The Slave in the Dismal Swamp by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

‘The Slave in the Dismal Swamp’ by H. W. Longfellow is written during a chaotic period in an attempt to garner support for the abolitionist cause.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived during the turbulent time in the history of the United States that the prevalence of slavery in the country was beginning to fracture every aspect of living there. Longfellow notably considered himself something of a pacifist, but also an abolitionist, a person who did not believe in slavery as a valid concept. Eventually, he began to dedicate volumes of his literary works to the idea of abolitionism, which was quickly published and circulated by others who opposed slavery in the world. The Slave in the Dismal Swamp is, as its title suggests, one such work, written during this chaotic period in an attempt to garner support for the abolitionist cause.

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp Analysis

First and Second Stanza

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp

The hunted Negro lay;

He saw the fire of the midnight camp,

And heard at times a horse’s tramp

And a bloodhound’s distant bay. 

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,

In bulrush and in brake;

Where waving mosses shroud the pine,

And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine

Is spotted like the snake; 

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp utilizes the ABAAB rhyming structure that would later become famous as the structure for Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. Here, it works as a means of extending the verses so as to include as much information as possible in what is a relatively short poem, at six stanzas long. Because the first four lines of each verse rhyme with each other, the fifth line feels added on, almost as an afterthought, to keep the reader invested in the work, and reading onto the next stanza.

The first two verses of The Slave in the Dismal Swamp make immediately clear the fact that the title is an accurate description of the events of the piece. The first two lines, in fact, are enough to discern this, as the marsh-like setting is described around an escaped slave, hiding in the muck. To help the reader understand the fugitive’s plight, Longfellow primarily uses sensory details to pad out his work, describing the fens in the swamp, the distant glow of a fire, and the sounds of horses and bloodhounds. There is a sense of danger to each of these details — “fire” and “bloodhound” in particular convey a very tense element for the work, and the implication that the setting is also nighttime creates a vivid and very dark image for the reader.

The second verse in The Slave in the Dismal Swamp is used to describe the immediate setting around the escaped slave, again, using sensory details first. The details, however, are marred with specific language that Longfellow uses because its connotations are negative. These include will-o’-the-wisps, which are phantom lights that often lured passers-by into marshes and swamps, as well as mosses that act as shrouds, and vines that strike the man as being poisonous and snake-like. The primary idea, in case the title was not resonant enough, seems to be that there is nothing good about the setting or picture presented so far.

Third and Fourth Stanza

Where hardly a human foot could pass,

Or a human heart would dare,

On the quaking turf of the green morass

He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,

Like a wild beast in his lair. 

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;

Great scars deformed his face;

On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,

And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,

Were the livery of disgrace. 

The third verse and the fourth verse work as strong parallels against each other, each proposing a different “definition” for the slave who finds himself in the dismal swamp. The third verse describes him as being in a primal state — the fifth line uses a simile to directly associate him with a wild animal, and the rest of the verse points out that no human would want to be where he is now. The fourth verse, on the other hand, describes him as being old and weak, bearing the marks of a long and difficult life that one would only be too willing to leave behind. In order to find his freedom, the slave has needed to revert to his most primordial self. There is an irony in these descriptions, that in order to become legally “human,” the man must first separate himself completely from the rest of human society, and hide his branded forehead (a common means of distinguishing freemen from slaves when their skin tones were the same) wherever he can find safety.

Fifth and Sixth Stanza

All things above were bright and fair,

All things were glad and free;

Lithe squirrels darted here and there,

And wild birds filled the echoing air

With songs of Liberty! 

On him alone was the doom of pain,

From the morning of his birth;

On him alone the curse of Cain

Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,

And struck him to the earth! 

The final verses of The Slave in the Dismal Swamp are able to address the idea that the escaped slave is one with the wilderness and reminds the reader that there is a fundamental difference between the two: freedom. The man notices squirrels and birds around him that have no cares in the world beyond their own immediate survival and sees in them a contentedness that he cannot have himself. He may be hiding in swamplands like an animal, but he is not an animal, because an animal is free. He feels as though he is the Biblical Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who murdered his brother Abel and lied to God about the deed. In the Book of Genesis, Cain is cursed to wander the Earth for the rest of his life and is branded by God so that the earth would not obey him, and none would associate with him. In the Bible, Cain objects that the punishment is too great to bear, but is unable to change God’s mind; in the same way, this man feels that he is also cursed and that it has been a part of his life since he was born.

The Slave in the Dismal Swamp stands out among Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems because it doesn’t have much of a conclusion; it simply ends. For the slaves who escaped their masters in the United States, the outcome was typically recapturing, death, or freedom, but none of these things happen in this poem. Instead, Longfellow attempts to capture one truly wretched moment and convince his readership to sympathize with the lost, broken character who is the focus of the piece. Today, it serves as a reminder of the terrible conditions that a great many innocent people needed to endure to obtain even the most basic of freedoms in their societies. When it was written, however, it was intended as a grim reminder of reality, and a hope that things could one day be better.

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Andrew Walker Poetry Expert
Andrew joined the team back in November 2015 and has a passion for poetry. He has an Honours in the Bachelor of Arts, consisting of a Major in Communication, Culture and Information Technology, a Major in Professional Writing and a Minor in Historical Studies.
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