The Witnesses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived in a time of significant upheaval in the United States. During his lifetime, he witnessed the tensions and complex political issues that culminated in the American Civil War, as well as the resulting aftermath. As a prolific writer of his time, Longfellow was in a unique position to contribute his voice to the chaos that had engulfed his country during this time, though he was initially hesitant to do so. During the war itself, he wished only for peace and unity for his country. Longfellow did, however, consider himself an abolitionist, and eventually began to write poems about his position, which would have reached his considerable audience. The Witnesses is one such poem written for the topic, and bring his opinions of the issue to light in a remarkable way.

 

The Witnesses Analysis

First Stanza

In Ocean’s wide domains,

Half buried in the sands,

Lie skeletons in chains,

With shackled feet and hands.

Beyond the fall of dews,

Deeper than plummet lies,

Float ships, with all their crews,

No more to sink nor rise.

There the black Slave-ship swims,

Freighted with human forms,

Whose fettered, fleshless limbs

Are not the sport of storms.

When looking at The Witnesses as a whole, the first verse stands out for its length; it is three times the length of the verses that follow it, and fairly heavy in content and meaning by comparison. It introduces the topic of the poem, and makes it quite clear that Longfellow is writing from an abolitionist perspective. This first verse invokes strong imagery, noting details such as skeletons being half-buried, or the alliterative “fettered, fleshless limbs” of imprisoned slaves. He describes skeletons wearing chains, and then clarifies that they are fettered on their wrists and ankles both. The attention to detail, and particularly to unpleasant detail, is what suggests the author’s viewpoint, though he never explicitly writes that he views slavery as immoral and wrong — he allows the reader to come to that conclusion on their own.

Also notably (though much more so in his time than in the present) is Longfellow’s refusal to use a word such as “African” or “black” to describe the slaves in his piece. The slave ship itself is described as being black, but the people themselves are described as just that — “human forms.” This is an obvious point today, of course, but a very important point in the mid-nineteenth century when this poem was written. Longfellow introduces The Witnesses by describing the abhorrent conditions inflicted upon the enslaved of his country without distinguishing them in any way from himself or his countrymen. He poses a simple question for his reader: should we tolerate treating humans in such a terrible way? Again, it’s worth pointing out that in today’s world, this is a very obvious question for most, but in his time, Longfellow was defying a very common idea that “human” was not a single, unified species, but that there were various races of human that could be superior or inferior to one another.

 

Second and Third Stanza

These are the bones of Slaves;

They gleam from the abyss;

They cry, from yawning waves,

“We are the Witnesses!”

Within Earth’s wide domains

Are markets for men’s lives;

Their necks are galled with chains,

Their wrists are cramped with gyves.

Longfellow uses the second verse of the poem to begin a more traditional poetic structure for his work, and carrier his message over from the lengthy first verse. In this verse, there is a kind of personification of the skeletons mentioned earlier, in that these skeletons are able to speak, and they call themselves the witnesses, presumably in reference to the events described in the first verse. The role of the imprisoned as witnesses for imprisonment is Longfellow’s primary point in The Witnesses, because the word “witness” implies that a crime has been committed or, more accurately, that a judgment is required. Longfellow reminds us that injustice done against another human means that another human means that there is evidence of the deed in that person’s memory, and that the tormentor can be prosecuted as a result.

The fact that the speakers in the verse are dead, however, along with the capitalization of the word “Witnesses,” suggests that Longfellow is referring instead to divine judgment, and trying to say that slavery is a moral wrong and a sin; that those who capture and hold slaves are risking penance, regardless of what the laws of their country say. In the third verse, he likens the action to murder by pointing out that lives are sold, rather than people. To put a price on a person’s life is an expression that implies paying to have someone killed — and the third verse of The Witnesses draws no extinction. Phrases such as “the abyss,” “yawning waves,” and “wide domains” all create a sense of vastness, a repeated theme of enormity that makes the unspoken ideas of profit and business (the “pros” of slavery, as they would have been considered in Longfellow’s time) seem extremely small by comparison.

 

Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Stanza

Dead bodies, that the kite

In deserts makes its prey;

Murders, that with affright

Scare school-boys from their play!

All evil thoughts and deeds;

Anger, and lust, and pride;

The foulest, rankest weeds,

That choke Life’s groaning tide!

These are the woes of Slaves;

They glare from the abyss;

They cry, from unknown graves,

“We are the Witnesses!” 

The last verses of the poem read as a kind of list, described as “the woes of Slaves,” who are, in this poem, the witnesses to their own inhumane treatment and abhorrent conditions in life. The language in these verses is notably stronger than those that precede it, with words such as “prey,” “murders,” “affright,” “evil,” “foulest,” “choke,” and “glare” casting a truly grim atmosphere over the final thoughts of The Witnesses. Longfellow uses vivid imagery, invoking dead bodies, frightened school children, rot and weeds, and deep darkness. He reminds his readers of the deadly sins that are ingrained in the common faith, and makes his work about pain on Earth and judgment in the afterlife. In plain, but very well-chosen words, Longfellow makes his stance on slavery clear, a monumentally important position to have held during his lifetime. Today, his poem, built on vivid imagery and careful word choice, is a song of remembrance. When it was written, however, it was a much-needed reminder of humanity in a country preparing for one of its most brutal wars and most difficult periods in time.

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