Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poem, ‘The Slave Mother,’ portrays the harrowing experiences of an enslaved woman torn from her child. With emotive language and vivid imagery, Harper delves into the emotional depths of maternal love and the devastating impact of slavery on familial bonds.
The poem evokes strong empathy for the mother’s anguish and condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of slavery. Through poignant portrayals of love, loss, and resilience, Harper’s work serves as a powerful testament to the enduring strength of the human spirit amidst oppression and injustice.
The Slave Mother Frances Ellen Watkins HarperHeard you that shriek? It rose So wildly on the air,It seem’d as if a burden’d heart Was breaking in despair.Saw you those hands so sadly clasped— The bowed and feeble head—The shuddering of that fragile form— That look of grief and dread?Saw you the sad, imploring eye? Its every glance was pain,As if a storm of agony Were sweeping through the brain.She is a mother pale with fear, Her boy clings to her side,And in her kyrtle vainly tries His trembling form to hide.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 apartThe only wreath of household love That binds her breaking heart.His love has been a joyous light That o’er her pathway smiled,A fountain gushing ever new, Amid life’s desert wild.His lightest word has been a tone Of music round her heart,Their lives a streamlet blent in one— Oh, Father! must they part?They tear him from her circling arms, Her last and fond embrace.Oh! never more may her sad eyes Gaze on his mournful face.No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks Disturb the listening air:She is a mother, and her heart Is breaking in despair.
Explore The Slave Mother
‘The Slave Mother’ by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a poignant and emotional poem that portrays the anguish and heartbreak of a slave mother who is about to be separated from her beloved son.
The poem begins with a shriek, expressing the overwhelming pain and desperation felt by the mother. The mother’s hands are sadly clasped, and her head is bowed, reflecting her deep sorrow and fear. The fragile form of the mother shudders, and her eyes show an imploring look of grief and dread, as if she is going through a storm of agony in her mind.
The poem reveals that the boy at her side is not biologically hers, yet she has cared for him as her own. The mother’s blood courses through his veins, but he is not hers, which adds to her pain and vulnerability. Cruel hands threaten to tear apart the only source of love in her life, the bond between her and the boy.
The boy has brought joy and light into the mother’s life, acting as a gushing fountain of happiness in the harsh desert of her existence. His words and presence have been like music to her heart, and their lives have intertwined like a streamlet. Despite this deep connection, they are forcibly torn apart, and the mother’s last embrace is heart-wrenching, knowing she may never see her son’s face again.
The poem concludes by explaining that the mother’s bitter shrieks of sorrow disturb the air, for she is a mother, and her heart is breaking in despair. The poem powerfully conveys the pain and sorrow experienced by a slave mother facing the cruel reality of separation from her child, highlighting the inhumanity of slavery and its devastating impact on families.
Structure and Form
‘The Slave Mother’ by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper follows a structured and consistent form, employing the quatrain form with ten stanzas, each comprising four lines. This consistent form allows for a rhythmic and organized presentation of the poem’s themes and emotions. The poem adheres to an ABCB rhyming scheme, with each quatrain’s second and fourth lines rhyming.
The use of the quatrain form with a consistent rhyming pattern creates a sense of harmony and musicality, enhancing the poem’s emotional impact. The regularity of the structure reflects the societal norms and expectations imposed on the characters in the poem, emphasizing the constrained and confined lives of the enslaved individuals.
The active voice used throughout the poem keeps the narrative dynamic and engaging. The opening line sets the tone immediately with the powerful phrase, “Heard you that shriek?” which draws the reader into the mother’s anguish. The subsequent stanzas continue to use active verbs, describing the mother’s actions, her pain, and her desperate attempts to hold onto her son.
The consistent ABCB rhyming scheme, where the second and fourth lines rhyme, contributes to the poem’s musical quality and reinforces the emotional impact of the lines. This rhyming pattern gives the poem a melodic flow that resonates with the reader, intensifying the portrayal of the mother’s despair and grief.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper addresses several themes in her poem ‘The Slave Mother,’ highlighting the harsh realities of slavery and the emotional turmoil experienced by enslaved individuals.
Maternal Love and Bond: The poem explores the powerful bond between a mother and her son. Despite not being the boy’s biological mother, the slave woman has cared for him as her own, emphasizing the depth of maternal love transcending blood ties. For instance, the lines “His love has been a joyous light / That o’er her pathway smiled” illustrate the warmth and affection shared between the two.
Suffering and Despair: The poem vividly portrays the suffering and despair of the enslaved mother facing separation from her beloved child. The opening lines set the tone with the mother’s anguished shriek, and throughout the poem, her shuddering form and sad, imploring eyes express her overwhelming pain.
Injustice and Cruelty of Slavery: Harper denounces the cruelty and injustice of slavery, showing how cruel hands can tear apart the only source of love in the mother’s life. The phrase “No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks / Disturb the listening air” highlights the unjust separation imposed on the enslaved family.
Motherhood and Identity: The poem delves into the complexities of motherhood and identity. Although the boy is not her biological child, the mother’s selfless love challenges traditional notions of motherhood based solely on blood ties. Harper questions society’s definition of maternal identity.
Emotional Resilience: Amidst the despair, the poem also showcases the emotional resilience of the mother. Her attempt to hide the boy in her kyrtle, as seen in the lines “In her kyrtle vainly tries / His trembling form to hide,” demonstrates her determination to protect and care for him despite her heartbreak.
Harper’s powerful use of imagery and emotional language effectively conveys the impact of slavery on individuals and challenges societal norms concerning motherhood and identity.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper utilizes various poetic techniques and figurative language to convey her powerful message in ‘The Slave Mother.’
- Imagery: Harper employs vivid imagery to evoke strong emotions. For example, the lines “Heard you that shriek? It rose / So wildly on the air” create an auditory image of the mother’s anguished cry, allowing readers to feel her pain.
- Metaphor: The poem uses metaphorical language to emphasize the mother’s emotional turmoil. The phrase “a burden’d heart / Was breaking in despair” compares the weight of her sorrow to a burden, intensifying the sense of her suffering.
- Personification: Harper personifies the mother’s eyes and form to imbue them with emotions. The “sad, imploring eye” and “shuddering of that fragile form” lend human qualities to these elements, amplifying the mother’s distress.
- Repetition: The repetition of the phrase “He is not hers” emphasizes the heartbreaking reality of the mother’s situation, reinforcing the theme of separation and the boy’s uncertain identity.
- Rhyme Scheme and Rhythm: The consistent ABCB rhyming scheme and rhythmic flow create a melodic quality in the poem, making it emotionally engaging and impactful.
- Symbolism: The boy represents more than just a child; he symbolizes hope, love, and the shattered families of enslaved people. His separation from his mother represents the destruction of familial bonds under slavery.
- Contrast: Harper contrasts the joyous memories of the past with the pain of the present. The lines “His love has been a joyous light / That o’er her pathway smiled” juxtapose with the cruel reality of their impending separation.
- Alliteration: The use of alliteration, such as “streamlet blent,” enhances the poetic sound and rhythm, adding to the emotional resonance of the poem.
‘The Slave Mother’ employs a range of poetic techniques and figurative language that work together to convey the emotional depth of the mother’s pain, the injustice of slavery, and the destruction of familial bonds, leaving a lasting impact on the reader.
Heard you that shriek? It rose
So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
Was breaking in despair.
In the first stanza of ‘The Slave Mother,’ Frances Ellen Watkins Harper skillfully employs vivid imagery and emotive language to convey an enslaved woman’s profound anguish and despair. The stanza opens with a rhetorical question, “Heard you that shriek?” which immediately draws the reader’s attention, engaging them in the unfolding emotional narrative. This rhetorical question serves to heighten the impact of the mother’s cry, emphasizing its intensity and significance.
The use of the word “shriek” evokes a piercing and sharp sound, emphasizing the mother’s emotional pain and desperation. The auditory image of the shriek creates a visceral experience for the reader, allowing them to feel the raw emotion of the moment.
The second line, “So wildly on the air,” intensifies the emotional state of the mother’s cry. The adverb “wildly” conveys a lack of restraint, suggesting that the mother’s anguish is overwhelming and uncontrollable. It also implies that her suffering is not confined to herself but reverberates through the atmosphere, symbolizing the widespread impact of slavery’s cruelty on families.
The third line, “It seem’d as if a burden’d heart,” uses a simile to liken the mother’s cry to a heart weighed down by a heavy burden. This metaphorical comparison evokes a sense of immense emotional weight, indicating that the mother’s pain is not simply from a passing moment but a culmination of prolonged suffering under the oppressive system of slavery.
The final line, “Was breaking in despair,” reinforces the emotional intensity of the scene. The verb “breaking” suggests the mother’s heart is on the verge of collapse, unable to bear the weight of her sorrow any longer. The word “despair” encapsulates the depth of her hopelessness and the dire circumstances she finds herself in as an enslaved person.
In this first stanza, Harper effectively conveys the message of the poem: the heart-wrenching toll of slavery on enslaved individuals, particularly mothers who endure unimaginable pain at the prospect of losing their children. Through powerful imagery, emotional language, and skillful use of literary devices, Harper creates a compelling and heartrending portrayal of the harsh realities of slavery, setting the stage for the poignant themes explored throughout the rest of the poem.
Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form—
That look of grief and dread?
In the second stanza of ‘The Slave Mother,’ the poet continues to paint a vivid and emotionally charged portrait of the enslaved woman’s despair and vulnerability. Through carefully chosen imagery and poignant language, Harper deepens the reader’s understanding of the mother’s anguish and the oppressive nature of slavery.
The stanza opens with the directive, “Saw you those hands so sadly clasped,” drawing attention to the physical manifestation of the mother’s distress. The image of her hands “sadly clasped” suggests a sense of helplessness and desperation. The word “sadly” indicates that her actions are not of her own volition but rather a response to overwhelming sorrow.
The next line, “The bowed and feeble head,” further emphasizes the mother’s state of vulnerability and defeat. The use of “bowed” implies that she is physically and emotionally weighed down, while “feeble” suggests a lack of strength and agency. Together, these words paint a picture of a woman broken by the harsh conditions of her life as a slave.
Harper then employs personification to describe the mother’s form as “fragile” and “shuddering.” By attributing human characteristics to the woman’s physical appearance, Harper accentuates her vulnerability and highlights the harshness of her existence. The word “shuddering” evokes a sense of fear and agitation, suggesting that the mother is constantly living in a state of distress.
The final line of the stanza, “That look of grief and dread,” adds another layer of emotion to the description. The mother’s “look of grief” conveys her deep sorrow, while “dread” suggests her anticipation of further suffering and loss. This combination of emotions intensifies the reader’s empathy for the mother’s plight and underscores the oppressive nature of slavery, where enslaved individuals live in constant fear of separation from their loved ones.
In this stanza, Harper continues to convey the message of the poem, highlighting the dehumanizing effects of slavery on the individual. Through powerful imagery and emotive language, she portrays the mother’s physical and emotional struggles, exposing the inhumanity of the institution of slavery and its devastating impact on enslaved individuals and their families. The second stanza deepens the emotional resonance of the poem and sets the stage for the exploration of further themes in the subsequent stanzas.
Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony
Were sweeping through the brain.
In this third stanza, Frances Harper continues to depict the immense suffering and emotional turmoil experienced by the enslaved woman. Through powerful imagery and emotive language, Harper delves into the psychological impact of slavery on the mother, emphasizing the profound pain she endures.
The stanza begins with the question, “Saw you the sad, imploring eye?” The use of the word “saw” not only invites the reader to witness the mother’s pain but also suggests that her suffering is visible and undeniable. The description of her eye as “sad” and “imploring” evokes a sense of longing and desperation. The mother’s eye becomes a window into her soul, expressing her heartache and yearning for a better life.
The second line, “Its every glance was pain,” intensifies the portrayal of the mother’s anguish. The word “every” emphasizes that her pain is unrelenting, suggesting that there is no respite from her suffering. Her eyes convey not only sadness but also the weight of her entire life’s hardships.
Harper then uses a simile to compare the mother’s emotional state to “a storm of agony / Were sweeping through the brain.” This vivid imagery evokes a sense of chaos and turbulence within her mind. The metaphorical storm represents the overwhelming and uncontrollable nature of her pain, emphasizing that it is not a passing emotion but a constant and all-consuming force.
The phrase “sweeping through the brain” suggests that her suffering is not confined to her heart but affects her mental and emotional well-being as well. The use of the word “brain” adds a psychological dimension to her pain, indicating the deep trauma inflicted by slavery.
In this stanza, Harper effectively conveys the message of the poem by delving into the psychological impact of slavery on the individual. Through powerful imagery and emotive language, she highlights the enduring and far-reaching consequences of enslavement, shedding light on the mother’s profound pain and the toll it takes on her mind and soul. The third stanza further humanizes the enslaved woman, making her plight all the more poignant and condemning the inhumane institution of slavery.
She is a mother pale with fear,
Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries
His trembling form to hide.
In the fourth stanza, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper continues to explore the theme of maternal love and the anguish of an enslaved mother facing the impending separation from her son. The stanza vividly portrays the mother’s emotional state and her desperate attempts to protect her child.
The stanza opens with the powerful declaration, “She is a mother pale with fear,” immediately emphasizing the central role of motherhood in the poem. The use of the word “pale” suggests her physical and emotional exhaustion, highlighting the toll that the fear of losing her son has taken on her.
The phrase “Her boy clings to her side” evokes an image of a child seeking comfort and safety from his mother. This image emphasizes the mother’s role as a source of support and protection for her son, and it underscores the deep bond between them.
The next line, “And in her kyrtle vainly tries,” introduces the element of the mother’s clothing, the “kyrtle,” as a symbol of her attempt to shield her son from harm. The word “vainly” indicates that despite her efforts, the mother knows that she cannot fully protect her child from the cruelty of the world they inhabit.
The use of “His trembling form to hide” further emphasizes the boy’s vulnerability and fear. The word “trembling” conveys his emotional state, illustrating the impact of the impending separation on the child. The mother’s attempts to hide him within her clothing speak to her desperation and determination to keep him close to her, even in the face of inevitable separation.
In this stanza, Harper underscores the theme of maternal love and the emotional turmoil of the enslaved mother as she faces the prospect of losing her son. The imagery of the mother’s fear and the child’s trembling form serves to humanize both characters, highlighting the harsh realities of slavery that threaten to tear families apart. Through this poignant portrayal, Harper conveys the message of the poem, shedding light on the inhumane consequences of slavery and the profound sacrifices made by enslaved individuals in their quest for love, protection, and family unity.
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!
The fifth stanza of the poem delves into the complexities of motherhood under slavery and challenges societal norms concerning maternal identity. The stanza explores the harsh reality that despite giving birth to the child and sharing a biological connection, the mother is denied ownership and agency over her own offspring.
The stanza begins with a powerful declaration, “He is not hers, although she bore,” which highlights the cruel reality that the enslaved mother’s status as a slave denies her the right to claim ownership of her child. Despite enduring the pains of childbirth, she is still treated as an object to be controlled and manipulated.
The phrase “For him a mother’s pains” emphasizes the mother’s selflessness and sacrifice in bringing the child into the world. It highlights the innate love and care she has given, even though society denies her the rightful recognition of being the child’s true mother.
The second line, “He is not hers, although her blood,” further underscores the theme of the biological connection between the mother and the child. Despite sharing a bond through blood, the oppressive system of slavery negates this fundamental tie, reducing the mother to a mere commodity.
The phrase “Is coursing through his veins!” not only reiterates the biological connection but also accentuates the mother’s helplessness and lack of control over her own child. Her blood flows through him, signifying their shared lineage, yet this undeniable truth is disregarded and denied under the dehumanizing institution of slavery.
In this stanza, Harper confronts the dehumanizing and degrading effects of slavery, particularly concerning motherhood. She challenges the prevailing societal norms that strip enslaved mothers of their rightful role and emotional connection to their children.
By portraying the mother’s pain and the paradoxical nature of her situation, Harper forces the reader to confront the inhumanity of slavery and its detrimental impact on the relationships and identities of enslaved individuals. The fifth stanza serves as a powerful indictment of the system of slavery, urging readers to recognize the injustice and cruelty that permeate such a society.
He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.
This sixth stanza continues to explore the theme of the heart-wrenching separation of the enslaved mother from her child. The stanza emphasizes the lack of agency and control the mother has over her own family and the devastating impact of this separation on her emotional well-being.
The stanza begins with the repetition of the phrase, “He is not hers,” reinforcing the idea that despite her maternal bond and love, the enslaved mother is denied ownership and control over her child. This repetition serves to intensify the sense of injustice and powerlessness she faces.
The next lines, “For cruel hands / May rudely tear apart,” introduce the idea of external forces at play. The use of the word “cruel” implies that the separation is not merely a matter of circumstance but a deliberate and heartless act. The phrase “may rudely tear apart” suggests the forceful and brutal nature of the separation, indicating that it is not a gentle or compassionate process.
The stanza then introduces the metaphor of “the only wreath of household love” that binds the mother’s heart. The “wreath” symbolizes the precious bond of love and unity within the household, representing the mother’s familial ties. The use of the word “household” emphasizes the domestic and intimate nature of this love, contrasting it with the harsh realities of slavery.
The final line, “That binds her breaking heart,” reveals the devastating consequences of the impending separation. The mother’s heart is described as “breaking,” signifying her profound emotional pain and the shattering of her sense of self. The use of the word “binds” implies that her love for her child is what has held her together, and its impending loss threatens to tear her apart.
Harper masterfully conveys the message of the poem, depicting the heart-wrenching impact of slavery on familial bonds and the emotional well-being of enslaved individuals.
The use of powerful imagery, metaphor, and emotive language serves to humanize the enslaved mother, making her pain and vulnerability palpable to the reader. The sixth stanza confronts the brutal realities of slavery, highlighting the cruel and dehumanizing acts that tear families apart and leave deep emotional scars on those who endure its oppressive force.
His love has been a joyous light
That o’er her pathway smiled,
A fountain gushing ever new,
Amid life’s desert wild.
In the seventh stanza of ‘The Slave Mother,’ the poet explores the theme of love as a source of light and hope amidst the bleakness of the enslaved mother’s life. The stanza portrays the deep emotional connection between the mother and her child, highlighting the transformative power of love in the face of adversity.
The stanza opens with a description of the child’s love, which is likened to a “joyous light” that has smiled “o’er her pathway.” The imagery of light conveys a sense of brightness, positivity, and guidance, suggesting that the child’s love has brought joy and comfort to the mother’s difficult journey through life. The phrase “o’er her pathway” implies that the child’s love has illuminated her way forward, offering solace in the face of hardship.
The line “A fountain gushing ever new” further emphasizes the boundless nature of the child’s love. The metaphor of a fountain suggests a continuous flow of affection and emotion, evoking a sense of renewal and refreshment. The child’s love acts as a source of emotional sustenance, providing the mother with strength and resilience amid the challenges of her enslaved existence.
The phrase “Amid life’s desert wild” reinforces the theme of adversity and harsh conditions. The use of the word “desert” suggests a barren and unforgiving landscape, symbolizing the oppressive and challenging circumstances of the mother’s life as a slave. Despite these harsh conditions, the child’s love acts as a source of nourishment and sustenance, bringing hope and joy even in the most difficult times.
In this stanza, Harper conveys a message of hope and resilience, illustrating the transformative power of love amidst oppression. The child’s love serves as a guiding light, illuminating the mother’s path and providing comfort in the face of adversity. The metaphor of the fountain portrays the child’s love as an endless source of emotional strength, empowering the mother to endure the challenges of her enslaved life.
Through this portrayal, Harper emphasizes the enduring power of love and the potential for emotional connection to transcend the dehumanizing effects of slavery. The seventh stanza serves as a poignant reminder of the human capacity for love and resilience, even in the darkest of circumstances.
His lightest word has been a tone
Of music round her heart,
Their lives a streamlet blent in one—
Oh, Father! must they part?
In this eighth stanza, Harper continues to explore the theme of the profound emotional connection between the enslaved mother and her child. The stanza portrays the joy and unity that their relationship brings, emphasizing the devastating impact of their impending separation.
The stanza begins with the description of the child’s words as a “tone of music round her heart.” This metaphor conveys the immense emotional effect the child’s words have on the mother. The comparison to music suggests that the child’s words are not just ordinary but possess a transformative and uplifting quality, filling the mother’s heart with joy and harmony.
The next line, “Their lives a streamlet blent in one,” further underscores the theme of unity and shared existence. The metaphor of a “streamlet blent in one” paints a picture of their lives flowing together, symbolizing their intertwined bond and shared experiences. This imagery emphasizes the inseparability of their lives, hinting at the tragedy of their impending separation.
The final line, “Oh, Father! must they part?” is a heartfelt plea that reflects the mother’s anguish and desperation. The use of “Father” suggests an appeal to a higher power, as if she is questioning the fairness and morality of the impending separation. This line encapsulates the central dilemma of the poem—the heart-wrenching prospect of tearing apart a mother from her child and the pain and injustice that result from such a cruel act.
In this stanza, Harper conveys a powerful message about the indomitable strength of the mother-child bond and the anguish of facing its destruction. The child’s words are depicted as a source of emotional nourishment, infusing the mother’s life with joy and love. Their lives are presented as intertwined, suggesting a shared existence that makes the prospect of separation even more devastating.
The plea in the final line highlights the inhumanity of slavery, which not only devalues and disregards the mother’s role but also subjects her to the heartbreak of losing her child. Through this poignant portrayal, Harper condemns the institution of slavery and the cruelty it inflicts on enslaved individuals and their families. The eighth stanza serves as a poignant expression of the pain and injustice faced by the enslaved mother, urging readers to confront the dehumanizing effects of slavery and the need for empathy and compassion.
They tear him from her circling arms,
Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes
Gaze on his mournful face.
In the ninth stanza, the poet reaches a pivotal and heart-wrenching moment in the poem—the moment of the enslaved mother’s final and devastating separation from her child. The stanza captures the intensity of the mother’s pain and the irreversible nature of their parting.
The stanza opens with the visceral image of “They tear him from her circling arms,” conveying the forceful and violent act of separation. The use of the word “tear” emphasizes the brutality of the moment, suggesting a forceful and heartless action. The phrase “circling arms” indicates the mother’s desperate attempt to hold onto her child, symbolizing her fierce and protective love for him.
The following line, “Her last and fond embrace,” intensifies the emotional impact of the moment. The word “last” emphasizes the finality of the separation, indicating that this is the mother’s final opportunity to hold her child close. The use of “fond” suggests that this embrace is filled with love and affection, making the impending parting even more poignant.
The stanza then reflects on the future, as the phrase “Oh! never more may her sad eyes” emphasizes the irreparable loss the mother faces. The word “never” conveys a sense of eternal absence, indicating that the mother will never again have the chance to gaze upon her child. The use of “sad eyes” further portrays the depth of the mother’s sorrow and the enduring pain she will carry.
The stanza concludes with the phrase “Gaze on his mournful face,” underscoring the emotional toll on both the mother and child. The adjective “mournful” suggests the child’s emotional state, implying that he, too, is devastated by the separation. This depiction highlights the shared suffering of the mother and child as they are torn apart by the cruelty of slavery.
In this stanza, Harper conveys a profound message about the destructive impact of slavery on families and the irreparable harm inflicted upon enslaved individuals. The forced separation of the mother and child illustrates the dehumanizing nature of slavery, where human beings are treated as commodities to be bought, sold, and torn apart from their loved ones.
No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks
Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart
Is breaking in despair.
In the final stanza of ‘The Slave Mother,’ Frances Ellen Watkins Harper concludes the poem with a powerful and poignant affirmation of the mother’s anguish and the devastating impact of slavery on her heart and soul. The stanza serves as a resounding statement of the profound emotional toll of the mother’s separation from her child.
The stanza begins with the phrase “No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks,” acknowledging the intensity and validity of the mother’s cries. The use of “no marvel” suggests that the mother’s anguish is entirely understandable and expected, given the heart-wrenching circumstances she faces. The word “bitter” conveys the depth of her sorrow and pain, emphasizing the anguish that drives her to express her emotions so passionately.
The following line, “Disturb the listening air,” portrays the impact of the mother’s cries on the surroundings. The phrase “disturb the listening air” implies that her cries reverberate through the atmosphere, suggesting the profound and far-reaching nature of her suffering. It also reflects how her pain affects those who witness or hear her cries, highlighting the emotional resonance of her anguish.
The final two lines, “She is a mother, and her heart / Is breaking in despair,” provide a powerful conclusion to the poem. By repeating “she is a mother,” Harper reaffirms the central theme of maternal love and underscores the significance of this identity in shaping the mother’s experience. The phrase “her heart / Is breaking in despair” encapsulates the core message of the poem—that slavery’s cruelty inflicts irreparable damage on the mother’s emotional well-being.
The tone is somber, poignant, and emotionally charged, evoking a sense of deep sorrow and empathy for the plight of the enslaved mother and her child.
The poem is titled ‘The Slave Mother’ to focus on the central figure of the poem—the enslaved woman who is a mother—highlighting the emotional and psychological struggles she endures under the dehumanizing institution of slavery.
The poem triggers feelings of empathy, sadness, and indignation as it vividly portrays the pain and suffering of the enslaved mother and her heart-wrenching separation from her child, evoking a sense of injustice and the devastating consequences of slavery.
The mood is melancholic, heartrending, and introspective, creating a poignant atmosphere that elicits a deep emotional response from the reader, inviting them to reflect on the dehumanizing realities of slavery and the profound strength and resilience of the human spirit in the face of immense adversity.
Those who enjoyed this poem by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper may also wish to explore these others:
- ‘Caged Bird’ by Maya Angelou – is arguably one of the most moving and eye-opening poems ever written.
- ‘An Hour With Thee’ by Sir Walter Scott – is a poem about the speaker’s appreciation for spending time with an unnamed character. Despite his difficult life, an hour with this person can make his situation tolerable.
- ‘Boston Hymn’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson – warns Americans of their wrongs and gives them a chance to repent of all crimes against freedom.