The Slave Mother

By Frances Ellen Watkins Harper 1825–1911
Heard you that shriek? It rose
   So wildly on the air,
It seem’d as if a burden’d heart
   Was breaking in despair.

Saw you those hands so sadly clasped—
   The bowed and feeble head—
The shuddering of that fragile form—
   That look of grief and dread?

Saw you the sad, imploring eye?
   Its every glance was pain,
As if a storm of agony
   Were sweeping through the brain.

She is a mother pale with fear,
   Her boy clings to her side,
And in her kyrtle vainly tries
   His trembling form to hide.

He is not hers, although she bore
   For him a mother’s pains;
He is not hers, although her blood
   Is coursing through his veins!

He is not hers, for cruel hands
   May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
   That binds her breaking heart.

His love has been a joyous light
   That o’er her pathway smiled,
A fountain gushing ever new,
   Amid life’s desert wild.

His lightest word has been a tone
   Of music round her heart,
Their lives a streamlet blent in one—
   Oh, Father! must they part?

They tear him from her circling arms,
   Her last and fond embrace.
Oh! never more may her sad eyes
   Gaze on his mournful face.

No marvel, then, these bitter shrieks
   Disturb the listening air:
She is a mother, and her heart
   Is breaking in despair.

Source: American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (The Library of America, 1993)

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Poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper 1825–1911

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Relationships, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Biography

Born in Baltimore, poet, fiction writer, journalist, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was the only child of free African American parents. She was raised by her aunt and uncle after her mother died when Frances was three years old. She attended the Academy for Negro Youth, a school run by her uncle, until the age of 13, and then found domestic work in a Quaker household, where she had access to a wide range of . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Relationships, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Race & Ethnicity

POET’S REGION U.S., Southern

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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