Mary Darby Robinson, also known as “Perdita”, wrote this poem ‘The Negro Girl’ featuring a negro speaker’s point-of-view. This poem is gloomy and heart-wrenching. As a modern reader, one can understand the heightened state of emotion that the poem contains. The speaker is a negro girl, Zelma who laments for the broken love-chord between her and her lover Draco. Another important perspective to mention here this poem is written from a white writer’s perspective. Though being a poem of the white class, it encompasses the pain of the Africans, treated as slaves. This feature presents the poet’s liberal mindset and her sympathetic attitude towards the slaves.
While reading this poem, a reader can find a few recurring images that form the basis of the poem. The first and foremost is the billowing waves, reflecting the impending sea-storm. Thereafter, another recurring image of this poem is the “chain”. This “chain” is a symbol of slavery. Whatsoever, in this poem, Robinson presents a tragic story of Zelma and Draco. Both are Africans. They are in a relationship. Sadly, by the turn of their conjugal fate, white slavers held Draco as a slave and detached him from his beloved Zelma. Zelma, the sole narrator of this poem, depicts how her life’s wheel turned toward the watery grave along with her lover, Draco, swept aside by the stormy waves.
This is a long poem consisting of twenty-one stanzas. Each stanza contains six rhyming lines. Moreover, Robinson writes this poem using the Spenserian stanza form. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABABCC. Hence, the first four lines of each sestain rhyme alternatively. Besides, the last two lines form a rhyming couplet. This ABABCC rhyme-scheme is one of the most important forms in European poetry. Apart from that, the metrical scheme of the poem follows a specific format. The first four lines of the poem are written in iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter alternatively. While the fifth line is in iambic pentameter and the last line is in iambic hexameter. This form goes on throughout the poem.
Robinson’s poem, ‘The Negro Girl’ contains several literary devices. To begin with, there is a metaphor in the first stanza in the “tempest’s roar.” Here, the poet compares the sound of the sea to the roaring of a wild creature. The poet uses anaphora throughout the poem. As an example, the second and third lines of the first stanza contain anaphora. Thereafter, one can find the use of alliteration. For instance, the phrases such as “DRACO dear”, “That some should”, and “While worth” contain alliteration. This line, “… their SOULS are still the same!” contains a repetition of the “s” sound. Likewise, the poet uses personification in this poem. For instance, “Behold! the angry waves conspire” contains personification. This poem contains some other literary devices too.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Dark was the dawn, and o’er the deep
The boist’rous whirlwinds blew;
The Sea-bird wheel’d its circling sweep,
And all was drear to view,
When on the beach that binds the western shore
The love-lorn ZELMA stood, list’ning the tempest’s roar.
The poem, ‘The Negro Girl’ begins with an image of the sea. The speaker of the poem, the negro girl named Zelma is present in the scene. Besides, the omniscient narrator of the poem firstly depicts the scene. The time was just before dawn. It was dark and over the sea “boisterous whirlwinds” blew hard. Here, in “boisterous whirlwinds” the poet uses a personal metaphor. In the image, she introduces a bird that is wheeled by in its circular sweep. Therefore, the scene was drear to view. Besides, on the beach that binds the western shore, stood Zelma. She was keenly listening to the roaring tempest.
Her eager Eyes beheld the main,
While on her DRACO dear
She madly call’d, but call’d in vain,
No sound could DRACO hear,
Save the shrill yelling of the fateful blast,
While ev’ry Seaman’s heart quick shudder’d as it past.
Zelma was eagerly finding something on the sea. Here, Robinson uses the literary word “main” to signify the sea. However, she was not standing still. Rather, her voice was at its peak and calling a name. It was her lover’s name, “Draco”. She madly called him but in vain. As the tempest was roaring and the waves were rolling due to the effect of the whirlwinds, Draco could not hear anything. He could only hear the “fateful blast”, a metaphorical reference to the sound of thunder. In this stanza, it becomes clear that Draco and others were on a ship. Here, the poet says every “Seaman’s” heart shuddered quickly as the thunder passed. Draco was one of them.
White were the billows, wide display’d
The clouds were black and low;
The Bittern shriek’d, a gliding shade
Seem’d o’er the waves to go!
The livid flash illum’d the clam’rous main,
While ZELMA pour’d, unmark’d, her melancholy strain.
Despite being the time of dawn, the billows were white. The sparkling of the thunder reflected on the waves. Besides, the clouds were black and low. In this poem, ‘The Negro Girl’ a Bittern, a kind of bird, shrieked while gliding its way amidst the shade. It seemed to the poetic persona that the bird was passing just above the waves. Thereafter, the speaker refers to the fact that the flashing continued. However, Zelma stood on the beach, “unmarked”. She only expressed her “melancholy strain” with her eyes.
“Be still!” she cries, “loud tempest cease!
O! spare the gallant souls!”
The thunder rolls — the winds increase—
The Sea like mountains rolls.
While from the deck the storm-worn victims leap,
And o’er their struggling limbs the furious billows sweep.
In the fourth stanza of ‘The Negro Girl’, it is for the first time, the poet introduces the voice of the girl. While standing on the shore, she shrieked at the sea and ordered it to be still. She implored to the “loud tempest” to spare the “gallant souls” who were on board. Whatsoever, her prayer could not find an ear. Hence, the thunder continued to roll and the winds increased gradually, causing the sea to roll like mountains. Here, the poet uses a simile for comparing the rolling waves to landslides. Thereafter, the speaker focuses on the men on deck. They were “storm-worn” and leaped on the ship to find a place to hide. However, the “furious billows” swept over their “struggling limbs” causing them to slip and fall.
“O! barb’rous Pow’r! relentless Fate!
Does Heaven’s high will decree
That some should sleep on beds of state—
Some in the roaring Sea?
Some nurs’d in splendour deal Oppression’s blow,
While worth and DRACO pine — in Slavery and woe!
Witnessing the tremulous sea, Zelma again shouted. In ‘The Negro Girl’, she raises some deeper questions. Firstly, she addresses “fate” as a “barbarous power” that snatches away lives ruthlessly. Secondly, she refers to it as a “relentless” creature. Thereafter, she asks whether it was destined in heaven that some should sleep on beds of state. While others should struggle on the roaring sea just like her lover Draco. Moreover, the speaker added that her Draco was one of them who were nursed in splendor. At that time, he was facing the “Oppression’s blow”. In the last line of this stanza, the poet makes it clear that Draco was held captive to be sold as a slave. Here the speaker remarks that Draco and worth pine in “Slavery” and woe.
“Yon vessel oft has plough’d the main
With human traffic fraught;
Its cargo — our dark Sons of pain—
For worldly treasure bought!
What had they done? O Nature tell me why
Is taunting scorn the lot of thy dark progeny?
That vessel on which Draco boarded and left the shore had seen such scenes before. As it had used to bring slaves from Africa to other countries. Here, the speaker compares the “cargo” to the “dark Sons of pain”. The poet here dehumanizes them to portray the mindset of white tyrants. Those men had bought Draco and others like him with “worldly treasure”. Thereafter, the speaker laments by saying what was the reason behind all this. She badly wants to know why they have done so. Thereafter, she asks why the “taunting” scorns the fate of nature’s “dark progeny”, a metaphorical reference to the Africans.
“Thou gav’st, in thy caprice, the Soul
Nor from the ebon Casket stole
The Jewel of the mind!
Then wherefore let the suff’ring Negro’s breast
Bow to his fellow MAN, in brighter colours drest.
In this stanza of ‘The Negro Girl’, Zelma asks nature why she peculiarly enshrined the soul in comparison to the body. Here, she compares nature to a capricious lady who might have made the soul of man whimsically. Whatsoever, she implores her not to steal her Draco. Here, the poet uses a beautiful metaphor for describing Draco. He is the “jewel” of Zelma’s mind, safely kept on her “ebon Casket”, symbolically referring to her heart. In the last two lines, she asks why it is to so that negro’s breast always has to bow in front of his fellow man only because of his “brighter colours.”
“Is it the dim and glossy hue
That marks him for despair?
While men with blood their hands embrue,
And mock the wretch’s pray’r,
Shall guiltless Slaves the scourge of tyrants feel,
And, e’en before their God! unheard, unpitied kneel.
In the eighth stanza of ‘The Negri Girl’, the speaker asks a thought-provoking question. According to her, the “dim and glossy hue” marks Draco for despair. While a negro’s heart bleeds in agony, the white men embrue their hands in the blood. Moreover, they mock his prayers. The guiltless slaves have to bear the “scourge of tyrants.” It seems to her that even before their god, a slave’s prayer is unheard and unpitied. The fact is harsh. But, at that time, the slaves were treated in such an unpitied manner.
“Could the proud rulers of the land
Our Sable race behold;
Some bow’d by Torture’s giant hand,
And other’s basely sold!
Then would they pity Slaves, and cry, with shame,
Whate’er their TINTS may be, their SOULS are still the same!
The proud rulers of the land beheld the suffering of his subjects. Yet they could do nothing. As they were also sold their dignity and conscience to the whites. As an effect, white me tortured the Africans and some of them were sold like commodities. Thereafter, the speaker asks whether they would do anything after seeing the sufferings of the slaves. Lastly, she says whatever their “TINTS” maybe, their “SOULS” are still the same. This line projects the poet’s humanitarian view. Moreover, here she tells others to look at the Africans not by their color, but by their inner beauty.
“Why seek to mock the Ethiop’s face?
Why goad our hapless kind?
Can features alienate the race—
Is there no kindred mind?
Does not the cheek which vaunts the roseate hue
Oft blush for crimes that Ethiops never knew?
In this stanza of ‘The Negro Girl’, the speaker of the poem asks why the white men mock the “Ethiop’s face.” Moreover, she asks them why they goad their “hapless kind.” According to her, physical features cannot alienate a race from humane treatment. Besides, she asks if any like-minded men can understand her point. In the last two lines, the poet uses a synecdoche. Here, by using the word “cheek”, she refers to the ladies. However, the speaker asks whether the white ladies are not ashamed after seeing their fellow men are behaving in such a manner with the Ethiops.
“Behold! the angry waves conspire
To check the barb’rous toil!
While wounded Nature’s vengeful ire
Roars round this trembling Isle!
And hark! her voice re-echoes in the wind—
Man was not form’d by Heav’n to trample on his kind!
Thereafter, she refers to the “angry waves” that conspire to check the “barbarous toil.” According to her, mother nature is not happy after seeing her black sons treated in such a manner. For this reason, she expresses her anger through the roaring of the waves. The isle where Zelma was standing was trembling by the turbulent waves. Thereafter she refers to a voice that echoes in the wind. The voice says that man was not formed by Heaven to tremble on others. God created them to respect each other and treat others as humans, not commodities.
“Torn from my mother’s aching breast,
My Tyrant sought my love—
But in the grave shall ZELMA rest,
Ere she will faithless prove;
No, DRACO! — Thy companion I will be
To that celestial realm where Negros shall be free!
In this stanza of ‘The Negro Girl’, the poet uses a metaphor for comparing love to a newborn. According to the speaker, her love was torn by the tyrant from her aching breast. It seems as if “love” was feeding on her breast as a baby does. However, she remarks in the grave she will find rest before anyone proves her faithless. Besides, she tells her beloved, Draco that she is and will be her companion, no matter what happens with her. She will even die and set out for that “celestial real”, a symbolic gesture to heaven, where every man is treated as equal. There Negros shall be free.
“The Tyrant WHITE MAN taught my mind
The letter’d page to trace;
He taught me in the Soul to find
No tint, as in the face:
He bade my reason blossom like the tree—
But fond affection gave the ripen’d fruits to thee.
In this stanza, the speaker says that the tyrant “WHITE MAN” taught her mind how to read. Now she can trace any “lettered page.” It seems as if she has read the Bible. According to the scriptures, one should not find tints in the soul as one finds in someone’s face. The learning has helped her to blossom like a tree. However, the “fond affection, she has for her beloved, is like a ripened fruit. The tyrants have torn that fruit and took it away from her.
“With jealous rage he mark’d my love;
He sent thee far away;
And prison’d in the plaintain grove
Poor ZELMA pass’d the day;
But ere the moon rose high above the main
ZELMA and Love contriv’d to break the Tyrant’s chain.
Thereafter, in ‘The Negro Girl’ the speaker says the tyrants were jealous of her love. Hence, they sent her beloved away. When Draco was taken away from her, she was imprisoned in the “plaintain grove.” In this grove, poor Zelma passed her lonely days. However, when the moon rose high above the sea, Zelma contrived to break the chain. Here, Robinson gives readers a hint for the previous events. After reading this stanza, it becomes clear that Zelma and Draco were separated. The former was kept away as the tyrants were going to sell her beloved.
“Swift, o’er the plain of burning Sand
My course I bent to thee;
And soon I reach’d the billowy strand
Which bounds the stormy Sea.
DRACO! my Love! Oh yet thy ZELMA’S soul
Springs ardently to thee, impatient of controul.
However, after breaking the shackles, she crossed the plain of burning sand. Here, the poet uses a circumlocution or periphrasis for referring to the desert. Thereafter, Zelma reached the billowy strand that bounds the stormy sea. In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker tells her beloved Draco that her soul springs ardently to him. She is impatient and out of control. So, Zelma somehow wanted to meet Draco. For this reason, she was being impatient and restless.
“Again the lightning flashes white
The rattling cords among!
Now, by the transient vivid light,
I mark the frantic throng!
Now up the tatter’d shrouds my DRACO flies,
While o’er the plunging prow the curling billows rise.
In the sixteenth stanza of ‘The Negro Girl’, the speaker refers to the lighting that flashes white. It caused the cords on the ship to make a rattling sound. By the transient and vivid light, she could see the “frantic throng.” Here, the speaker refers to the slaves chained on the ship. Moreover, she can see Draco flying some tattered shrouds from the deck. While he did so, the plunging prow and the curling billow rose from all sides. It is a reference to the tragic event that the poet talks about in the following stanzas.
“The topmast falls — three shackled slaves
Cling to the Vessel’s side!
Now lost amid the madd’ning waves—
Now on the mast they ride—
See! on the forecastle my DRACO stands,
And he now he waves his chain, now clasps his bleeding hands.
Moreover, Zelma attentively watched the ship. The topmast of the ship fell. There were three shackled slaves. They cling to the vessel’s side to save their lives. Thereafter, the poet Robinson uses anaphora for emphasizing the idea present in the lines. She could not see those who were on the ship. Suddenly, she saw one of the slaves rode on the mast. Here, the speaker finds his beloved Draco on the vessel. He waved at her with his chained hands. However, Draco was hurt due to the ill-treatment of the white men. So, he clasps his bleeding hands when he tries to wave back at Zelma.
“Why, cruel WHITE-MAN! when away
My sable Love was torn,
Why did you let poor ZELMA stay,
On Afric’s sands to mourn?
No! ZELMA is not left, for she will prove
In the deep troubled main her fond — her faithful Love!”
In this stanza, the speaker poses several questions. She asks why cruel ken took Draco away. For this reason, ber “sable Love” was torn. Moreover, she asks why they had taken only Draco, not herself. In the last two lines, the speaker says she will prove her love. Even though she has seen the troubling sea, she will remain faithful. On this note, this stanza ends.
The lab’ring Ship was now a wreck,
The shrouds were flutt’ring wide;
The rudder gone, the lofty deck
Was rock’d from side to side—
Poor ZELMA’S eyes now dropp’d their last big tear,
While from her tawny cheek the blood recoil’d with fear.
As the tempest was at its peak, the laboring ship has turned into a wreck. The shrouds on the vessel were fluttering wide. Besides, the radar of the vessel and the lofty deck. Due to the turbulent winds, the ship rocked from side to side. Looking at this situation, Zelma dropped her last tear. While on her tawny cheek, the blood recoiled fearfully. As she knew, the tempest is going to take her lover away permanently.
Now frantic, on the sands she roam’d,
Now shrieking stopp’d to view
Where high the liquid mountains foam’d
Around the exhausted crew—
‘Till, from the deck, her DRACO’S well-known form
Sprung ‘mid the yawning waves, and buffetted the storm.
In this stanza of ‘The Negro Girl’, the poet says Zelna became frantic. She roamed on the sands. Besides, she stopped shrieking and looked at the actual event. Here, the poet metaphorically refers to the sea as a mountain. Besides, the waves exhausted the crew. However, the speaker could see Draco’s well-known form. Her lover sprang due to the roaring waves. Moreover, he sprung amid the turbulent sea. It seems as if he had buffeted the storm.
Stanza Twenty One
Long, on the swelling surge sustain’d,
Brave DRACO sought the shore,
Watch’d the dark Maid, but ne’er complain’d,
Then sunk, to gaze no more!
Poor ZELMA saw him buried by the wave,
And, with her heart’s true Love, plung’d in a wat’ry grave.
In the last stanza of the poem, the swelling surge of the waves has been sustained. Draco tried to seek the shore. Zelma was watching all this time. She never complained. He was eventually sunk into the sea. She could not see him. Poor Zelma saw him buried by the wave. Seeing this, she with her “heart’s true love”, plunged into a watery “grave”. Here, the poet depicts how the speaker compares the sea to a burial ground. Besides, the last portrays how much Zelma loved her beloved, Draco.
Mary Darby Robinson, the poet of ‘The Negro Girl’, was an English actress, poet, dramatist, novelist, and celebrity. Robinson wrote his last piece of literature during her lifetime in 1800. At that time, she wrote a series of poems titled “Lyrical Tales”. Her poem, ‘The Negro Girl’ belongs to this poetry collection. In this collection, she explores the themes of violence, oppression, misogyny, etc. According to Christopher Lake Moody:
Of the twenty-two tales which compose this volume, those intitled All Alone — The Lascar — The Widow’s Home — The Shepherd’s Dog — The Fugitive — The Hermit of Mont Blanc — The Negro Girl — The Deserted Cottage — Poor Maguerite — Edmund’s Wedding — The Alien Boy — and Golfre, — are calculated to touch the soul with pity, and to fill the eye with tears. Some of them are composed in blank verse; a kind of measure not strictly ‘lyrical,’ which is an epithet usually applied to a poem adapted to music. In general, however, Mrs. R. has attended to this circumstance; and it must be allowed that the work is no contemptible monument of her poetical genius. Monthly Review 36 (September 1801) 26.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly explores the theme of slavery, like Mary Darby Robinson’s poem, ‘The Negro Girl’.
- The Negro Mother by Langston Hughes – This emotional poem is about the African slaves who lived through the worst brutality ever known to have taken place on American soil. It’s one of the best-known poems of Langston Hughes.
- The Slave Singing at Midnight by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – Longfellow, one of the best American poets of the 19th-century, talks about a slave singing the Psalm of King David at midnight in this poem.
- The Slave’s Lament by Robert Burns – This poem describes a slave’s lamentation after being captured and deported to Virginia.
- Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862 by John Greenleaf Whittier – This poem talks about how the slaves will be redeemed by God by closely appreciating the objectives of the American Civil War.