The Conception of Liberty in "Bury Me in a Free Land" by Frances Harper and "On Liberty and Slavery" by George Horton

Essay, 2018

8 Pages, Grade: 2,3



Comparison of ‘Bury me in a free land’ and ‘On Liberty and Slavery’

This essay is going to discuss two poems: Bury Me in a Free Land by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, published in 1858 and On Liberty and Slavery by George Moses Horton, published in 1829. Both poems portray the topic of slavery and the associated desire of liberty. However, the two poems differ regarding their conception of liberty; Harper’s conception is a general national one whereas Horton’s is influenced by his own experiences as a slave.

In general, Harper’s poem functions as a protest against slavery. Furthermore, it describes the suffering of a dead body that is unable to find peace due to the still ongoing existence of slavery.

In terms of its rhyme scheme and meter the poem follows a simple aabb rhyme scheme. However, the meter is not completely fixed but mostly follows an anapestic trimeter. The simple rhyme scheme with rhymes like ‘will-hill’ or ‘grave-slave’ are advantages to the poem’s readability and give Harper the certainty that her serious theme is directly transmitted to the readers. The anapest gives the poem its plaintively tone that perfectly fits to the protest she makes.

Furthermore, Harper uses emotive language to transmit her emotions. For example, this is seen in the third stanza where she writes “mother’s shriek” (Harper 11) and “trembling air” (Harper 12). Those constituents are connoted with serious matters and they immediately transfer an oppressive atmosphere to the reader.

Apart from that, Harper uses metaphors to describe violence and suffering indirectly. “And I saw her babes torn from her breast / Like trembling doves from their parents nest” (Harper 15-16). The first part provides a violent description that fits the frame of slavery. The following doves commonly symbolize freedom but in this case Harper uses this metaphor to describe the heteronomy of the innocent slaves with the allusion of a mother-child relationship. “Although the portrait of a slave mother torn away from her child was a moving and sentimental subject of appeal, . . . “(Graham xlviii). This chosen representation method awakens emotions and shows that: “For Harper, there could be no fate worse than the moral and human degradation experienced by black woman” (Graham xlvii). Therefore, Harper shows empathy and concern as also described by Graham when she says:

The number of poems on the subject of women also suggests the complexity of the black woman’s relationship to slavery: supporting her son who becomes a martyr for freedom, sending fugitive husband to death in order to save the family, escaping to freedom alone with her children, having both her body and her labor exploited because she was black, a woman, and a slave. (Graham xlviii)

This shows that black women where not only physically but also mentally affected by slavery. Slavery did not only affect those women only, moreover it did affect a whole family. Therefore, Harper’s empathy for these women is not limited to one stanza since the mother-child relationship is also resumed in the sixth: “If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms / Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,...” (Harper 21 ff.). The image of a child been taken away from her mother is connoted to immense pain and Harper is able to transmit this pain to her readers without using the actual term. Laura O’Toole supports this view by saying: “Harper relies on words like “charm,” “mournful flame,” and “shame,” to convey the crime, her revolt, and dishonor which she shares with her less fortunate sisters” (O’Toole et al. 233). However, this indirect style of describing serious matters gives Harper the ability of staying poetic. Furthermore, her chosen metaphors touch black woman who had mutual experiences and ensure that they connect their personal emotions with Harper’s poem.

Furthermore, it is striking that Harper choses animalistic expressions to describe human torture: “I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay / Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey” (Harper 17-18). This metaphor terribly describes the torture of slaves. The “bloodhounds” refer to the masters and “prey”, the slaves, also refer to the world of animals. This kind of a metaphor gives Harper the room to transfer the image of slavery as dehumanization; humans who are treated as animals.

Harper emphasizes the need of stopping slavery. She writes: “My eye would flash with a mournful flame / My death-paled cheek grow red with shame” (Harper 23-24). Here, the poem refers to emotions that would be felt if the speaker who wants to find peace has to experience slavery. The description of a dead body’s emotions has the effect of importance and seriousness concerning the topic of slavery. The measure of the speaker’s emotional movement towards this torture is intense and not even death can stop sympathy in this case.

Besides, the used lexemes and the syntactic structure of the stanzas are very elaborated. The second and third, both start with “I could not rest if” (Harper 5) and are followed by the fourth stanza that starts with “I could not sleep if” (Harper 13). ‘Rest’ and ‘sleep’ are semantically related and fit to the image of the dead body and its desire of finding peace. Those coherences create a common thread that is also an advantage regarding the poem’s readability.

Furthermore, Harper creates a syntactic frame around her poem. She opens it with: “Make me a grave where’er you will, . . . .” (Harper 1) and closes it with “Is bury me not in a land of slaves” (Harper 32). The first line implies the matter of fact that the speaker is not interested in the location of its grave. However, the last line clearly states where it should not be. This makes the idea of a development arise because compared to “make me a grave” “bury” is one stage further; a final stage. Also the idea of the development of a new character arises. This development could be adapted to the reader whose individual mindset is supposed to change its initial position after reading the poem.

Besides, the reader is addressed directly in order to get attention. With “I would sleep, dear friends, where bloated might . . . .” (Harper 25). Harper decides to address the reader directly in the penultimate stanza. By doing that she makes sure that the audiences’ attention is on her written lines and makes sure that the reader focuses especially on the last part of the poem where she, like in the first stanza, again uses the same “slave-grave” – rhyme: “My rest shall be calm in any grave / Where none can call his brother a slave” (Harper 27-28). The depicted relation of “slave-grave” shows what slaves are the closest to, namely death. Harper emphasizes this circumstance to make the readers aware of this tragedy.

In addition, Harper contrasts certainty with uncertainty in a thoughtful stylistic way. On the one hand, she opens her poem with a direct statement: “Make me a grave where’er you will, / . . .” (Harper 1). On the other hand, also conditional clauses appear: “I could not rest if . . .” (Harper 5), “I could not rest if . . .” (Harper 9), “I could not sleep if” (Harper 13) that open the following five stanzas. The direct statement indicates certainty and determination, whereas at the same time uncertainty accompanies this like the conditional clauses indicate since: “. . . conditional clauses aim to set out a number of alternatives and possible scenarios” (Ives/Rana 104). This shows that certainty is combined with uncertainty because the scenario’s occurrence is not fixed and this is what makes Harper’s thoughts about those uncertain, too. Nevertheless, uncertainty and certainty are human feelings and by including them Harper is able to reach closer to the reader’s emotions. Furthermore, with the help of her phrasing abilities the speaker shows its own disruption while trying to find peace.

Furthermore, the poem’s punctuation is realized in a very structured way. It is striking that every stanza, without exception, ends with a full stop: “Would make it a place of fearful gloom.” (Harper 8). It seems like Harper wants the attention on every single stanza as an individual piece and not just on the poem as a whole. She seems to be aware of the fact that the attention increases when the investigated pieces are smaller at first and later, step by step, combined to a whole.

George Moses Horton deals with the description of his own experiences in slavery and he wrote On Liberty and Slavery in 1829. “Perhaps the most extraordinary and unexpected skill developed and marketed by an antebellum slave was that of a poet” (Andrews 77).

In terms of rhyme scheme and meter the poem follows a regular abab rhyme scheme. Regarding the meter, Horton uses an iambic tetra- and trimeter. It is striking that every line consists of either eight or six syllables that alternately follow each other. This form of meter fits into the pattern of the common meter, a meter that makes the whole poem very melodic and this is probably reduced to the fact that “A farm laborer, Horton told himself to read; . . . .” (Andrews 77) and therefore attached a lot of value on the melodic readability of his writing pieces. Furthermore, the chosen simple language also function as a positive effect towards the poem’s readability.

The tone of this poem is not stable in the entire piece. It begins with an exclamation of “Alas!” that sets the tone for the first part of the poem where also expressions like “slavish chain”, “hardship” or “pain” (Horton 2-4) create an oppressive mood. From the fourth stanza on, more positive expressions are found, such as: “cheerful sounds” (Horton 13), “Come, let my grief in joys be drowned” (Horton 15), “joyful trump of peace” (Horton 19), “golden prize” (Horton 25), “sacred sun to rise” (Horton 27) or “blest asylum” (Horton 37). The change from a desperate to a more positive tone represents Horton’s own feelings as a slave because he was surely plagued by despair but knew he could not perform losing hope.

The poem portrays the uncertainty of Horton’s identity. Just after “Alas!” the first sentence of the poem is depicted as a question: “and am I born for this, / To wear this slavish chains?” (Horton 1-2). The first clear question is already placed in the first stanza. This strengthens the idea that Horton could not understand why he had to embody a slave when he had an immense impact as a passionate and successful writer. Concerning Horton’s impact James O’Horton and Lois E’Horton wrote: “Free black people shared Horton’s hope of liberty for themselves, for the slaves, and ultimately for the nation“ (Horton James 6). This alone already gives an insight of the unifying function of Horton’s words and the collective desire of a life in freedom: “Many believed and several wrote that America would never be fully free until all of its people were free. The voice of black America between the Revolution and the Civil War was the voice of America’s conscience” (Horton James 6). This actually shows the paradox of his embodied role of a slave and the impact that he had regarding the unity of a nation. He was not a slave writing for slaves; moreover he was a representative of a nation’s heart, its individual people, regardless if they were being enslaved or free.


Excerpt out of 8 pages


The Conception of Liberty in "Bury Me in a Free Land" by Frances Harper and "On Liberty and Slavery" by George Horton
University of Potsdam  (Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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conception, george, slavery, harper, frances, land, free, bury, liberty, horton
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Anonymous, 2018, The Conception of Liberty in "Bury Me in a Free Land" by Frances Harper and "On Liberty and Slavery" by George Horton, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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