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.


At 12:09 AM , Blogger Negritude said...

Your analysis reminds me of the "poetic epigraphs" that I love to read from seven parts of _Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies_ (edited by John W. Blassingame, 1977) Maybe you will find them interesting regarding your thesis research ....

I am particularly fond of the first one (Letters, 1736-1864):

"They dragged you from homeland;
They chained you in coffles
They huddled you spoonfashion in filthy hatches
They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.

The broke you in like oxen
They scourged you
They branded you
They made your women breeders
They swelled your numbers with bastards....
They taught you the religion they disgraced

You sang:
Keep a inchin' along
Lak a po' inch worm....

You sang:
Bye and bye
I'm gonna lay down dis heaby load....

You sang:
Walk togedder chillen
Dontcha git weary....
The strong men keep a comin' on
The strong men git stronger.

Sterling A. Brown

At 7:52 AM , Blogger persistence said...

Yes, I love the dialect in this. I've been studying Zora Neale Hurston's and Paul Lawrence Dunbar's use of dialect in their work. Thanks for the Blassingame suggestion, sounds like it's right up my alley.


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