The Slave Auction

– Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

The sale began—young girls were there,
Defenseless in their wretchedness,
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair
Revealed their anguish and distress.
And mothers stood, with streaming eyes,
And saw their dearest children sold;
Unheeded rose their bitter cries,
While tyrants bartered them for gold.
And woman, with her love and truth—
For these in sable forms may dwell—
Gazed on the husband of her youth,
With anguish none may paint or tell.
And men, whose sole crime was their hue,
The impress of their Maker’s hand,
And frail and shrinking children too,
Were gathered in that mournful band.
Ye who have laid your loved to rest,
And wept above their lifeless clay,
Know not the anguish of that breast,
Whose loved are rudely torn away.
Ye may not know how desolate
Are bosoms rudely forced to part,
And how a dull and heavy weight
Will press the life-drops from the heart.

Poem Analysis

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poem ” The Slave Auction”  treats the cruel and inhuman process of slave trade from the perspective of the victims. Hereinafter, I will analyse the rhetorical devices in order to highlight their role in conveying the poet’s message to the target group.

To begin with, the poem’s form shall be analysed. It is composed of 24 verses with the end rhyme and the matching rhyme scheme is the alternate rhyme whilst the foot is represented by the iamb.  Considering those facts, all these have the effect of regularity and continuousness, showing that slave auctions are already a part of everyday life. The number of words with negative connotations dominates so the choice of words also conveys the author’s negative opinion towards slave trade.

The poem is not divided into stanzas but one can differ it, if one regards the content/change in structure as from line 17 on, the speaker uses with ‘ Ye’ the direct address while before, only subjective descriptions can be seen.

In the verses 5, 9 and 10, an anaphora and a parallelism is to find which stresses the anguish and the innocence of the black men who are concerned. The verse 10 is also an instance for a paradoxon since not only nowadays but actually ever valid, the skin colour can not be deemed as an offence in court.

And mothers stood with streaming eyes, (l.5)

And woman, with her love and truth- (l.9)

And men, whose sole crime was their hue, (l.10)

It has to be added that the author uses figurative language in the whole couse of the poem for instance in the lines from 17 to 18 or from 23 to 24.  This language is facilitating the conveyance of emotions drastically since it uses metaphorical comparisons.

Ye who have laid your loved to rest, (l.17)
And wept above their lifeless clay, (l.18)
And how a dull and heavy weight (l.23)
Will press the life-drops from the heart. (l.24)
Apart from that, the repetition of certain words as ‘anguish’ in the lines 4,12 and 19 creates an impression of an oppressive atmosphere.
What is more, there are alliterations for instance in line 3 causing the consequence of underlining the grievous misery, the victims are in. So does the assonance in the preceding line 2.
Whose stifled sobs of deep despair (l.3)
Defenseless in their wretchedness, (l.2)
As a result of all these rhetorical devices and their effects, a gloomy mood is created. This feeling is supported especially by the figurative language and concludes with the close correspondence between the content and the form as both convey the sorrowfulness of  “The Slave Auction”.
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