Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Poetry
Dreams that Cannot Die
Poems on Slavery


Poems on Slavery

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Introduction

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was more than America’s most beloved poet; he was a man of great social consciousness, of gentleness and goodness – and the courage of his convictions.
In 1842, on his passage to the United States from England, he wrote eight anti-slavery poems that were published in December of that year. He wrote to Ferdinand Freiligrath on January 6, 1843:

The next day brought me to Bristol, where I embarked in the Great Western steamer for New York. We sailed (or rather paddled) out in the very teeth of a violent West-wind, which blew for a week…with a vengeance. We had a very boisterous passage. I was not out of my berth more than twelve hours for the first twelve days. I was in the forward part of the vessel, where all the great waves struck and broke with voices of thunder. In the next room to mine, a man died. I was afraid that they might throw me overboard instead of him in the night; but they did not. Well, thus ‘cribbed, cabined and confined,’ I passed fifteen days. During this time I wrote seven poems on Slavery.; I meditated upon them in the stormy sleepless nights, and wrote them down with a pencil in the morning. A small window in the side of the vessel admitted light into my berth; and there I lay on my back, and soothed my soul with songs. P.496

To William Plumer, Jr., a State Representative from New Hampshire and Harvard graduate (1809) who had apparently sent Longfellow a copy of some poems he had written, Longfellow responded on December 9, 1842.

My dear Sir,
I beg you to receive my best thanks for the copy of your Poems, which you were so kind as to send me….I am very happy to receive this friendly token from you; and in return will take the liberty of sending you a small volume of Poems on Slavery,” in which I hope you will not find much to condemn, as the spirit in which they are written is that of kindness – not denunciation; -- at all events not violence.
Very truly yours,
Henry W. Longfellow. P.480-481.

WHY LONGFELLOW'S POETRY IS SO WIDELY READ?

What marvelous combination of splendid faculties has combined to make this man the most widely-read poet of two hemispheres of English-speaking people? The probable answer is found in the household character, the tender, Christian spirit of his poetry. Moreover, he is easily read. There are no obscure passages which might be construed backward as intelligently as forward. His verse is limpid as a running brook, and as full of music; it glorifies, but does not drown, the thought. He writes in clear, strong, nervous English; and his lines have the power of clinging to the memory…And this is the sort of poetry by which the universal heart is always won. The scholar loves the veiled meaning underlying classic form; the intellectual reader ponders on the subtle beauty, the shadowy and suggestive grace of lines that fascinate by their very indefiniteness of outline; but the heart of the people will always turn to the troubadour, the story-teller, the man whose clear and simple thought chooses for its raiment the clearest and simplest language,---
W.J. Dawson.

In a small volume called POEMS, published in 1845, there is found this introductory comment about Longfellow:

“A pure, upright, beautiful soul, whose life was love, whose necessity was kindness, whose action was blameless! This man thought no evil; spoke no bitter word, nor touched another life ungently. He went across this world with a song, the song of peace on earth and good will to men, and none of the immortals have left more refreshing or ennobling music to thrill our sad humanity on its daily march, than has our own, our brotherly Longfellow."

In compiling Poems for publication, Longfellow had included the anti-slavery poems. His publisher convinced him not to include them, as it might discourage sales in the South. This was a decision that was not consistent with Longfellow’s character and that he did not honor in future editions of Poems.

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