Longfellow’s Dismal Swamp

In a previous post, I wrote about Longfellow’s poem in praise of the abolitionist preacher William Channing.  In this next piece focusing on Longfellow’s Poems on Slavery, I consider the origin of Longfellow’s poem “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp”

In 1803 it was a wonderful time to be a British romantic poet: riding high on the popularity of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s 1798 Lyrical Ballads, like-minded writers began composing and publishing similar verse: popular in diction, and reveling in the themes of human love and natural beauty.

One such writer was Thomas Moore, an Irish Romantic who vacationed in America in 1803. While touring the East coast, Moore was struck by the weird beauty of Virginia’s Great Dismal Swamp, a wide fenland teeming with wild fauna. While there, Moore composed a ballad of doomed romance titled “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp.” Anticipating a favorite conceit of Edgar Allan Poe by three decades, Moore begins the poem with the words of a man who has just lost his beloved:

They made her a grave, too cold and damp
For a soul so warm and true;
And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.
And her fire-fly lamp I soon shall see,
And her paddle I soon shall hear;
Long and loving our life shall be,
And I’ll hide the maid in a cypress tree,
When the footstep of death is near.

This speaker seems shocked by his grief into a fantastic quest: he will go to the swamp where his beloved is buried and will somehow be reunited with her. As the poem continues, the man enters the swamp to wait for her, and finds himself among the dangerous inhabitants of the swamp:

He lay where the deadly vine doth weep
Its venomous tear and nightly steep
The flesh with blistering dew!

And near him the she-wolf stirr’d the brake,
And the copper-snake breath’d in his ear,

Finally, the endangered lover sees and follows what he interprets to be a portent of his beloved:

He saw the Lake, and a meteor bright
Quick over its surface play’d—
Welcome,” he said, “my dear one’s light!”
And the dim shore echoed for many a night
The name of the death-cold maid.

Till he hollow’d a boat of the birchen bark,
Which carried him off from shore;
Far, far he follow’d the meteor spark,
The wind was high and the clouds were dark,
And the boat return’d no more.

We are never told whether the meteor was indeed the light of the his beloved, but the lovers, now both departed, are at least given a eerie memorial in Moore’s final stanza:

But oft, from the Indian hunter’s camp,
This lover and maid so true
Are seen at the hour of midnight damp
To cross the Lake by a fire-fly lamp,
And paddle their white canoe!

Moore’s poem is said to have enjoyed some popularity in both Europe and America, and was still known in the US more than three decades after it was written when the major American poets of the mid-century began to publish their work. Though Moore’s poem of macabre American romance seems ripe for an influence on Poe, it was Longfellow—never much known for the macabre—who made much of it in a poem published in 1842.

According to Richard Morrison, Longfellow admired Moore, and even possessed an inkstand, wastebasket, and notebook that had once belonged to Moore. In spring of 1842, Longfellow had taken a sabbatical to Germany to recover his health, and on the return journey, inspired in part by a recent abolitionist essay of his friend Charles Dickens, composed a series of abolitionist poems. Longfellow would publish these poems—8 in all—in a Chapbook titled Poems on Slavery that fall.

One of these poems is titled “The Slave in the Dismal Swamp.” If the title wasn’t enough to give away Longfellow’s reference to Moore’s poem, Longfellow—as Morrison points out—composes his stanzas in the same form as Moore’s, five lines of alternating tetrameter and trimeter. But where Moore composed a romantic fantasy set in the swamp, Longfellow composes a political reality:

In dark fens of the Dismal Swamp
 The hunted Negro lay;
He saw the fire of the midnight camp,
And heard at times a horse’s tramp
 And a bloodhound’s distant bay.

In his review of the collection, Edgar Allan Poe took offense at Longfellow’s descriptions in this opening stanza:

This is a shameless medley of the grossest misrepresentation. When did Professor LONGFELLOW ever know a slave to be hunted with bloodhounds in the DISMAL SWAMP? Because he has heard that runaway slaves are so treated in CUBA, he has certainly no right to change the locality, and by insinuating a falsehood in lieu of a fact, charge his countrymen with barbarity. (Poe, Review in the Aristidean, April 1845)

But Longfellow’s story was grounded in truth: the swamp was indeed a haven for runaway slaves, and there is now a permanent Underground Railroad Exhibit at the Great Dismal Swamp National Preserve.

Longfellow follows Moore in vivid descriptions of the wildlife of the swamp, and in describing an out-of-place human subject in the middle of it:

Where will-o’-the-wisps and glow-worms shine,
In bulrush and in brake;
Where waving mosses shroud the pine,
And the cedar grows, and the poisonous vine
Is spotted like the snake;

Where hardly a human foot could pass,
Or a human heart would dare,
On the quaking turf of the green morass
He crouched in the rank and tangled grass,
Like a wild beast in his lair.

A poor old slave, infirm and lame;
Great scars deformed his face;
On his forehead he bore the brand of shame,
And the rags, that hid his mangled frame,
Were the livery of disgrace.

In these stanzas, Longfellow imitates Moore’s vivid depictions of the flora and fauna of the swamp, right down to the vines and glowing insects. But Longfellow intensifies the disconnect between the human subject of the poem and the wildlife around him:

All things above were bright and fair,
 All things were glad and free;
Lithe squirrels darted here and there,
And wild birds filled the echoing air
 With songs of Liberty!

Even the squirrels and birds are free—but not the slave. Many abolitionists of Longfellow’s day argued that slavery was immoral because it treated humans as if they were beasts. But Longfellow’s slave is being treated worse than a beast, for the beasts, at least, are free. And unlike Moore, who gives his protagonist at last the peace of death, Longfellow leaves his protagonist in fear in the swamp bent under an unjust condemnation:

On him alone was the doom of pain,

 From the morning of his birth;
On him alone the curse of Cain
Fell, like a flail on the garnered grain,
 And struck him to the earth!

It is telling that Longfellow does not give his character a resolution, for this matches the plight of the slaves in 1842: legal enslavement in the south, ambivalence in the north, and nationwide willful ignorance of the realities of slavery. Poe’s refusal to believe that Longfellow was depicting reality in the “brutality” of his opening stanza is a testament to this willful ignorance.

And Longfellow’s use of the phrase “Curse of Cain” serves as a reminder that the enslavement of Africans was often given a twisted biblical justification. Longfellow’s characterization of this curse as something imposed from outside with the violence of a flail shows what the poet thought of such justifications. A year after Longfellow’s poem, Frederick Douglass would dedicate the final section of his Narrative of the Life of a Slave to an excoriation of those Christians who attempted to use the scriptures to justify slavery.

The difference between Moore’s and Longfellow’s treatments of the Dismal Swamp is telling of Longfellow’s poetic project in the early 1840s. He was ready to move on from idealized romances to the political realities of the present, and saw in Moore’s poem, perhaps, an opportunity to move poetry past the concerns that dominated the poems of the Romantics, and, indeed, dominated the poems of his contemporary Poe.

The Dismal Swamp was a vivid setting worthy of the most vital of subjects: and the subject most vital to the America of the 1840s was the unresolved plight of the slave.

This is a poetry worthy of our attention: a poetry rooted in the successful forms and imagery of the past, that applies those elements of careful craft to the tensions of the present, not shying from the realities of suffering, but offering its readers a real opportunity to do justly, to love mercy.

Featured Art: “Swamp” by Euphrosine Beernaert