The Slave’s Lament by Robert Burns

‘The Slave’s Lament’ by Robert Burns is a song capturing the heart-wrenching pain of a slave enthralled from Senegal. This poem features the theme of the agony of captivity.

Robert Burns, mostly famous for his Scots-dialect works, wrote this poem, ‘The Slave’s Lament’ totally in English. It is a song that features the mental pain of a slave. The poet presents contrasting images to feature the theme of freedom vs enslavement. Moreover, the repetition in each stanza emphasizes the pain of the slave who was detached from his motherland Senegal, a West African country. He was deported to Virginia. This poem is told from his perspective.

The Slave's Lament by Robert Burns

 

Summary

‘The Slave’s Lament’, a poem written by Robert Burns, presents a Senegalese slave’s lamentation after being captured and deported to Virginia.

In this poem, there are a total of three sections. Each section presents a set of images to create a contrast. In the first stanza, the poet refers specifically to the shore of Senegal that the slave has seen while being ransacked of freedom. Secondly, Burns presents a distinction between the nature of both the lands, Senegal and Virginia. Thereafter, in the last stanza, the poet highlights how the slave misses his family, friends, and happy memories. However, the speaker of the poem is not agitated. He is rather wary. The cause is nothing other than the loss of freedom.

 

Structure

Being a song, this verse does not have a poem-like structure. Hence, there is a refrain in each stanza of this poem. It is important to note here that Burns uses the Scots song form in this poem. The repetition of the vowel sound in the refrain brings in the rural taste of Scotland. In this way, the poet internalizes the slave’s lament to one of a grieving person of his motherland. The theme of universal brotherhood along with a slave’s right to be treated like a human being gets featured through this structure. Apart from that, the rhyme scheme of the poem is ABCBCB.  In this song, there are a total of three six-line stanzas. Each sestain also rhymes internally for the use of repetition. Besides, the poem is composed in iambic meter.

 

Literary Devices

The most important literary device of this poem, ‘The Slave’s Lament’ is repetition. The poet uses alliteration throughout this poem. Moreover, one can find the use of consonance and assonance too. As an example, “sweet Senegal” contains an alliteration. Here, the repetition of the “s” sound creates an internal rhythm. Moreover, the repetition of the phrases or sentences present in this poem is called palilogy. Along with that, Burns uses rhetorical exclamation in the fourth and sixth lines of each section. The line, “Torn from that lovely shore” contains a metaphor. In the second stanza, the poet uses a simile in the second line.

 

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,

For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:

Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;

And alas! I am weary, weary O:

Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;

And alas! I am weary, weary O.

The poem ‘The Slave’s Lament’ begins with a reference to the homeland of the slave. This poem is written from the perspective of the slave. So the poetic persona of this work is the slave himself. He lived in Senegal. One day, a group of slave traders, referred to as “my foes”, took him with them for the lands of Virginia. According to him, he was torn from the shore of Senegal. Here, the poet uses a metaphor. He compares the shore to the cord that binds the slave with his motherland.

Whatsoever, the slave laments that he can never see his land. This thought makes him weary and sad. To emphasize his mental state, the poet uses repetition.

 

Stanza Two

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,

Like the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:

There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,

And alas! I am weary, weary O:

There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,

And alas! I am weary, weary O:

In the second stanza of this poem, the slave says in his native land there is “no bitter snow and frost.” It is important to mention here that  “bitter snow” is a symbol of passivity, lack of compassion, and inhumanity. Moreover, to create a contrast, Burns depicts how the weather of these places is different. There is “snow and frost’ in Virginia. Besides, in Senegal rivers flow forever. Along with that, the flowers also blossom forever. Such thoughts about his country make the slave emotional and weary. It seems that the slave is sad because he longs for his motherland.

 

Stanza Three

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,

In the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O;

And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,

And alas! I am weary, weary O:

And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,

And alas! I am weary, weary O:

The last stanza of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ refers to the mental state of the slave. He feels as if he is nearing the “burden” of captivity. Besides, he is fearful of the “cruel scourge.’ Like the previous stanzas, the poet presents another vital image. It is about the slave’s past. When he was free, had many friends. But, now, the thoughts of the friends make the poet feel “bitter”. To highlight the phrase, “with the bitter, bitter tear, represents how he is going through severe pain. The first pain is mental. While the second pain might be a reference to the oppression of the slaves. The poem ends with repetitions.

 

Historical Context

Burns’ poem ‘The Slave’s Lament’ was published in 1792. It appears in Volume Four of the Scots Musical Museum. The modern composer, Graham Fagen created a song based on this poem in 2015. However, this poem features the custom of slavery in the USA. From the point-of-view of a slave, the poet talks about the whole community. First of all, the poem is a representation of the slavery system. Secondly, this poem contains the perspective of a slave. Lastly, the poet talks about all the slaves. So, the slave-speaker represents the community of oppressed and enslaved. 

 

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that similarly features the themes of ‘The Slave’s Lament’ by Robert Burns.

You can also read about these heart-wrenching poems on slavery and the best freedom and confinement poems.

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