Explain the slave's immense desire for freedom in Longfellow's "The Slave's Dream" with reference to incidents in the poem.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I’m sure you recall that eNotes doesn’t write your assignments for you; eNotes provides you with homework help and research reference material. Having said this, the question you pose is an odd one. Two things are going on in “The Slave’s Dream.” First, there is the slave who is on the ground next to rice he should be gathering. Second, there is the slave as he remembers himself in his homeland and as he sees himself in a dream or vision of himself. In the first instance (the slave next to the rice), the “immense desire” expressed is for reunion with his family:

They clasped his neck, they kissed his cheeks,

They held him by the hand!--

A tear burst from the sleeper's lids

And fell into the sand.

One may argue that reunion can come only through freedom from slavery, but Longfellow’s language makes it clear that the slave’s thoughts--his immense desires--are focused upon his loved ones rather than being focused upon his own circumstance of slavery and his need for freedom. This positions a desire for freedom as a secondary immense desire. Further, he expresses joy at his reunion by celebrating the joys of his native land: “at furious speed he rode / Along the Niger's bank.” Here, “martial” (i.e., warlike, warrior-like) may be misleading. The end result of the “martial clank” from "his scabbard of steel” is not a battle enjoined for freedom but “the roofs of Caffre huts, / And the ocean.” These and other glories of his native land are so grand “That he started in his sleep and smiled.”

In the second instance (the man in the dream vision at home), his immense desire (“A tear burst from the sleeper's lids“) is for the touch (“They clasped his neck, they kissed his cheeks”), the feel (“at furious speed he rode”), the sight (“bright flamingoes flew”), the sound (“a voice so wild and free”) of his lost loves and homeland. One may argue correctly that the martial metaphors (e.g., “blood-red flag”) underscore the slave’s immense desire for freedom. In doing so, however, the slave’s main motive will be obscured if the desire for freedom is set forth as his overriding primary desire and motive. Longfellow’s heartbreaking words paint a clear picture that the slave’s primary immense desire is for reunion with his rightful life: freedom is a necessary requirement of attaining his immense desire--his rightful life--but his desire is not focused on freedom for freedom’s sake. In the end, with a tear shed but replaced by a smile, he is transported away from all desire to the realm where

Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,

And his lifeless body lay ....