t sleep if she sees the mother is being lashed ruthlessly. It’s interesting to note here that the poet uses the past tense throughout the poem. It refers that the custom of slavery was in existence for a long time. However, the poet personifies the “lash” that drinks “blood at each fearful gash”. It’s also a use of metonymy. Here, the poet refers to the user of the instrument meant for torturing. Thereafter, the poet can see her babies torn from her breast like “trembling doves from their parent nest”. The image depicts the cruelty of men that don’t even leave infants unhurt.
I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.
Moreover, the speaker says the bay of bloodhounds while seizing their “human prey” will make her shudder and start. Here, the poet uses two metaphors. One is the comparison between white men and bloodhounds. While in the next one, the poet compares black humans to the “human prey” of the bloodhounds. Whatsoever, the speaker has also heard a captive pleading in vain as the oppressors bind a new chain to that slave. Here, the poet uses another metaphor in “galling chain”. Here, the chain causes vexation to the slave.
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.
In the sixth stanza of ‘Bury Me in a Free Land’, the speaker talks about young girls who are snatched away from their mother’s arms. They are bartered and sold for their “youthful charms”. Here, “youthful charms” is a reference to their physical beauty in youth. However, the sight makes even the eyes of a corpse flash with a “mournful flame”. Being dead, the speaker can do nothing except for mourning and cursing the oppressors. Moreover, her “death-paled cheek” will grow red with shame. It’s not a shame on the offenders alone. Rather, it’s a shame to humanity.
I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might
Can rob no man of his dearest right;
My rest shall be calm in any grave
Where none can call his brother a slave.
The speaker can sleep or die where “bloated” can’t rob a man of his “dearest right”. Here, “bloated” stands for oppressors. However, the right to freedom over one’s life is the dearest of all rights. But, the slaves were deprived of this right. Thereafter, the speaker of ‘Bury Me in a Free Land’ says she can calmly rest in any grave. But on one condition, “none can call his brother a slave” there. It doesn’t matter what the color of one’s skin is. Everyone should treat their fellow human beings as their brothers.
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
The last stanza of the poem contains the reiteration of the main idea. Here, the speaker uses a symbol of fame. The monument is built on the memory of the poet, no matter how high it is, it can’t give freedom to those who are even denied their basic human rights. The poet doesn’t want the attention of others about her works. All that her “yearning spirit craves” is to bury her “not in a land of slaves”. The refrain uses in the last line, highlights that the poet not only hates slavery but she also hates the land where it’s in existence.
‘Bury Me in a Free Land’ was written for The Anti-Slavery Bugle newspaper in 1858. It was an abolitionist newspaper published from June 20, 1845, to May 4, 1861. Writers like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote on Anti-Slavery, women’s rights, and women’s suffrage in this paper. Likewise, this poem also highlights the horrors of slavery and how inhumane the condition of the slaves was. However, this poem was recited in the film, “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People”. Moreover, the last stanza of the poem is on the wall of the Contemplative Court in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Last but not least, this poem is one of Harper’s best-known works.
Here is a list of a few poems that talk about the themes of oppression of black people, denial of human rights, slavery, cruelty, and inhumanity. These themes are present in Frances Harper’s ‘Bury Me in a Free Land’.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe by Paul Laurence Dunbar – The poet wrote this poem for being inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. This novel sheds light on the brutality and cruelty of slavery.
- No Master by William H. Davies – This poem presents a parallel to a slave’s life for depicting the narrator’s state of mind.
- The Negro Mother by Langston Hughes – In this one of the best Langston Hughes poems, the poet talks about the African American slaves living through the worst form of brutality ever known in American history.
- The Slave in the Dismal Swamp by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – This poem was written for garnering support for the abolitionist cause.
- Equality by Maya Angelou – It’s one of the best Maya Angelou poems. Here, the poet raises her voice for equal rights of all citizens living in a free country.
You can read about 10 of the Best Poems by African-American Poets here.