In this poem ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow talks about a slave who sings at midnight the Psalm of David. This psalm appears in the Hebrew Old Testament. The poet does not go into the detail of the psalm. Rather his focus is on the singing of the slave. His voice, which is the major concern of the poet, reveals a tone, sad and calm at the same time. Something is caressing in his utterance that grips the poet’s soul. For this reason, he listens to the slave singing in praise of God. Moreover, this poem concerns the theme of slavery, pain, sadness, and isolation.
The poet talks about a slave singing of “Israel’s victory” and free “Zion” in this poem. The slave is singing at the calmest hour of the night. Besides, he has a sweet and clear voice. Therefore, the poet can easily hear him singing. His devotion reflects in his song. Moreover, his voice also reflects his bereaved mental state. St. Paul and Silas sang of Christ being entrapped in a dungeon. However, this slave’s song cannot reach God’s ears. That’s why he is still a slave, trapped and lamenting in the agony of enslavement.
This poem of Longfellow deals with a slave. The poet does not know where he is. But, he can hear his sweet voice that echoes through the place. Though his voice can reach the poet’s ears, he cannot break the chains pulling him back. This chain is what makes and breaks the slave’s destiny. Moreover, his song reflects his mental state. He feels peaceful while he sings the Psalm. However, the pain of captivity lingers through his mind. Therefore, his song also reflects this pain and sadness. Through this poem, Longfellow tries to depict the pain of the slave. He feels sad for him and wishes for his freedom.
‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’ consists of six four-line stanzas. Each stanza of the poem contains a conventional rhyme scheme. The poet uses the AABB rhyme scheme and goes on throughout the poem. Apart from that, this poem is written from a first-person point-of-view. Hence, it is an example of a lyric poem. The poet writes this lyric using trochaic tetrameter. However, there are a few metrical variations. As an example, the last foot of the lines containing seven syllables is catalectic.
Longfellow uses several literary devices that make the slave’s condition more touching to the readers. In the first stanza of the poem, the poet uses a biblical allusion to the city of Jerusalem. Thereafter, in the second stanza, the poet uses hyperbole in the line, “In a voice so sweet and clear.” Here, the poet uses overstatement not for mere exaggeration, but for highlighting the slave’s marvelous voice. Thereafter, the poet uses an antithesis in, “Sweetly solemn, wildly sad.” Here, “Sweetly solemn” contains an alliteration. In the last stanza, the poet uses personification and rhetorical questions.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Loud he sang the psalm of David!
He, a Negro and enslaved,
Sang of Israel’s victory,
Sang of Zion, bright and free.
The poem, ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’ begins with a description of the song. Here, Longfellow presents auditory imagery. The slave sang the psalm of David. He was a negro and enslaved. In contrast to his enslavement, he sang of Israel’s victory and the freedom of Zion. “Zion” is a reference to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is bright and free. But, the slave is not. Through singing this psalm, he tries to express his desire for freedom and a bright future.
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,
In the second stanza of the poem, the poet uses visual imagery to depict the scene. The slave was singing at night when the hour is the calmest. At that calm hour, he sang from the “Hebrew Psalmist.” In this way, the poet makes it clear that the person is a true Christian. Besides, he is devoted to the cause of Christ and remembers each Psalm by heart. Thereafter, the poet remarks his voice was so sweet and clear that he could choose but hear. Such was the quality of his voice. Moreover, there is a saying that the sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest emotions. Here, in the case of the slave, his saddest state makes the songs sweeter to the listeners.
Songs of triumph, and ascriptions,
Such as reached the swart Egyptians,
When upon the Red Sea coast
Perished Pharaoh and his host.
Thereafter, in ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’, the poet uses biblical imagery. In this stanza, the poet refers to the “songs of triumph” that reached the Egyptians in the past. When they were upon the Red Sea coast with the perished Pharaoh, they might have heard this song. According to the poet, the slave’s voice had such devotion and charm that can reach every person in distress. Moreover, this section deals with a passage from the Christian Old Testament.
And the voice of his devotion
Filled my soul with strange emotion;
For its tones by turns were glad,
Sweetly solemn, wildly sad.
The fourth stanza deals with the beautiful voice of the slave singing at midnight. According to Longfellow, his voice was filled with devotion. That devotion filled the poet’s soul with “strange emotion.” It is “strange” because the slave’s mental state is in a clash between belief and reality. He feels happy to sing in praise of God. Besides, he is also sad about his captivity. Hence, this mixture of emotions gets reflected in his song. When the poet hears his voice, his mind also gets filled with this strange emotion. Thereafter, the poet remarks his tones by turns were glad, “Sweetly solemn” and “wildly glad.” The last line, in this way, depicts the everlasting conflict of the slave’s mind.
Paul and Silas, in their prison,
Sang of Christ, the Lord arisen,
And an earthquake’s arm of might
Broke their dungeon-gates at night.
In this stanza, Longfellow refers to Saint Paul and his follower Silas who accompanied him. When they were in prison, they sang of Christ. Hearing their song, the Lord rose and an earthquake broke their dungeon-gates at night. Referring to this story, the poet tries to depict how Paul and Silas were helped by God when they sang in praise of Him. However, in the following stanza, the poet creates contrast by comparing this episode with the slave’s condition.
But, alas! What holy angel
Brings the Slave this glad evangel?
And what earthquake’s arm of might
Breaks his dungeon-gates at night?
In the last stanza of ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’, Longfellow sorrowfully asks what holy angel brought that glad “evangel” to the slave. “Evangel” means the Christian gospel. It can be any of the four Gospels. Here the poet refers to the voice of the slave. It seems that the poet is asking from where the slave has got such an awe-inspiring voice. Thereafter, he ironically remarks that in the slave’s case no earthquake might break his dungeon-gates. In this way, the poet ends this poem on an ironic note hinting at the passivity of God.
Longfellow’s poem, ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’ appears in his poetry collection “Poems on Slavery”. Longfellow, one of the 19th century American poets, wrote this poem in support of the United States abolitionist efforts. This poetry collection was written at sea in October 1842. In 1843, the poems were reprinted as anti-slavery tracts twice. At the time of publishing this book, Longfellow was quite critical about the response. Later, the book gained favorable reviews from critics for its political message and rhetorical devices.
This book contains several poems concerning the theme of slavery such as ‘To William E. Channing’, ‘The Slave’s Dream’, ‘The Good Part’, ‘The Slave in the Dismal Swamp’, ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’, ‘The Witnesses’, ‘The Quadroon Girl’, and ‘The Warning’.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly showcase the themes present in Longfellow’s ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’ and are in parallel with the central idea of this poem.
- Boston Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson – It’s one of the popular poems of Emerson. Through this poem, the poet warns the Americans for their wrongs and presents his view on slavery.
- The Living Temple by Oliver Wendell Holmes – This poem describes the relationship the speaker sees between humankind and God’s creation. Here, one can find the reference to a slave toiling over a body of water.
- To Toussaint L’Ouverture by William Wordsworth – In this sonnet, Wordsworth describes how Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the anti-slavery revolution in Haiti, lives in the hearts of men even after his death.
- The Negro Mother by Langston Hughes – In this emotional poem, the poet depicts how the African American slaves lived through the worst brutality ever known. It’s one of the best-known poems of Langston Hughes.