This article provides ‘The Slave’s Dream’ summary and analysis written by H.W.Longfellow and is specially meant to help students to understand the implication of the poem.
H.W. Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery are said to be “so mild that even a Slaveholder might read them without losing his appetite for breakfast”. The Slave’s Dream is about a series of dreams of a victim of slavery during the 19th century.
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.
The physical image of a slave is portrayed through the first stanza of the poem. He is tired from the all work that he has to do on the fields and falls asleep. This last dreaming slumber gives way to a series of oneirisms which reflects the desires of his waking life.
The phrases “ungathered rice” and “sickle in his hand” indicates that his assigned task is left incomplete by him due to his immense fatigue. His bare breast represents the barrenness of his life as a slave and his matted hair “buried” in the sand symbolizes death slowly creeping over his exhausted body. As he sleeps, he sees his once again “Native Land” in his dream.
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.
From the second stanza onwards, his dream is described vividly by the poet. We come to know from the phrase “lordly Niger” that his native land was Africa. “Once more a king he strode” makes us guess that perhaps he was the King of a tribe of his land. In his sleep, he once again relives the days of his freedom and he almost hears 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.
The third stanza introduces us to his family. He misses his “dark-eyed queen” and his children. He dreams of how they would clasp his neck, kiss his cheeks and hold him by his hand. Such is the intensity of his dream that he cries in his sleep and a futile tear drops on to the sand and is absorbed.
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.
In the fourth stanza, we see how he perceives his life as a free man. He sees himself riding a horse at a “furious speed”, with golden chains as bridle-reins and warrior- like he smites his sword on his stallion’s flanks.
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.
The fifth stanza is a continuation of the fourth as he sees himself following the flight of flamingos over the plains where tamarind was grown. He recalls the “caffre huts” and the ocean through his subconscious.
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.
Then in the sixth stanza he dreams sequentially of the lion’s roar, the hyena’s scream and pictures himself crushing reeds, listening to the river horse making a sound “like a glorious roll of drums” as it passes. His dream is triumphant as it successfully gives him a sense of freedom and happiness.
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.
The seventh stanza once again portrays how the forests of his mind, with their “myriad tongues” shout out his soul’s desire — liberty. The cry of the turbulent “blast of the desert” echoes through his being, making him start with a smile in his sleep.
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!
In the eighth stanza, the poet returns to the physical condition of the slave who now lies numb and senseless in his death, not feeling the “driver’s whip” or the “burning heat of the day”. Through his death his soul has broken the fetters of his body and attained freedom.
Throughout the poem the poet uses graphic images — visual, auditory and tactile, efficiently describing the slave’s picturesque “native land” and creating an atmosphere of pathos which is full of impact. The slave, is liberated from the tyranny of slavedom symbolically in his dream and finally by death. At the end, the poem evokes mixed reactions. We feel both happy and sad for the slave as his soul transcends misery and attains freedom through his demise. Though not free in real life, his last slumber and the visions of freedom that are conjured, show that on the level of consciousness at least, he conquered his bondsman existence.