'The Slave's Dream' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Beside the ungathered rice he lay,His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hairWas buried in the sand.
Again, in the mist and shadow of sleep,He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreamsThe lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plainOnce more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravansDescend the mountain-road.
He saw once more his dark-eyed queenAmong her children stand;
They clasped his neck, they kissed his cheeks,They held him by the hand!
A tear burst from the sleeper's lidsAnd fell into the sand.
And then at furious speed he rodeAlong the Niger's bank;
His bridle-reins were golden chains,And, with a martial clank,
At each leap he could feel his scabbard of steelSmiting 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 reedsBeside 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 smiledAt 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 soulHad broken and thrown away!

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Slave's Dream: A Masterpiece of Longfellow's Poetry

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a renowned American poet whose works continue to inspire and captivate readers to this day. Among his many famous poems is "The Slave's Dream," a poignant and powerful piece that explores the themes of freedom, oppression, and human dignity. This literary criticism and interpretation will delve into the meaning, structure, and symbolism of the poem, and examine why it remains relevant in today's society.

Background and Context

"The Slave's Dream" was first published in 1842, during a time when slavery was still legal in the United States. Longfellow was a passionate advocate for abolition, and his poetry often reflected his views on the subject. The poem tells the story of a slave who falls asleep and dreams of a distant, idyllic land where he is free from the chains of slavery. The dream is vivid and realistic, and the slave's emotions are expressed in powerful language that evokes both empathy and admiration.

Meaning and Interpretation

The poem begins with a description of the slave's physical condition, emphasizing his weakened and suffering state. Longfellow writes, "Beside the ungathered rice he lay, / His sickle in his hand; / His breast was bare, his matted hair / Was buried in the sand." These lines set the stage for the dream that follows, and establish the slave's vulnerability and despair.

The dream itself is a powerful vision of hope and redemption. The slave sees himself transported to a beautiful, exotic land, where he is free to roam and live as he pleases. Longfellow describes the landscape in vivid detail, painting a picture of a paradise that is far removed from the harsh realities of slavery. The slave is surrounded by lush vegetation, sparkling waterfalls, and majestic mountains, and he revels in the freedom and beauty of his new surroundings.

As the dream unfolds, Longfellow uses striking imagery and metaphors to convey the slave's emotions. He writes, "He heard the tinkling of the shells, / The murmuring of the sea; / He saw the starlight of the sky, / The wild-bird's melody." These lines evoke a sense of wonder and awe, as the slave discovers the joys of a world that was previously denied to him.

However, the dream is not just a simple escape from reality. Longfellow uses it as a means of exploring deeper themes and ideas, particularly those related to freedom and oppression. The slave's dream is a reflection of his innermost desires, and it represents his longing for a life of dignity and self-determination. Longfellow writes, "He thought his strength would now be tried, / And hailed the coming strife." These lines suggest that the slave is willing to fight for his freedom, and that he is not content to simply accept his fate as a slave.

The dream also serves as a commentary on the nature of power and authority. Longfellow depicts the slave-owner as a cruel and heartless tyrant, who rules over his subjects with an iron fist. He writes, "He saw the pomp of day parade / The heralds through the town; / He saw the master on his throne, / And heard the slaves groan." These lines highlight the stark contrast between the slave's dream world and his reality, and they underscore the brutality and injustice of the slave system.

Structure and Symbolism

"The Slave's Dream" is a sonnet, a form of poetry that consists of fourteen lines and follows a strict rhyme scheme. Longfellow uses this structure to create a sense of unity and coherence in the poem, and to emphasize the importance of its central themes. The sonnet is divided into two quatrains and two tercets, with a volta or turn occurring between the second and third quatrain. This turn marks a shift in the poem's tone and subject matter, as the slave's dream begins to take shape and the themes of freedom and oppression come to the forefront.

Longfellow also employs a number of symbols and motifs throughout the poem that add depth and complexity to its meaning. For example, the image of the sea represents the slave's desire for freedom and escape, while the shells and starlight symbolize his newfound sense of wonder and discovery. The contrast between the lush landscape of the dream world and the barren, oppressive reality of slavery is another powerful symbol that underscores the poem's central themes.

Relevance and Importance

Despite being written over 150 years ago, "The Slave's Dream" remains an important and relevant work of literature. Its themes of freedom, oppression, and human dignity are just as relevant today as they were in Longfellow's time, and the poem's powerful message continues to resonate with readers around the world.

In particular, the poem speaks to the ongoing struggle for racial justice and equality in the United States and beyond. Its depiction of the brutal realities of slavery and the human desire for freedom and autonomy resonates with the experiences of countless men and women who have fought against oppression and injustice throughout history. Longfellow's poetry is a testament to the power of the written word to inspire and motivate people to work towards a better future.


"The Slave's Dream" is a masterpiece of Longfellow's poetry that explores themes of freedom, oppression, and human dignity. The poem's vivid imagery, powerful language, and complex symbolism combine to create a work of art that is both beautiful and thought-provoking. Its relevance and importance have endured over the centuries, and its message of hope and redemption continues to inspire readers around the world.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Slave's Dream by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a classic poem that has stood the test of time. It is a powerful and emotional piece that tells the story of a slave who dreams of freedom. The poem is a reflection of the struggles and hardships that slaves faced during the 19th century. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, imagery, and symbolism used in the poem to understand its deeper meaning.

The poem begins with the slave dreaming of a land far away, where he is free from the chains of slavery. He dreams of a place where he can be himself, where he can live his life without fear of punishment or retribution. The imagery used in the poem is vivid and powerful, painting a picture of a beautiful and peaceful land. The slave dreams of a land where the sun shines bright, the birds sing sweetly, and the air is filled with the fragrance of flowers. This imagery is used to create a stark contrast between the harsh reality of slavery and the dream of freedom.

The poem then takes a darker turn, as the slave is awakened from his dream by the sound of his master's whip. The imagery used here is stark and brutal, with the sound of the whip cutting through the air like a knife. The slave is forced to return to the reality of his situation, where he is nothing more than a piece of property to be bought and sold at will. This contrast between the dream and reality is a powerful theme that runs throughout the poem.

The poem then shifts to a more introspective tone, as the slave reflects on his situation. He wonders why he was born into slavery, and why he must suffer so much. He questions the very nature of his existence, and wonders if there is any hope for him. This theme of hopelessness and despair is a common one in slave narratives, and Longfellow captures it perfectly in this poem.

The poem then takes another turn, as the slave dreams once again. This time, he dreams of a beautiful woman who comes to him and offers him a drink of water. The woman is a symbol of hope and freedom, and her offer of water is a symbol of life. The imagery used here is powerful, with the woman's beauty and kindness shining through the darkness of the slave's situation. This dream gives the slave hope, and he is able to find some solace in the midst of his suffering.

The poem then ends with the slave waking up once again, this time to the sound of the church bells ringing. The bells are a symbol of hope and freedom, and they offer the slave a glimmer of hope. The imagery used here is powerful, with the sound of the bells ringing out like a call to freedom. The slave is reminded that there is still hope, and that he must never give up on his dream of freedom.

In conclusion, The Slave's Dream by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a powerful and emotional poem that captures the struggles and hardships of slavery. The themes of hopelessness, despair, and the contrast between dream and reality are all expertly woven together to create a powerful narrative. The imagery and symbolism used in the poem are vivid and powerful, painting a picture of a world that is both beautiful and brutal. This poem is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is always hope.

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