William Cullen Bryant was a romantic poet. He was a strong supporter of the abolitionist cause. Then slavery was a pricking issue that made the intellectuals like Bryant restless. It hoarded the freedom of the innocent Africans and made them slaves without their wills. The cruel custom of slavery took many lives and drenched the American soil with blood. When the Civil War met the victorious hour, it made everyone happy. At this cheerful moment, Bryant addresses the deceased slavery who once reigned like a dictator and ruled like a bloodhound, in this poem, ‘The Death of Slavery’.
This piece is an ironic representation of the human-like embodiment of slavery. During his rule, numerous innocent humans were held as slaves, tortured, and deprived of basic rights. But, when the abolitionists blessed by the supreme God won, it freed them. It was a new beginning not only for the slaves but also for the nation. A long bloody chapter of history slid back to oblivion. Slavery, like a defeated soldier, lies helplessly along with his devoted mercenaries. According to the poet, it was a moment that acts as a warning to the future generation. If self-conceited men try to trample innocents, in near future, they will be trampled down under God’s feet too.
Explore more William Cullen Bryant poems.
The poem, ‘The Death of Slavery’ consists of seven stanzas. Each stanza contains twelve lines. There are two sestets in each stanza. In the first sestet, the rhyme scheme is ABBACC. While the second sestet contains the DEDEFF. It means each stanza contains two quatrains and the rhyming couplets are attached at the end of each quatrain. Bryant uses both the closed and alternative rhyme scheme.
The overall verse is in iambic pentameter. In each stanza the quatrains are in iambic pentameter. While the couplets containing six syllables (present at the end of the first quatrain) are in iambic trimeter. However, there are a few metrical variations in this work.
The poem begins with an apostrophe. The impassioned address is made to slavery. Bryant uses personification to invest humanly attributes in it. If readers closely analyze the first stanza, they can find some more literary devices. Some of them are dispersed evenly throughout the text for making his ideas more engaging. As an example, “slow-paced years” contain a personal metaphor.
In “thy millions fettered,” one can find the use of hyperbole. The “scourge” present in the third line of the first stanza is a symbol of slavery. The following couplet contains anaphora. Readers can also find the use of alliteration in this poem. It is present in the phrase, “sing sweeter.” In this quoted phrase, the repetition of the “s” sound creates an alliteration. The rest of the devices are explained thoroughly in the analysis section below.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
O THOU great Wrong, that, through the slow-paced years,
Didst hold thy millions fettered, and didst wield
The scourge that drove the laborer to the field,
And turn a stony gaze on human tears,
Thy cruel reign is o’er;
Thy bondmen crouch no more
In terror at the menace of thine eye;
For He who marks the bounds of guilty power,
Long-suffering, hath heard the captive’s cry,
And touched his shackles at the appointed hour,
And lo! they fall, and he whose limbs they galled
Stands in his native manhood, disenthralled.
‘The Death of Slavery’ begins with an apostrophe. The poetic persona refers to slavery. It is projected as a monarch who held millions in fetters. He wielded the scourge that drove the slave laborers to the field and turned a stone-like gaze (unmerciful look) on their sufferings.
The cruel reign of slavery is over. His “bondmen” don’t crouch anymore in fear at the menace of his ferocious looks. Bryant uses synecdoche in this section in the phrase, “thine eye.” The reference is made to the menace of slavery.
His rule has come to an end as God has heard the “captive’s call” and He is angry for their “long-suffering.” God has touched the shackles at the “appointed hour” (a reference to doomsday) and set them free. Now, the slaves stand as they were before, disenthralled.
A shout of joy from the redeemed is sent;
Ten thousand hamlets swell the hymn of thanks;
Our rivers roll exulting, and their banks
Send up hosannas to the firmament!
Fields where the bondman’s toil
No more shall trench the soil,
Seem now to bask in a serener day;
The meadow-birds sing sweeter, and the airs
Of heaven with more caressing softness play,
Welcoming man to liberty like theirs.
A glory clothes the land from sea to sea,
For the great land and all its coasts are free.
The redeemed are shouting in joy after breaking the shackles of thralldom. The hymn sung in praise of God can be heard from ten thousand hamlets. They send their thanks to the firmament as the almighty has freed them.
The fields where once the bondman toiled, seem to bask in the “serener day.” It seems as if nature is also celebrating as they are free. The meadow-birds sing sweeter and they can breathe the free air.
By using personification, Bryant says that the airs of heaven are caressing them softly. Nature is welcoming them to liberty as she has. There is a glorious mood everywhere, as now in every nook and corners of the country slaves are free.
Within that land wert thou enthroned of late,
And they by whom the nation’s laws were made,
And they who filled its judgment-seats, obeyed
Thy mandate, rigid as the will of Fate.
Fierce men at thy right hand,
With gesture of command,
Gave forth the word that none might dare gainsay;
And grave and reverend ones, who loved thee not,
Shrank from thy presence, and in blank dismay
Choked down, unuttered, the rebellious thought;
While meaner cowards, mingling with thy train,
Proved, from the book of God, thy right to reign.
In the third stanza of ‘The Death of Slavery,’ the poet says that slavery was enthroned of late. The lawmakers who filled the judgment’s state of the country strictly obeyed his mandate. They are rigid as the will of “Fate.” Slavery has fierce men at his right hand, waiting for a gesture of command. He ordered them to enthrall innocents, that none dares to say.
The grave and reverend one who didn’t love his words shrank pitifully from his presence. In blank dismay, they choked their voice down and remained their rebellious thought unuttered. While meaner cowards mingled with his mercenaries and strengthened his hands, going against the book of God. It is a reference to the Holy Bible.
Great as thou wert, and feared from shore to shore,
The wrath of Heaven o’ertook thee in thy pride;
Thou sitt’st a ghastly shadow; by thy side
Thy once strong arms hang nerveless evermore.
And they who quailed but now
Before thy lowering brow,
Devote thy memory to scorn and shame,
And scoff at the pale, powerless thing thou art.
And they who ruled in thine imperial name,
Subdued, and standing sullenly apart,
Scowl at the hands that overthrew thy reign,
And shattered at a blow the prisoner’s chain.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker says he was greatly feared everywhere. But, the “wrath of Heaven,” a symbolic reference to God, overtook him for his excessive pride in himself. After his displacement, he is now like a “ghastly shadow,” and by the side, his once strong hands hang nervelessly.
The slaves who quailed at his sight, now, standing before his lowering brow. They remember the scornful and shameful memories of slavery. Seeing him in this state, they scoff at his pale and powerless state.
In the case of the slavers, are now subdued. They are sullen with what has happened to their lord and scowl at the rightful hands of God. Those hands overthrew his reign and shattered the prisoner’s chain making the slaves free.
Well was thy doom deserved; thou didst not spare
Life’s tenderest ties, but cruelly didst part
Husband and wife, and from the mother’s heart
Didst wrest her children, deaf to shriek and prayer;
Thy inner lair became
The haunt of guilty shame;
Thy lash dropped blood; the murderer, at thy side,
Showed his red hands, nor feared the vengeance due.
Thou didst sow earth with crimes, and, far and wide,
A harvest of uncounted miseries grew,
Until the measure of thy sins at last
Was full, and then the avenging bolt was cast!
In this stanza of ‘The Death of Slavery,’ the speaker remarks it was destined to happen with those who upheld slavery. They did not spare the tenderest ties of life. Without caring much about the African’s feelings, they parted a husband from his wife, from a mother from her child, and turned a deaf ear to their shriek and prayer. Gradually, slavery’s inner lair was haunted with guilt and shame.
His symbolic lash dropped blood. His followers, referred to as murderers, showed their red hands without caring about God’s vengeance. In this way, they sow the earth with crimes. Far and wide grew the uncounted miseries of the slaves. God waited until the measure of their sins was full. Then, at last, he cast the “avenging bolt,” destabilizing slavery’s bloody kingdom.
Go now, accursed of God, and take thy place
With hateful memories of the elder time,
With many a wasting plague, and nameless crime,
And bloody war that thinned the human race;
With the Black Death, whose way
Through wailing cities lay,
Worship of Moloch, tyrannies that built
The Pyramids, and cruel creeds that taught
To avenge a fancied guilt by deeper guilt—
Death at the stake to those that held them not.
Lo! the foul phantoms, silent in the gloom
Of the flown ages, part to yield thee room.
The speaker of ‘The Death of Slavery,’ in the sixth stanza, orders slavery, “accursed of God,” to leave. Now, he has to take the hateful memories of the past away along with the “wasting plague,” and several nameless crimes. The “bloody war” with the hapless slaves that thinned the race, has to end.
In cities, for the death of blacks, there is wailing everywhere. It seems to the poet that the slavers are worshipping “Moloch.” It is a metaphorical reference to the ritual of child sacrifice. Besides, the rulers who have built the pyramids tortured the slaves. Whereas, the “cruel creeds” also tortured them in their religious way.
But, now, death is at slavery’s stake. The foul phantoms, silent in the darkness of the past, are making room for him.
I see the better years that hasten by
Carry thee back into that shadowy past,
Where, in the dusty spaces, void and vast,
The graves of those whom thou hast murdered lie.
The slave-pen, through whose door
Thy victims pass no more,
Is there, and there shall the grim block remain
At which the slave was sold; while at thy feet
Scourges and engines of restraint and pain
Moulder and rust by thine eternal seat.
There, mid the symbols that proclaim thy crimes,
Dwell thou, a warning to the coming times.
The last stanza of ‘The Death of Slavery’ begins with an optimistic mood. According to the speaker, he can visualize the better years approaching soon. It will carry the haunting memories of slavery in the shadowy past. The graves of the slaves are being emptied to store those memories there.
The victims no longer pass the slave-pen and the “grim block” at which the slaves were sold, is now empty. While at the feet of slavery, the scourges and other instruments of restraint and pain molder and rust by the eternal seat of heaven. There, with the symbols of crimes, he dwells. And, this image acts as a warning to the coming times.
The poem, ‘The Death of Slavery’ was published in 1866, a year after the close of the American Civil War. It was first published in the July 1866 issue of The Atlantic. Through this poem, Bryant, a romantic poet, journalist, and long-time editor of the New York Evening Post, hailed the demise of the “cruel reign” of slavery. He wanted to warn those who enthralled the innocent race. Besides, he was one of the most liberal voices of the century. By writing extensively on the issues of religious minorities, immigrants, and the abolition of slavery, he defended their cause. This poem specifically revolves around the abolitionist cause.
The following poems are similar to the themes present in William Cullen Bryant‘s ‘The Death of Slavery’.
- Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862 by John Greenleaf Whittier – This poem describes how God will do justice to the slaves and give them a better future.
- Address to Slavery by Samuel Wright – This poem, like ‘The Death of Slavery,’ addresses slavery, requesting him to set the slaves free for humanity’s sake.
- To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth by Phillis Wheatley – Unlike others, this poem is addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth, requesting him to abolish slavery. Explore more Phillis Wheatley poems.
- Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Harper – In this poem, the speaker wishes to be buried in a land where no humans are held as slaves.