Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911): “The Slave Mother,” “On Learning to Read,” and “Bury Me in a Free Land”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Until I undertook the research for this month’s columns, I had not heard of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper or her poems. Of course, until very recently the doors of publishing were barred to all but a very few women. And among these, fewer still are women of color. I searched websites to collect poems in the public domain, a task that seemed daunting for its sheer numbers of pages until I understood that not many of those pages included poems by women, especially nonwhite women. Readers, I did an awful lot of clicking-through on those sites, noticing the sheer weight and mass of poems written and published by men as compared to the paucity of women’s poems. It’s true that more of us are publishing now, and more are from diverse backgrounds and cultures; Vida’s last count was encouraging for a number of literary journals and presses. But go back just a few years and you will find a different story. As the poet Claudia Rankine says in her book Citizen, “The invisibility of black women is astounding.” (An excerpt will be featured in next week’s column.) It may be easy now to find poems online by women, but it’s less easy to find such poems by women over the age of 40 or written before the Sixties, and harder still to find poems by women of color. Until very recently, such poets were not fostered, and even when the poems did get written, institutional racial and gender discrimination systematically omitted them from publication. And so, from the canon.
People are taking steps to rectify this. The Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline Project, founded by Kim Bridgford, has made a good start, and you can now find anthologies and articles online collecting the work of black women predecessor poets. Ultimately, though, you cannot find what has not been in the first instance preserved or written, and I continue to mourn all the voices that were muted, and poetry lost, in those years.
In deference to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s extraordinarily prolific and largely unsung writing career, I am offering three poems here today. In the first, the subject is the separation of a slave mother from her young son. My white privilege shields me from the ability to appreciate what this could have been like, but my mother’s heart quails at the prospect. What that does to the human psyche and to the psyches of the generations that follow I cannot begin to imagine. Harper herself was free, but she was living at a time when she would have known women who experienced such horrors. And she was the descendant of slaves, with their PTSD encoded into her own genes.
“The Slave Mother” consists of ten four-line stanzas called quatrains that are rhymed abcb, where “a” and “c” designate unrhyming lines. What binds each stanza is the “b” rhyme of its second and fourth lines. Here are the first two stanzas, with the stressed syllables indicated in bold:

Heard you that shriek? It rose
So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
The bowed and feeble head
The shuddering of that fragile form
That look of grief and dread?

The metrical pattern is called ballad or hymn meter—four-beat alternating with three-beat lines—the form favored by Emily Dickinson.
The poem begins in medias res, just after its third-person speaker has witnessed—and heard—a slave child being torn from the arms of his mother. Through vivid and dramatic description, we witness what she sees and feels: terror in the frantic efforts to hide the boy among her skirts; despair and dejection in her body language. Repeated twice in stanza 5 and again at the beginning of stanza 6, the phrase “he is not hers” is an example of anaphora—use of the same word or phrase at the beginnings of lines. This special form of repetition is a powerful rhetorical device that underscores the irony and urgency of the mother’s predicament: the child born of her body—made by her, cell by cell—“belongs” to the slave owner, and she is powerless to prevent him from being taken away.
Ensuing stanzas provide insight into the depth of the loss. The child was the mother’s sole consolation, the only “joyous light” in a dark and difficult life, the “wreath” binding her family unit, as vital to her as water in a desert. In an example of ring construction, the poem ends precisely where it began, with “bitter shrieks” rending the air of a poem that, though it may seem somewhat dated in its form and diction, can still surprise and move us with its pathos.
“Learning to Read” uses iambic trimeter quatrains rhymed abcb to strike a very different tone. This poem affirms the power of literacy and rejoices in that power being acquired by various slaves and former slaves, whom Harper calls out by name: “Uncle Caldwell” and “Mr. Turner’s Ben.” Other characters in the poem include the narrator, the “Yankee” teachers determined to teach slaves and former slaves to read, and the southern bigots (“Rebs”) who oppose black empowerment in any form.
Where “The Slave Mother” is narrated in the somewhat distancing third person, the point of view of a person witnessing the events recounted in the poem, “Learning to Read” is narrated from the more intimate first-person (“I”) point of view. In this persona poem, the speaker adopts the mask of a woman who learned to read when she was nearly sixty, her life serving as third example (along with Caldwell and Ben) of a former slave whose life was changed by literacy. It is often tempting to equate a poem’s speaker with its author, but in this case, we know they are not the same because Harper’s biography tells us she learned to read when she was thirteen. Still, I cannot help feeling that the speaker’s joy in and appreciation for reading springs in part from Harper’s own life experience.
A marked difference between the two poems lies in their respective tones. In “The Slave Mother,” tone is uniformly horrified and pitying, while in “Learning to Read” it is defiant, funny, and even joyful. The anecdote about the steps Uncle Caldwell must take to conceal his pages is wryly funny:

I remember Uncle Caldwell,
Who took pot liquor fat
And greased the pages of his book,
And hid it in his hat.

One strategy contributing to the light tone is the meter—very regular iambic trimeter whose rollicking, singsong quality makes it the meter of choice in many nursery rhymes. The lines quoted above border on slapstick, but at the same time we genuinely admire Uncle Caldwell’s cleverness and understand that the need to hide one’s literacy is not at all a laughing matter. These reactions are subtler and more complex than the pure pity and horror evoked in “The Slave Mother,” and where that poem ends in grief and impotence, this one ends in triumph and strength, with the speaker “independent / As the queen upon her throne.”
The third poem in today’s grouping, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” is perhaps the most well known and anthologized of the three. Also written in quatrains, this one employs a different meter—iambic tetrameter, with four beats or stresses per line:

Make me a grave where’er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

Even though the prevailing meter is iambic (tee-TUM, tee-TUM, tee-TUM, tee-Tum), many lines have first-foot inversions and use other words and word combinations that, isolated from the context of the poem, scan as trochees (TUM-tee). Examples in the lines above are “Make me,” “lowly,” “lofty,” and “Make it.” In this way the meter fights with itself, and the consequence is a sense of tension and struggle perhaps meant to mimic the human struggle depicted in the poem.
First published in the Anti-Slavery Bugle in 1858, “Bury Me in a Free Land” is a courageous protest poem, written before the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, when slavery was still a legally-sanctioned institution in our country. In it, Harper uses repetition and rhyme to great effect but without sounding affected. In perhaps the most  poignant pairing, “grave” and “slave(s)” occurs as full end rhyme three times, in stanzas 1, 2, and 7, and “slaves” occurs again one last time to close out the poem. The plural form of the first stanza’s “slaves”—universal and general—becomes particular and painful in stanza 2’s single “trembling slave.” And in a powerful reversal of that movement, the trembling becomes more abstract and universal again in stanza 3’s “trembling air,” where the world’s natural order is disturbed by sounds of slavery.
Stanzas 2-7 are recounted in the subjunctive mood, imagining what it would be like if the speaker were to be buried in an enslaved land, and they recite a litany of the horrific particulars of slavery that we know took place in this country: terror, chains and chain gangs, despairing mothers, lashings, hounds set on human beings, girls sold into prostitution. Because the country she lives in still sanctions slavery, the speaker cannot frame her dearest wish as a positive without employing a negative. “My rest shall be calm in any grave” she says in line 4, an affirmation immediately qualified and undercut by the next line’s “Where none can call his brother a slave.” These lines help earn the ringing affirmative injunction of the title, “Bury Me in a Free Land,” and by the end of the poem, we understand that what this speaker is saying is, “Don’t bury me in America, for America is not free.” And she is also saying, of course, “Make America free.”
Most of the poem is, in fact, structured as a hypothetical predicated on a negative: stanzas 2 and 3 begin, “I could not rest if…” and stanza 4 begins “I could not rest if…” All that follows lays out the details of what it would be like in a country that is not free, a double negative that paves the way for stanza 5. Here, the mode switches to affirmative as the speaker describes what she would do in an enslaved land: She would “shudder,” her eyes would “flash,” and  her cheeks would redden with shame. Stanza 7 opens with the most ringing affirmation so far: “I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might / Can rob no man of his dearest right;” and negation is used to present a desirable rather than deplorable political situation. In these lines, “would” means at least two things: the subjunctive mode of “to be” (or a kind of prediction of the future), and also as an expression of wish or desire, as in “I want” or “I would like to.”
The last stanza again uses negatives to state positives. “I ask no monument, proud and high,” she says, concluding with “All that my yearning spirit craves, / Is bury me not in a land of slaves.” Because most speakers tend to return to and reread the title after a poem concludes, though, I would argue that today’s poem effectively ends like this: “Bury me not in a land of slaves / Bury me in a free land.” Stating a proposition in the negative and immediately again as a positive is an old rhetorical device, one used to powerful effect in this poem.
Harper had direct experience with helping fugitive slaves, whose goal often was to escape north to Canada, and her own first experience of “a free land” may have been her view of Canada across Lake Ontario. (Source here.) I could not find any recordings of Harper reading her poems, but you can listen to the poet D.A. Powell giving voice to “Bury Me in a Free Land” here.
All three of today’s poems use archaic diction and make use of a form and meter that may sound stilted and old-fashioned to contemporary ears, and likewise make liberal use of the adjectives that poets are now routinely exhorted to avoid. And yet, many images, as in the lash “drinking blood,” remain fresh and moving, and in all three poems, the author’s passionate convictions and feelings ring out to us across the centuries. How remarkable that Harper was able to write and publish at all, and how sad that so many of her poems are lost and the existing ones are not more widely read. Readers, let’s try to change that, today. If these poems move you, consider teaching them in a class or sharing them with a friend. For my part, I will continue to comb the archives of public domain poems and try to bring more like them to light.]]>

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.