What does "tinkling caravans" signify in Longfellow's "The Slave's Dream?"

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Longfellow's poem illuminates the condition of slavery as a shift from what was to what now is.  Longfellow uses the opening of the poem and ending of the poem to depict the harsh reality of slavery.  The exposition of the poem highlights these horrors as it shows the slave with "matted hair," a breast that was "bare," and toil embodied through the "ungathered rice."  

The slave escapes this reality through "slumber."  This enables his subjective condition to reveal itself. Longfellow depicts a life where the slave was once a king.  His regal presence is seen in details such as the movement of "the lordly Niger," "palm- trees" and a setting reflective of power.  The slave represented the pinnacle of power and control in his indigenous setting, realities opposite of the life he lives now.  It is enhanced when Longfellow describes the king able to hear "the tinkling caravans/ Descend the mountain-road." The "tinkling caravans" represent wealth and power, ornate decorations and processions that indicate a great deal of status.  The "tinkling caravans" is a sensory detail that Longfellow employs to conjure in the reader's mind the full extent of the life that the slave experienced.

The "tinkling caravans" also represent a condition that is far from what the slave now experiences.  Longfellow uses the detail of the "tinkling caravans" to contrast the predicament of the slave. There was a point where the slave was once a king and heard sounds like the "lordly Niger" flowing and the "tinkling caravans" that were intrinsic to royalty and wealth.  The slave's "dark eyed queen" is another such example.  Yet, all of these sensory images are contrasted with the sounds and sights that is now experienced.  The "driver's whip,"  the timbre of overseers yelling at him, and "the burning heat of the day" are now the slave's realities.  The use of "tinkling caravans" helps to highlight the difference in reality that the slave experiences, from what was to what is. In employing such an image, Longfellow is able to evoke the cruelty of a narrative that has shifted from hope and prosperity to manipulation and cruelty.  

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