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The Slave's dream

Categories: Dream

‘The Slave’s dream’, written in 1842 by the white man H. W. Longfellow, tells of the final dream of a black slave before his death. It is set on a plantation in America where the slave has stopped in the middle of a day’s work, giving up hope of freedom in life, believing only in freedom by death. ‘I, too’ was written later than ‘The Slave’s Dream by Langston Hughes. It is about the hope for equality of a black servant after the abolishment of slavery in America.

Written during the abolitionism movement, ‘The Slave’s Dream’ helps to raise awareness of the immoral injustices black people had to face. This reflects the mood of the era as people at this time were trying to change the public’s opinion of slavery and get it abolished. As the most important people at this time were whites, Longfellow must have used the colour of his skin to get people to listen to his point of view through his poems.

H. W. Longfellow uses this poem to show that black people had lives before slavery, but that the white race had taken them away.

The type of life that followed the taking of black people’s freedom is reflected in the poem’s rhyme scheme and stanza patterns. The poem has a very rigid structure. The rhyme scheme is regular and the lengths of lines have a repetitive pattern. The poet has conformed to such a rigid way of writing poetry, as a slave in America would have to conform to their master’s commands.

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The poet may also have chosen to write in this regular way because it is similar to the slave’s life, which is monotonous. A slave does the same thing everyday like the stanzas all follow the same pattern.

In stanza one, there is also the internal rhyme of the words “bare” and “hair”. This emphasises how uninteresting the slave’s life is. This also gives the poem a more childish, nursery rhyme affect. In this stanza we are introduced to the mistreated slave, who is lying “beside the ungather’d rice”. The fact that he is lying down suggests that he is not in a fit state to be working, yet by being in the plantation, next to the rice, which is waiting to be gathered, it is clear that he has no choice. The stanza describes the slave as having a bare breast and “matted hair”. Little clothing and tangled hair suggests the slave has little comfort and is not cared for. Towards the end of this stanza, we see the slave dreaming “again in the mist and shadow of sleep”. The slave is dreaming of his native land. The use of the word “again”, followed by a punctuation mark, makes you stop and think this is not the first time the slave has had this dream.

This dream continues into stanza two, where it is described in greater detail. We are told that Nigeria is full of open spaces, ” wide through the landscape of his dreams”. This is very unlike his real life in which he is enclosed and limited. This makes it obvious how much he preferred his homeland to where he is now. The slave’s native country is made to sound like a paradise; “the Lordly Niger flowed” and “Beneath the palm trees”.

Palm trees are usually associated with paradise or an oasis and the word ‘Lordly’ can be associated with the word ‘sacred’. This dream life is at the opposite end of the spectrum to what he is really experiencing. This gives the reader an insight as to what his life would be like if he hadn’t been made into a worthless slave. Far from being worthless in Nigeria, “once more a king he strode”. This majestic imagery contrasts his slave life to his old life and enables the liberty he once had to become clear to the audience.

Stanza three talks of his family in Nigeria. His wife is described as “his dark-eyed queen”. Not only does this make her sound of great importance to him, but also, this extended metaphor helps to prolong the majestic image of the slave and his family. The importance of his family to him is emphasised through the evocative text “a tear burst”. A man strong enough to survive the harsh conditions he was now in and the vigorous journey to America, along which many slaves died, is brought to tears by thoughts of his family. This shows how much he misses the simple things in life. It makes the audience think of their own families and how they would feel to know they would never see them again. It helps you to sympathise with the slave.

The strength of the slave is reinforced in stanza four by the many associations between slavery and war. Words such as “stallion’s flank”, “marital clank” and “scabbard of steel” can be linked into the battle of being a slave, the battle for survival. Also, the stallions can be viewed as the slaves, being forced to do all the work. This stanza shows the control the whites had over other human beings at this time, making everyday a struggle to stay alive.

To show that it is the life in America that is boring, not the poem itself, Longfellow uses the simile “like a blood red flag”. This gives a varied image to the audience, making the poem more appealing. H. W. Longfellow uses alliteration in stanza five to reflect the noise of flapping wings. “Flamingos flew”. The slave wants to be able to fly away from the plantations like the flamingos, but can not escape because he is not free. The rich colours of the flamingos are exotic compared to the plainness of America, where life is as dull as the colours.

Like the flamingos, stanza six mentions many wild animals, free to live their own lives. “He heard the lion roar and the hyena scream”. In America, the slave is like the hyena, cowering to the powerful lion, but the slave wants to be as strong and free as the lion. At the end of this stanza, it is like the slave has become the lion,

“Like a glorious roll of drums, through the triumph of his dream”. This is a very powerful and triumphant line, suggesting that, like the animals, mentally the slave is still free and can never be tamed.

By being untameable, the slave is also like a natural force. “The forests with their myriad tongues” are wild and cannot be tamed this is personification, bringing the forests to life to show that even compared to things which are not living, the slave has no liberty.

In the final stanza, the slave reaches his end. “Death had illuminated the land of sleep”. This makes it seem as though the slave had wanted to die all along. The word “illuminated” makes you realise he is really experiencing death, no longer dreaming. We also know his life has ended because “he did not feel the drivers whip”. This also suggests that he is finally free and whatever they do to him can not affect him any more. The last two lines of the poem suggest that the only way to become free is through death, and that now his soul is free, the slave drivers can never tame him. This is a very optimistic end to the poem in that the slave is not in pain. The chains have been broken. The message given at the end is that you can enslave the body but not the soul. However, the poem is pessimistic in that he is dead, which cannot be a good thing. It is a saddening poem in that the only way he could be happy was in death.

‘The Slaves Dream’ differs to ‘I, too’ in this aspect, for ‘I, too’ brings across the message that things can get better in life, not just in death. ‘I, too’ argues with the hopelessness of ‘The slave’s dream’. It is more positive and encouraging. However, although ‘I, too’ is set and written in a time when slavery has been abolished, it is similar to ‘The Slave’s Dream’ in that the black people are still not free and are still prejudiced against. The only difference in the situations of the two black men in these poems is that the man in ‘I, too’ has the freedom to walk away from his job at any time, but if he does, he will starve. The two poems therefore are also similar in that the only alternative to their poor state the men are in at the moment seems to be death.

‘I, too’ was written after slavery in America had been abolished, unlike ‘The Slave’s Dream’ which was written for this cause. ‘The Slave’s dream was trying to change the views on slavery whereas ‘I, too’ is trying to show white people the will power of blacks and that they will receive justice. Langston Hughes is a black man himself, who comes from a family of abolitionists. He wrote this poem out of spite for the white people, not sympathy for blacks, because his race had just lost him a job.

Hughes’ poetry usually reflected the music he heard in jazz clubs, giving it a more irregular structure and rhythm than ‘A Slave’s Dream’. Langston Hughes uses punctuation to add emphasis to parts of his poem such as the title ‘I, too’. Longfellow chooses other techniques such as alliteration to portray the same affect. Hughes also changes the rhythm to fit with the words. A strong rhythm is used to emphasise the strength of the character.

The character in ‘I, too’ seems to be stronger in a mental way than the slave in Longfellow’s poem. He does not want to give up and let the white man win; he wants to become equal. He has the opposite approach to the slave, who is quite passive. “I, too, sing America” suggests his want for equality. He is saying that he has a right to be part of his country and to be an American. He is not looking back to the past like the slave, but forward to tomorrow, when his opinion will matter.

Langston Hughes, or the person he is writing as, seems to have the confidence to say to the white people ‘”I am the darker brother”, however much you may hate it, we are united’. The character in ‘The Slave’s Dream’ seems to want nothing to do with the white men at all; he’d rather give up hope all together than become a brother to his enemy. He does not consider himself an American. In ‘I, too’, conditions for blacks seem not to have not improved much since the time of ‘The Slave’s Dream’.

“They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes”. Although slavery has been abolished, this shows that prejudice still exists. Like a lot of ‘The Slave’s Dream’, this makes you sympathise with the character and with Langston Hughes, being black himself.

Showing his audience that sympathy is not needed, the poem continues to say

“But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.” This is proving to the whites that he doesn’t care what they put him through because he is strong enough to live through it. ‘The Slave’s Dream’ is opposed to this because it tells of how badly a slave is affected by white people’s actions. The end stop lines add emphasis to the strength he is feeling in America. It has a strong rhythm, showing that he is not going to let himself be suppressed and worn down by the whites.

The next stanza looks onwards to the future.


I’ll sit at the table

When Company comes.” This is saying to the whites that in the future blacks will be equal. The enjambment used here makes the poem more like speech. This makes it more like realistic, everyday conversation. The rest of this stanza is very challenging,

“Nobody’ll dare”. This is a very challenging line, perhaps included to show that the servant had had enough of being treated unfairly, so now he was going to break the rules. The last line of this stanza, “Then.” Has a lot of impact. It is like the final word in an argument. It is saying I will be equal and I will sit at the table with the higher people.

The penultimate stanza tells of the guilt that white men will feel in the future.

“They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed.” This is saying just because someone is black, doesn’t mean they are ugly and that the white people have not given him a chance to be himself and show his inner beauty. The black men thinks white people should be ashamed of how they treat black people. This is a very definitive, confident statement. The enjambment used makes the lines flow, like his thoughts going through his head. The black person in ‘The Slave’s Dream’ does not believe the white people have consciences, as they are treating the slaves like animals.

The final line of this poem is almost a repetition of the first. “I, too, am America.” This line is not just saying he has a right to say he is American, it is telling white people that he represents America as much as them and that he is actually part of it by choice, not through orders from them.

Personally, I think the poem ‘The Slave’s Dream’ is the better of the two as it is more emotive and gives you more of an insight into life as a slave and what it is like to be treated unfairly. However, I think that ‘I, too’ is easier to relate to as the poet himself is black. ‘The Slave’s Dream’ is easier to get more involved with because of the length. The techniques used and rigid structure makes it easier to understand. I prefer this poem to ‘I, too’ because I prefer the more traditional rhyming poem. I accept that not all poems should rhyme, but this common technique enables the poem to become clearer. I dislike the repeated use of enjambment in ‘I, too’ because it does not allow you to pause and think about what has been written. Both poems are very effective at bringing across discrimination against black people both during and after slavery.

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The Slave's dream. (2017, Oct 30). Retrieved from

The Slave's dream
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