Saturday, September 06, 2008

Poetic Epigraphs

Many narratives of former slaves were written to expose the atrocities of slavery in the south, appealing to citizens in the north to help put an end to the institution. There are many recognizable elements of this genre in most every narrative such as an engraved and signed portrait of the author, an account of his/her family history, the statement "I was born," followed by the place and sometimes the date of birth, and then there are the poetic epigraphs, (often used at the beginning of chapters or the narrative itself in order to set the mood of what proceeds it). In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he quotes the writer whom he calls "the slave's poet," John Greenleaf Whittier:
Gone, gone, sold and gone
To the rice swamp dank and lone,
From Virginia hills and waters-
Woe is me, my stolen daughters!

In the narrative that I am studying for my thesis, Lucy Ann Delaney (though she does not mention having acquired any formal education) employs the verse of several Victorian poets.
In the dedication, she uses the last two lines from a stanza in a piece by British writer,George Linnaeus Banks, a poem entitled "My Aim":
I live to learn their story who suffered for my sake;
To emulate their glory and follow in their wake:
Bards, patriots, martyrs, sages the heroic of all ages,
Whose deeds crowd History's pages, and Time's great volumes make.

And from the sonnet sequence Book of Day Dreams by the Phillidelphia born poet, Charles Leonard Moore, she quotes:
Soon is the echo and the shadow o'er,
Soon, soon we lie with lid-encumbered eyes
And the great fabrics that we reared before
Crumble to make a dust to hide who dies.

I believe these writers integrated the poetry of the day to dispel the myth that black people could not be educated. I also feel that these epigraphs are a tribute to the idea that even after having been through the horrors of slavery black people could still find beauty and solace in the poet's song.