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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Poems on Slavery

To William E. Channing

  • In the spring of 1842 Mr. Longfellow obtained leave of absence from college duties for six months and went abroad to try the virtues of the water-cure at Marienberg on the Rhine. When absent in Europe in the summer of 1842 Mr. Longfellow made an acquaintance with Ferdinand Freiligrath, the poet, which ripened into a life-long friendship. It was to this friend that he wrote shortly after his return to America [on leaving Bristol for New York]: “We sailed (or rather, paddled) out in the very teeth of a violent west wind, which blew for a week,—‘Frau die alte sass gekehrt rückwärts nach Osten’ 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. There, ‘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. I send you some copies.”
  • He had published the poems at once on his arrival in America in December, 1842, in a thin volume of thirty-one pages in glazed paper covers, adding to the seven an eighth, previously written, poem, The Warning. It is possible that his immediate impulse to write came from his recent association with Dickens, whose American Notes, with its “grand chapter on slavery,” he speaks of having read in London.
  • The book naturally received attention out of all proportion to its size. It was impossible for one at that time to range himself on one side or other of the great controversy without inviting criticism, not so much of literary art as of ethical position. To his father, Mr. Longfellow wrote: “How do you like the Slavery Poems? I think they make an impression; I have received many letters about them, which I will send to you by the first good opportunity. Some persons regret that I should have written them, but for my own part I am glad of what I have done. My feelings prompted me, and my judgment approved, and still approves.” The poem on Dr. Channing was written when the poet was ignorant of the great preacher’s death.
  • “Since that event,” he says in his prefatory note to the volume, “the poem addressed to him is no longer appropriate. I have decided, however, to let it remain as it was written, in testimony of my admiration for a great and good man.”

  • THE PAGES of thy book I read,

    And as I closed each one,

    My heart, responding, ever said,

    “Servant of God! well done!”

    Well done! Thy words are great and bold;

    At times they seem to me,

    Like Luther’s, in the days of old,

    Half-battles for the free.

    Go on, until this land revokes

    The old and chartered Lie,

    The feudal curse, whose whips and yokes

    Insult humanity.

    A voice is ever at thy side

    Speaking in tones of might,

    Like the prophetic voice, that cried

    To John in Patmos, “Write!”

    Write! and tell out this bloody tale;

    Record this dire eclipse,

    This Day of Wrath, this Endless Wail,

    This dread Apocalypse!