What is George Moses Horton's theme in his poem, "The Creditor to his Proud Debtor?"
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[Poetry speaks to different people in different ways, depending upon the personal experiences each person brings to the poem. These are my impressions.]
In George Moses Horton's poem, "The Creditor To His Proud Debtor" the theme the author addresses is the difference between appearance and reality. The subject of the poem is putting on a show with his fancy clothes, but he is so far in debt, that the show is meaningless. He looks successful, as if he is living life to the fullest, but the truth is that he is in debt and the sheriff (who will arrest him and throw him into debtor's prison) is not far behind.
"...tott'ring Johny" is basically living on borrowed time in terms of his freedom. The author points out that the "debtor" puts on a fine show ("strut and boast"), but the speaker warns that his "crowing days" (when he walks around bragging) are nearly at an end.
Ha, tott'ring Johny, strut and boast,
But think of what your feathers cost;
Your crowing days are short at most,
You bloom but soon to fade…
He notes that Johny wouldn't present himself with such a cocky stance if he paid even half his debts: the plume (the "feathers" or clothes he wears) would be gone.
Surely you could not stand so wide,
If strictly to the bottom tried,
The wind would blow your plume aside
If half your debts were paid.
In these eight lines, the author has drawn the reader's attention to how Johny appears, but exposes him as a fraud: he wears nice clothes, but he is not a man of wealth as he would want others to think, but a man only one step ahead of the law. In fact, the speaker points out that if his accounts were paid—and we assume he had no more fancy clothes—he would be seen as "trash."
But, alas! dear boy, you would be trash,
If your accounts were paid.
The speaker announces that if he had the money (and debts) that Johny has, he also could prance before the ladies, making a fine impression, but the truth remains that Johny has nothing. The speaker ends the poem by saying that if he had all that Johny had—these fine clothes and fancy cigars paid for on credit—he would be in the same unenviable situation.
Throughout the poem, the author presents a fake—a man who pretends to be something he is not, saying he will soon have to pay for it. Perhaps the author is drawing the reader's attention to the fact that it is better to be poor and honest, than to be living high for a short time, soon to end up in jail with nothing—not even honest freedom.
As a final thought, Horton was a black man who was born into slavery in North Carolina, who created poems before he could read or write. His poems were often anti-slavery poems, and so we might be able to look at this poem less literally and more figuratively.
It is possible that Horton is speaking to someone pretending to be what he is not: it may be that he is speaking of Johny who is a slave but is pretending to be free. If this is the case, Horton would be warning him that the law will catch up with him, especially if Johny has run away, and that he will be worse off then. Horton may also be suggesting that in this situation, it would be better not to draw attention to one's self, especially if the freedom he "wears" like fancy clothes is "borrowed." In either case, if Horton is referring to slavery, he is probably writing the poem as a warning. The "creditor" may be the slave owner, and the "debtor" might be the slave.