John Greenleaf Whittier, the poet of ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862′, presents his views regarding the end of slavery. This poem has specific Christian undertones and echoes to the second coming. At first, the poet creates an ironic image of slavery prevalent in America. Thereafter, the poet goes on to describe how the advent of the holy spirit will do justice to those who lost their liberty. Moreover, this poem also touches on the objective of the American Civil War, the emancipation of slaves. The poet, a strong supporter of Northern zeal, makes his stand clear in this poem.
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In this poem, Whittier presents an image of the council hall at the beginning of the poem. In a prison, underneath the building, several slaves are chained. The poet hears the sound of their fetters and feels agonized. However, he cannot speak on this matter. If he does so, the slavers are going to send him to prison. However, the poet does not lose hope. He knows that God will do justice in near future. Along with that, he is optimistic about the fact that the wrongs done by men are never spared. God with his firm hands will punish those who are fuelling the custom of slavery.
It is a long poem and contains seventeen four-line stanzas. Whittier uses the conventional rhyme scheme in this poem. He uses the ABBA rhyme scheme and it goes on throughout the poem. This scheme of rhyming is also called the closed rhyme. Here, in each stanza, the first and fourth lines rhyme together. As an example, in the first stanza, “wave” in the first line rhymes with “slave” in the fourth line. Along with that, “hall” and “wall’ in the second and third lines rhyme together. Apart from that, each line of this poem contains eight syllables and the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. So, each line consists of four iambs. Therefore, the overall poem is composed in iambic tetrameter. There are a few metrical variations in this work.
Whittier’s poem, ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’ begins with an inversion. Thereafter, one can find the use of onomatopoeia in the line, “The clanking fetters of the slave!” Here, the poet refers to the “clanking” sound of the fetters tied to the slaves. The second stanza contains the use of anaphora. In this stanza, readers can find a metaphor in “locks of gold.” Thereafter, the poet uses alliteration in the phrase, “Stood silent.” The line, “And loving freedom all too well” contains irony. Moreover, in the sixth stanza, the poet uses metonymy. Here, “Gown”, “Sword”, and “Law” are metonyms. The poet uses an allusion to the doomsday in the line, “But waited God’s avenging hour.” Likewise, several other literary devices are there in this poem.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
WHEN first I saw our banner wave
Above the nation’s council-hall,
I heard beneath its marble wall
The clanking fetters of the slave!
The poem, ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’ begins with an image. Here, the poetic person or the poet himself refers to the banner that waved above the nation’s council-hall. Thereafter, the speaker heard the clanking fetters of the slaves. In this way, the poet creates contrast. At first, he refers to the banner or flag symbolizing freedom. Thereafter, he presents the sound of the fetters symbolizing slavery. Moreover, the reference to the council-hall makes the fact clear that slavery is implicitly supported by men sitting inside that hall. Those who were in power were responsible for fuelling this evil custom.
In the foul market-place I stood,
And saw the Christian mother sold,
And childhood with its locks of gold,
Blue-eyed and fair with Saxon blood.
The speaker was standing in a foul marketplace. There he saw a Christian mother selling slaves. It is not clear what the lady was doing. But after reading the next line it seems that the lady might be selling a slave child. The child has “locks of gold” and her eyes blue. She was as fair as any other belonging to the Saxon race. Here, the marketplace is a reference to a place where slaves were bought and sold by slave-traders. Moreover, the poet was standing near the council-hall. So, in front of the building, people continued the slave trade. This fact pained the poet deeply.
I shut my eyes, I held my breath,
And, smothering down the wrath and shame
That set my Northern blood aflame,
Stood silent, — where to speak was death.
Therefore the poet shut his eyes and held his breath. Firstly, the scene of the marketplace was unbearable. Secondly, the unhygienic condition of that place caused suffering to not only an onlooker but also those who lived there. However, he tried to smother his wrath and shame. He was ashamed to see how the government supported this inhumane trade. Therefore, his “Northern blood” aflame. Here, the poet makes his stand clear. He was with the abolitionist cause of the Northern Union. However, the speaker stood silent there. As he knew speaking truth meant death there.
Beside me gloomed the prison-cell
Where wasted one in slow decline
For uttering simple words of mine,
And loving freedom all too well.
In this stanza of ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’, the speaker creates a visual contrast by referring to the glooming prison-cell. Those who tried to speak the truth were sent to that prison. Here, one’s body and mind declined for uttering simple words as the poet. So the poet was not alone. Previously several others had stood against slavery. However, they were all sent to prison for a lifetime. In this way, they were sacked of their loving freedom. Here, the poet uses personification.
The flag that floated from the dome
Flapped menace in the morning air;
I stood a perilled stranger where
The human broker made his home.
Thereafter, the poet again refers to the flag that floated from the dome. When he looked at it, the sound somehow caused a disturbance in his mind. The flapping of the flag seemed to cause menace in the morning air. As this flag was not a mark of a land’s sovereignty. Rather it showed a hollow image of a nation treating men as slaves. However, the poet stood like a perilled stranger at that place. Thereafter, he ironically remarks that at that same place a human broker lived. In this way, the poet depicts how corrupted the place was.
For crime was virtue: Gown and Sword
And Law their threefold sanction gave,
And to the quarry of the slave
Went hawking with our symbol-bird.
This stanza marks a shift in the poem. From this section, the speaker’s tone hardens. His voice reflects a rebellious note. According to him, crime was a virtue to those who were in power. Thereafter, he refers to the aristocracy using the symbol of “Gown”. Besides, the “Sword” symbolizes military power, and the “Law” is a metonym for lawmakers. So, all three of them gave sanction to continue this trade. They kept their vigilance on the slaves just like the hawk, used as a symbol on the flag. Here, the “hawk” is a symbol for the fierce men who feed on another’s loving liberty.
On the oppressor’s side was power;
And yet I knew that every wrong,
However old, however strong,
But waited God’s avenging hour.
In the seventh stanza of ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’, Whittier remarks, “On the oppressor’s side was power.” It means that the rulers supported the oppressors explicitly. Yet the poet knew that every wrong, no matter how old it was or how strong it could be, always gets punished on the doomsday. “God’s avenging hour” will come and the betrayers of humanity will be punished. Therefore, the poet does not lose hope in God and counts on the action of the almighty. In the last line of this stanza, the poet uses a biblical allusion.
I knew that truth would crush the lie, —
Somehow, some time, the end would be;
Yet scarcely dared I hope to see
The triumph with my mortal eye.
According to the poet, the truth would crush the lie. This statement is an epigram. Here, the poet tries to say that the truth would punish several of the oppressor’s lies. One day, the end would be nearby. However, the poet dared to the end. He did not wish to see the triumph with his mortal eye. As a war means bloodshed and killings. So, he did not want to see such a bloody ending. In this way, the poet presents his Christian beliefs of compassion and love. Even if the tormentors were doing injustice in front of him, he forgave the sinners, not their sins. The last line also refers to the fact the poet was fearful to see God punishing the tyrants.
But now I see it! In the sun
A free flag floats from yonder dome,
And at the nation’s hearth and home
The justice long delayed is done.
The ninth stanza begins with a rhetorical exclamation. Previously he dared not see the victory of slaves. But in this stanza, the poet says he had seen it. Thereafter, the poet gives a brief description of the scene of victory. He saw a “free flag”, probably that of the slaves, floating from the dome. In every hearth and home, the long-delayed justice was done. In this manner, Whittier highlights the fact the objective of the Union was going to be successful anyhow. As they had God in their side.
Not as we hoped, in calm of prayer,
The message of deliverance comes,
But heralded by roll of drums
On waves of battle-troubled air!
Thereafter, in ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’, Whittier says that the process of doing justice to slaves would not be that bed of roses. Many have to fight, suffer, and die. At the beginning of this stanza, the poet says one calmly prays that one day the “message of deliverance” will come. However, the message of redemption will not come in this manner. Rather it will coke with the beating of drums. On the waves of the “battle-troubled air” the truthful will reap the victorious end. Here, the poet hints at the American Civil War.
Midst sounds that madden and appall,
The song that Bethlehem’s shepherds knew!
The harp of David melting through
The demon-agonies of Saul!
Thereafter Whittier says one can hear the sounds that will madden and appall his soul. Thereafter, the poet alludes to a specific episode of the Christian Old Testament. Here, the poet refers to the song that Bethlehem’s shepherds knew. Moreover, the poet refers to the “harp of David” that melted through the agonies of Saul. In the last two lines of the eleventh stanza, the poet again refers to the biblical King David who could play the harp. After defeating Goliath he became the king of Israel supplanting the former king Saul.
Not as we hoped; but what are we?
Above our broken dreams and plans
God lays, with wiser hand than man’s,
The corner-stones of liberty.
In this stanza, the poet uses a repetition of the phrase, “Not as we hoped.” Thereafter, he asks a rhetorical question. Here, the poet refers to the fact that God will do justice, not in the way the speaker thought. God, who had wiser hands than man’s, lays the cornerstones of liberty. The speaker and others like him dreamt and planned for a better future. But they were wrong in their approach. This evil custom of slavery would end in the way God wished. In this way, the poet presents a justification for the Civil War.
I cavil not with Him: the voice
That freedom’s blessed gospel tells
Is sweet to me as silver bells,
Rejoicing! yea, I will rejoice!
In this stanza of ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’, the poet says he does not complain about the working of God. Thereafter, the poet presents a metaphor in “freedom’s blessed gospel.” According to him, the gospel that talks about freedom is sweet to him as the sound of “silver bells.” Here, the poet uses a simile. Apart from that, in the last line of this stanza, the poet says he will rejoice. In this section, he uses a palilogy. The poet repeats the word “rejoice” for the sake of emphasis.
Dear friends still toiling in the sun;
Ye dearer ones who, gone before,
Are watching from the eternal shore
The slow work by your hands begun,
Whittier refers to those who are still fighting for the cause in this stanza. His friends are toiling in the scorching sun to abolish slavery. Besides, the dearer ones who have died. Their souls are now near the “eternal shore”, a metaphorical reference to heaven. From there, they are watching how the slow work by God’s hands begins. This section contains an optimistic tone. Moreover, this stanza eulogizes those who have died before fighting for the abolitionist cause.
Rejoice with me! The chastening rod
Blossoms with love; the furnace heat
Grows cool beneath His blessed feet
Whose form is as the Son of God!
This stanza contains a repetition of the phrase, “Rejoice with me!” This line contains an uplifting tone. According to the poet, God’s chastening rod blossoms with love and compassion. Moreover, God is so powerful that the furnace heat cannot burn his feet. Thereafter the poet uses a metaphor in the phrase, “Son of God” for Jesus Christ. Besides, this section indirectly refers to the second coming. Along with that, the poet is happy as God himself coming on earth again to do justice. For this reason, he uses repetition in the very first line of this stanza.
Rejoice! Our Marah’s bitter springs
Are sweetened; on our ground of grief
Rise day by day in strong relief
The prophecies of better things.
Thereafter, the poet refers to “Marah’s bitter springs.” Here, the poet alludes to a specific episode from Exodus. According to him, those bitter springs are sweetened as God is coming. Moreover, the poet and others like him are on their “ground of grief.” They are rushing day by day in strong relief. Moreover, the speaker thinks that the “prophecies of better things” will come true. Here, in this section, Whittier anticipates the future. His heart knows that the prophecies of bitter things will not prove wrong.
Rejoice in hope! The day and night
Are one with God, and one with them
Who see by faith the cloudy hem
Of Judgment fringed with Mercy’s light!
In the last stanza of the poem, the poet again uses the phrase as a refrain. According to the poet, day and night are one with God. The day and night are also one with those who have faith in God. Thereafter the poet refers to “cloudy hem of judgment.’ This judgment is fringed with “Mercy’s light.” In this stanza of the poem, ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’ Whittier tries to say that he is faithful to the working of God. Moreover, the last line is a paradox.
The poet of ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’, John Whittier was an American Quaker and advocate of the abolitionist cause. Critics consider him as one of the fireside poets along with Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He was influenced by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet. During the 1830s, Whittier became active in politics. In 1833, he published his antislavery pamphlet “Justice and Expediency”. Moreover, he was a supporter of the Union and during the Civil War upheld the abolitionist cause through his poetry. This poem, published in 1862, talks about the abolition of slavery in the district of Columbia.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly highlight the theme present in Whittier’s lyric, ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862’.
- The Slave Singing at Midnight by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Longfellow wrote several poems on the abolition of slavery. His ‘The Slave Singing at Midnight’, ‘The Slave in the Dismal Swamp’, and ‘The Witnesses’ tap on this theme.
- Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Harper – This poem talks about slavery and presents the speaker’s wish to be buried in a land free from this cruel custom.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe by Paul Laurence Dunbar – This poem speaks on the true story of slavery. Being inspired by Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Dunbar wrote this poem.
- To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth by Phillis Wheatley – Through this poem, Wheatley praises the honorable earl of Dartmouth, William who devoted his life for the upliftment of the weaker section of society.
You can also read about these heart-touching slavery poems and the best poems on hope.