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‘The Slave Mother’ is a famous poem written by Francis Ellen Watkins Harper. As the title suggests, it revolves around an African slave mother and the pain and suffering she had to undergo upon being forcefully separated from her child.
About the Poet:
Francis Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was a notable American poet. She is known for being a prominent suffragist and abolitionist. Famous works of hers include ‘Bury Me In A Free Land’, ‘A Brighter Coming Day’, and ‘Shadows Uplifted’.
Heard you that shriek? It rose So wildly on the air, It seem’d as if a burden’d heart Was breaking in despair.
The poem begins with the persona directly addressing the reader. They ask whether the reader can hear a “shriek”. This “shriek”, they describe, is one to be of agony which arises out of a “burden’d heart” full of despair. It is clear from here that the persona is miserable here.
Saw you those hands so sadly clasped— The bowed and feeble head— The shuddering of that fragile form— That look of grief and dread?
They go on to ask whether the reader, “you”, had seen a person with hands clasped in despair, their head bowed in defeat. This person is said to have a “fragile form”, with an expression of “grief and dread” on their face.
Saw you the sad, imploring eye? Its every glance was pain, As if a storm of agony Were sweeping through the brain.
Once again, the persona continues with their questioning. They again describe their sad expression as full of pain, as if their very mind is plagued by grief. By reiterating the pain and suffering of this person, the poet stirs the curiosity and sympathy of the reader.
She is a mother pale with fear, Her boy clings to her side, And in her kyrtle vainly tries His trembling form to hide.
The identity of the grief-stricken person the persona had thus far painted is revealed in this stanza. The person is a fearful mother, a slave mother no doubt as can be gleaned from the title. With this mother is her son.
He too is described to be struck by fear, “clinging to her side” and desperately trying to hide his “trembling form” behind her “kyrtle”- referring to the gown or long dress she was wearing that women wore at that time.
He is not hers, although she bore For him a mother’s pains; He is not hers, although her blood Is coursing through his veins!
Although the persona had previously stated this woman to be the mother of the boy, here, they declare that “He is not hers”. Because he is a slave woman’s son, despite having borne him and sharing blood with him, she cannot call him her own. Rather, he would be owned most probably by a white slave master.
He is not hers, for cruel hands May rudely tear apart The only wreath of household love That binds her breaking heart.
This stanza once again reiterates the sentiments reflected in the previous one. It begins with a repetition of “He is not hers” and how “cruel hands”- referring to the White colonisers- were tearing apart the very familial bond and love the mother and son share, breaking her heart thus.
His love has been a joyous light That o’er her pathway smiled, A fountain gushing ever new, Amid life’s desert wild.
This stanza brings out the love the boy had for his mother. It is described to be “a joyous light” and a gushing “fountain” in her arid life. This heightens the extent of cruelty bestowed upon the Black community.
His lightest word has been a tone Of music round her heart, Their lives a streamlet blent in one— Oh, Father! must they part?
Again, how much her son meant to this mother is brought out in this stanza. His words were akin to music to her, their lives entwined as one. The persona, overcome by emotions, beseeches to God, pleading as to why they had to part.
They tear him from her circling arms, Her last and fond embrace. Oh! never more may her sad eyes Gaze on his mournful face.
This stanza is brutal in shedding light on the inhumanity of the White community. They forcefully grab the boy from his mother’s embrace, what is described to be her “last and fond embrace”. It ends with a note of finality as the persona states that her “sad eyes” will never set upon “his mournful face” ever again.
No marvel, ‘then, these bitter shrieks Disturb the listening air: She is a mother, and her heart Is breaking in despair.
The persona ends the poem by declaring that it is no wonder that the “bitter shrieks” of this mother pierce the air. For she is a mother separated from her loving son and her heart was “breaking in despair.”
This is a heart-wrenching poem. It exquisitely brings out the plight of the Black community, especially of the mothers who had to endure double oppression from the White colonisers.