How would you paraphrase "The Slave's Dream" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

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beateach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Slave’s Dream” paints the picture of an exhausted slave resting on the ground of a rice field with his “sickle” in his hand, his work unfinished. His head has been in the same place so long, his hair is covered by the sand of the field, which is a symbol for death encroaching on him. As he lays near death, he dreams of his life in his homeland before he became enslaved. His life flashes before him one final time.

When the author describes the Niger River flowing through the land, the reader learns the dying man’s homeland is Africa. The line “Once more a king he strode” indicates he was a leader in his former life before he became a slave. In his subconscious state, he hears the sounds of the “tinkling caravans” as they travel through his homeland.

As the poem progresses, he sees a woman, his “queen,” with his children who adore him. They hold him in great esteem by holding his hand, kissing him, and clutching his neck. This brings the dying man to tears. Although he is dreaming, the tears escape his eyes and flow to the ground around his head.

 He saw once more his dark-eyed queen

 Among her children stand;

The dream continues with him riding his horse with purpose and exhilaration. He carries his warrior’s sword as he guides his horse with “golden chains as bridle-reins.” The beautiful sight of flamingos in flight fills his view as he rides across the land to the sea.

Before him, like a blood-red flag,

The bright flamingoes flew;

The auditory imagery of the next stanza indicates what he is hearing in his dream. He hears cries of the animals, and hears himself thrashing through reeds along the river. Longfellow describes the scene as one of freedom and triumph with the “glorious roll of drums.” This tone of the slave’s dream continues with his dreams of being free. He experiences the sights and sounds of the forests and desert of his homeland. His subconscious thoughts bring a smile to his face.

And the Blast of the Desert cried aloud,

With a voice so wild and free,

That he started in his sleep and smiled

At their tempestuous glee.

Finally, he dies and no longer feels the constraints of slavery. Although he died a broken man, his soul is finally free.

For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,

And his lifeless body lay

A worn-out fetter, that the soul

Had broken and thrown away!