Saturday, July 16, 2011
THE SLAVE'S DREAM by H.W. Longfellow
Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again, in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.
He saw once more his dark-eyed queen
Among her children stand;
They clasped his neck, they kissed his cheeks,
They held him by the hand!--
A tear burst from the sleeper's lids
And fell into the sand.
And then at furious speed he rode
Along the Niger's bank;
His bridle-reins were golden chains,
And, with a martial clank,
At each leap he could feel his scabbard of steel
Smiting his stallion's flank.
Before him, like a blood-red flag,
The bright-flamingoes flew;
From morn till night he followed their flight,
O'er plains where the tamarind grew,
Till he saw the roofs of Caffre huts,
And the ocean rose to view.
At night he heard the lion roar,
And the hyena scream,
And the river-horse, as he crushed the reeds
Beside some hidden stream;
And it passed, like a glorious roll of drums,
Through the triumph of his dream.
The forests, with their myriad tongues,
Shouted of liberty;
And the Blast of the Desert cried aloud,
With a voice so wild and free,
That he started in his sleep and smiled,
At their tempestuous glee.
He did not feel the driver's whip,
Nor the burning heat of day;
For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep.
And his lifeless body lay
A worn out fetter, that the soul
Had broken and thrown away!
Probably the best loved of American poets the world over is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was born on February 27th 1807 in Portland, Maine. At the age of 22 he was launched into his career as a college professor. In 1834, he was appointed to a professorship at Havard. Upon the death of his first wife, he came to Cambridge and to the new professorship. He was given honourary degrees at the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge, invited to Windsor by Queen Victoria and called by request upon the Prince of Wales. He died on March 24th 1882.
”Of all the suns of the New England morning,” says
Van Wyck Brooks, “he was the largest in his golden sweetness.”
A slave is one who is owned by another, and deprived of all rights and freedoms. The slave is dependant on the whim of the owner, who may generally force him to service and in principle, may usually dispose of his life.
The slaves in southern U.S. were forbidden by law to receive any education or acquire property and thus could rarely attain on their own, the means to buy their freedom.
Aside from domestic work, slaves were also instruments of production on farms, in mines and in factories owned by the master. The master provided them food and clothing. Punishments for misdemeanour were common.
The Slave’s Dream by H.W. Longfellow is a poem about one such slave who escaped despite the odds. The poem begins with the Slave lying on bare earth. Too exhausted to continue his work of gathering rice, the Slave was in the dreamy swoon of sleep, bare-chested, his tangled, unkempt hair buried in the sand, still clutching his sickle. In the mysterious shadow of sleep, he dreams of Africa, his home, his Native Land.
In his dream the slave sees the river Niger flow with all its majesty. He sees himself as the king he was. One can imagine a valiant warrior king striding through the plain, beneath priest like palm trees, listening to the distant tinkling of caravans down a mountain road.
In his dream, his mind wanders to his wife, the dark eyed queen of his land, standing amongst their children. He sees his children embrace him, kiss his cheeks, their little fingers clasping his hands. He does not know where they are, dead or alive, or whether he will ever see them again. His worry and longing for his family makes a tear drop from his eyes onto the sand.
He dreams of how he used to ride along the banks of the Niger with the wind on his face; the rich king of his land with golden bridle reins clanking as though he were going to war. Each time his horse would leap, he could feel his sword’s steel sheath strike the horse’s hide. Then, he was the one holding the chains, now he is bound by them.
Before him the flamingos like a blood red flag soared through the air. He followed them from dawn to dusk along the course of the Niger, over plains where the tamarind grew. He continued his hunt till he reached a village of caffre huts, where the Niger emptied into the ocean.
He dreams of how he heard the lion roar over its prey at night, the hyena scream and the sound of a river horse trampling reeds by an unseen stream. These familiar yet distant sounds passed through his mind like a great drumroll heralding a victorious king.
The forests were not bound by the will of another and the innumerable voices of the forest shouted of liberty. The Desert was its own master, untamed and free and when he hears it cry in its wild voice he starts in his sleep. In his sleep, he smiles at their exaltation, almost as though he is going to join them in their ecstatic delight.
The driver, a merciless superior in-charge, whips him for being asleep when he is supposed to work and the sun beats down ruthlessly upon him. But he is stolid towards the pain for Death had brightened up and beckoned him into the Land of eternal Sleep. His soul had left the confines of his body.
I love this poem for its simplicity. There is no judgment, no protest, no criticism. Whatever Africa may have been and whatever it may have became today, it will always have an unspoiled beauty and Longfellow has captured it in this poem.