Analyze "The Slave Mother" by Frances E.W. Harper.

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jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Frances E.W. Parker (1825-1911) was an African-American poet who was active in the movement to abolish slavery.  Her poem "The Slave Mother" illustrates one of the cruelest aspects of slavery: that children could be separated from their parents and sold to a different master.

The poem begins with the sound of a shriek that "seemed as if a burden'd heart / Was breaking in despair."  The poem describes the frightened appearance of a slave woman and her young son.

Stanzas 5-6 make effective use of anaphora: the repetition of a phrase.  The phrase "He is not hers" is repeated three times; this emphasizes the point that although the mother's "blood / Is coursing through his veins," the boy does not legally belong to the mother, but rather to the slavemaster, who may "rudely tear apart" this family by selling away the child.

Stanzas 7-8 describe the great joy that the child has brought to the mother.

In Stanza 9, the child is forceably separated from his mother:

They tear him from her circling arms,

    Her last and fond embrace.

 Oh! never more may her sad eyes

    Gaze on his mournful face.

The last stanza returns to the child's shriek and even repeats the phrase "heart...breaking despair."  This creates symmetry in the poem's structure.

The poem is written in stanzas of 4 lines (quatrains).  The rhythm is consistent: Line 1 - 8 syllables, Line 2 - 6 syllables, Line 3 - 8 syllables, Line 4 - 6 syllables.

The rhyme scheme is also consistent: abcb

 

 

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this poem, the poet directs the reader to observe and listen to the slave woman who has to give up her child. In the first three stanzas, the poet asks the reader whether he or she heard the shriek of the slave woman, saw her hands clasped together and her bowed head, and saw her sad eyes. It's almost as if the poet is commanding the reader to observe the sadness of the slave woman, whose despair is overlooked because she is slave. 

In the fourth stanza, the slave woman's child hides in her kyrtle, or robe, calling to mind the image of Mary and Jesus in the pieta. In the fifth and sixth stanzas, the poet uses repetition of the phrase "He is not hers" three times to emphasize that the slave's son is being taken away from his mother, though she gave birth to him. In the seventh and eighth stanzas, her son's love is compared, using metaphors, to a "joyous light," a "fountain gushing," and "a tone of music." The poet invokes God, or "Father," in asking whether the child has to be removed from his mother. In the last two stanzas, the poet returns to the arms and shrieks of the slave woman as her son is taken away, showing the mother's grief in bodily form.