What is the theme of the poem "The Slave's Dream" by HW Longfellow?

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literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The theme of the poem "The Slave's Dream", by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is one of escape.

Slaves did not have a very easy life. The toils and tribulations that they faced on a daily basis were horrendous. It took a very strong person to survive the life of a slave.

The slave in Longfellow's poem has found a way to survive: escape. But, this is not the type of escape that would justify (wrongly) beatings. Instead, this type of escape was one that existed solely in the mind of the slave. A place an owner could not see and punish for.

In the end, the slave was able to escape the his life of slavery- through his dream and his death. One can tell that the slave had a very hard life:

He did not feel the driver's whip,
Nor the burning heat of day;

His life ended, though, in a way in which he was finally able to find peace:

A worn-out fetter, that the soul
Had broken and thrown away!

edcon's profile pic

edcon | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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Nineteenth century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was an ardent abolitionist and academic who used his work and his money to further the cause of abolition.

There is more than one theme within "The Slave's Dream" (1842). It is, of course, a dream of freedom from enslavement from a slave's perspective, but another way of looking at the poem is as a retrospective of a man's life as he lays dying. Lines 5 and 6 complete this thought:

"Again, in the mist and shadow of sleep,
  He saw his Native Land."

The lines suggest that as he approached death, the slave returned to see, once more, his life before his subjugation. As he travels along western Africa's Niger River, he sees his wife and children; hears lions, hyenas, and hippopotamuses; and sees plains, ocean, and desert. His dignity and manhood are returned to him as he rides a stallion as a warrior:

 "At each leap he could feel his scabbard of steel  Smiting his stallion's flank."

The freedom of the forests and deserts call to him and just before his death, he smiles. Death has triumphed over the profound misery of his current situation and restored to him his true identity as a man no longer subject to the lash of a whip. His body becomes the ultimate "fetter" that his soul is able to forever leave behind, as is the case of every human being, Longfellow implies.

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