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Freedom to the Slave by Henry Louis Vivian Derozio

“Freedom to the Slave” appears in Henry Louis Vivian Derozio’s first poetry collection Poems (1827). This poem is about the exquisite joy of a slave who is freed to be a man. The basic essence of this poem concerns the inherent happiness to be free in contrast to the pangs of subjugation, oppression, and most importantly slavery. Derozio, being a vibrant voice of the Bengal Renaissance, hints at the slavery of Indians to the British East India Company by referring to an individual who was enslaved. Through writing this piece, Derozio tried to make Indians desirous of the cherished freedom which not only emancipates a person mentally but also helps to expand the potential of one’s soul.

  • Read the full text of “Freedom to the Slave” here along with the analysis section.
Analysis of Freedom to the Slave by Derozio


Summary

This poem begins with an allusion to Thomas Campbell’s poem “The Pleasures of Hope”. Then the text directly jumps into the story of a slave who was enslaved. Right now, he is freed from the shackles of slavery. First and foremost, he realizes the hidden potential and noblest feelings buried inside his soul. It makes him kneel no more to anyone. Once again, he feels himself a human being, not a creature destined to serve, suffer, and follow.

Then Derozio delves deeper into the joy of the emancipated character. He looks around and realizes that he is now as free as the air, bird, and river. The flame of freedom has enlightened his soul’s altar. In the next lines, he expresses his gratitude to all those who are fighting in order to make the slaves free. He wishes the almighty to bless those generous hands which break the chain of slavery in any form.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

“Freedom to the Slave” is 28 lines long. Derozio groups the lines into a single stanza. Every four lines of the text form a unit (similar to a quatrain) and present a specific idea. There is only a difference in lines 9-16. Here, the poet packs the eight lines together. Besides, he writes this piece from the third-person point of view and describes the happiness of the slave after getting freedom.

Rhyme Scheme

The rhyme scheme of the poem is regular and it follows the ABCB rhyming pattern. It is also known as the ballad rhyme scheme. For example, the second and fourth lines rhyme together while the first and third lines end with distinct sounds.

Meter

Regarding the meter, it is composed of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter alternatively. The poem begins with an iambic tetrameter line. It is followed by a line in iambic trimeter. This pattern is repeated throughout the text. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first eight lines in order to have an idea of the metrical scheme of the overall poem.

How felt/ he when/ he first/ was told 

   A slave/ he ceased/ to be

How proud/-ly beat/ his heart,/ when first 

   He knew/ that he/ was free !—-  

The nob-/lest feel-/ings of/ the soul 

   To glow/ at once/ be-gan

He knelt/ no more;/ his thoughts/ were raised

   He felt/ him-self/ a man.

In this excerpt, it can be seen that the first line consists of four iambs (unstressed-stressed) while the following line contains three iambic feet. This pattern occurs in the following lines.

Poetic Devices

Derozio uses the following poetic devices in “Freedom to the Slave”.

  • Inversion: The conventional order of sentences is reversed in the first two lines for the sake of the metrical pattern. It also occurs in the line “To glow at once began”.
  • Personification: Derozio personifies the abstract concept “Freedom” in these lines “Oh Freedom! there is something dear/ E’en in thy very name”.
  • Anaphora: It occurs in lines 7-9. These lines begin with the word “He”, meant for connecting the ideas.
  • Epigram: Derozio uses an epigram In these lines “He knelt no more; his thoughts were raised;/ He felt himself a man”. Here, he tries to say that after being freed, the slave felt the joy of being a man.
  • Metaphor: It occurs in the “breath of heaven” and “altar of the soul”. In the first example, Derozio refers to the air. The next one contains an implicit comparison between the soul and altar. The phrase “patriot sword” contains a personal metaphor. Here, the poet refers to the sword of a patriot.
  • Polysyndeton: It occurs in “Then thought on winds, and birds, and floods,/ And cried …” Here, the conjunction “and” is repeated for the sake of emphasis.
  • Apostrophe: In this line “Oh Freedom! there is something dear”, the poet invokes the spirit of Freedom by personifying it.
  • Metonymy: In the line “The chain a tyrant gave”, “chain” is a metonym (a symbol for the thing symbolized) for slavery.
  • Synecdoche: It occurs in the usage of the terms “heart”, “breast”, and “hand”. Here, the poet refers to a part of the human body in order to refer to the human being as a whole.
  • Anadiplosis: It occurs in the lines “And glory to the breast that bleeds,/ Bleeds nobly to be free!”
  • Enjambment: Derozio uses this device in order to connect the lines internally. He enjambs two consecutive lines for presenting a complete idea. For example, it occurs in the lines “How felt he when he first was told/ A slave he ceased to be”.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds can be found in: “his heart”, “breast that bleeds”, “Blest be”, etc.


Themes

The poem “Freedom to the Slave” taps on the themes of freedom, slavery, and patriotism. As the title says, this piece is all about the idea of freedom. But, Derozio explores this theme from the perspective of a slave who is freed from the chains of subjugation. In order to appreciate the theme, one has to look deeper into the mind of the slave. His exploration of the things that he was not able to cherish before reflects the inherent desire of a man to be free like the nature around him.

By writing this poem, Derozio uses the character as a metaphor of all the Indians, enslaved by the colonial rulers. Their life was no different than the life of a slave. But, the slave in the poem can lead his life freely. Indians could not. Hence, the poet is sympathetic towards the sufferings of his countrymen and tries to infuse the spirit of freedom in their hearts.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Critical Appreciation

Epigraph

“And as the slave departs, the man returns.”

Campbell

The epigraph of “Freedom to the Slave” alludes to Thomas Campbell’s poem “The Pleasures of Hope”. Derozio quotes this line in order to give a hint to readers regarding the main idea of the poem. In this line, Campbell uses an epigram. He says that as a slave is freed from the chain of subjugation, he becomes a man again. Here, the terms “slave” and “man” are used to refer to the concepts of “slavery” and “humanity”. So, this line also contains the use of synecdoche.

The meaning of this line is that slavery kills the basic essence of humanity from a man’s heart. The slavers treat a slave as a creature inferior to them. Thus, when a slave is emancipated, he can enjoy the pleasures of being a man.

Lines 1-4

How felt he when he first was told 

   A slave he ceased to be; 

How proudly beat his heart, when first 

   He knew that he was free !—

The poem directly begins with the essence of the epigraph. Besides, the title “Freedom to the Slave” also hints at a slave who is given freedom. Derozio anticipates in the first two lines regarding his state of mind. When he was first told he ceased to be a slave, it gave him pleasure, inexpressible with words. By hearing that he was free, his heart leaped up in joy. He became proud to know that he could live as a human being. Here, the poet focuses on the term “heart” in order to refer to the emotions of the person. Besides, he uses a rhetorical exclamation in the fourth line to portray his happiness after seeing the slave freed to be a man again.

Lines 5-8 

The noblest feelings of the soul 

   To glow at once began; 

He knelt no more; his thoughts were raised; 

   He felt himself a man. 

In the following line, Derozio refers to the “noblest feelings of the soul”. The noblest feelings in a man’s heart include happiness, pride, compassion, and benevolence. It does not end here. Rather such feelings include all the qualities that make a person, a human being. Previously, the slave was treated as an inferior creature who was destined to serve his superior. As he ceased to be a slave, he could explore those feelings once again.

He had to kneel to nobody. This feeling of self-confidence and self-esteem elevated his thoughts. He could think freely. In this way, he felt himself a man. Here, the poet uses an epigram. He conveys that when a man is free in his mental space, he can explore the true meaning of being a human. The thoughts of selfhood are what make him complete as a man.

Lines 9-16

He looked above—the breath of heaven 

   Around him freshly blew; 

He smiled exultingly to see 

   The wild birds as they flew, 

He looked upon the running stream 

   That ‘neath him rolled away; 

Then thought on winds, and birds, and floods, 

   And cried, ‘I’m free as they!’ 

In the following lines, Derozio describes how the freed slave draws inspiration from his surroundings. After being completely free internally and externally, he could appreciate the nature around him. He could breathe the freshness of air once again. Here, the poet uses a metaphor in “breath of heaven”. The “heaven”, a reference to the sky, is invested with the idea of breathing. Its “breath” is a reference to the air humans breath.

He looked around at the wild birds. Their flight filled his heart with happiness. It is important to note the term “wild” here. By this term, Derozio connects the untamed spirit of the person to that of the wild birds.

He looked upon the “running stream” that rolled away beneath his feet. So, the person was standing near a river and appreciating the beauty of nature. The “running stream” contains the use of personification. Here, the stream is invested with the idea of running away. 

The scene filled him with pleasure. It made him wonder about his own freedom. Thus he said, “I’m free as they!”. The exclamation reflects his mental happiness. In this line, Derozio uses the repetition of “and” in order to emphasize the terms mentioned here. Besides, these terms “winds”, “birds”, and “floods” are symbols of freedom.

Lines 17-20

Oh Freedom! there is something dear 

   E’en in thy very name, 

That lights the altar of the soul 

   With everlasting flame. 

In this section, Derozio shifts from his subject (the slave) and describes how he sees “Freedom”. Firstly, he personifies the abstract idea by invoking it as a human being. According to him, there is magic in the very word itself. Indeed, if we pronounce the term by closing our eyes, we can feel the essence tied to it. It transcends the soul, elevates the mind, and frees the spirit.

Not only that, it lights the “altar of the soul”. In this phrase, the poet compares the human soul to an altar. It is like a temple where the lord resides. Freedom is the priest who lights the temple with its “everlasting flame”. In this way, freedom enlightens the spirit and the darkness fades from there. Besides, its flame has an eternal quality. As long as the man lives, the light of freedom stays with him.

Lines 21-24

Success attend the patriot sword, 

   That is unsheathed for thee! 

And glory to the breast that bleeds, 

   Bleeds nobly to be free! 

In these four lines, Derozio taps on the theme of patriotism. After reading these lines, it becomes clear why the poet is talking about the freed slave in this poem. He does so in order to bring home the idea of India’s slavery to the British empire.

Here, Derozio’s poetic persona directly addresses the spirit of Freedom. He blesses the patriotic spirits who unsheathed their swords to free their country from the shackles of colonial rulers. The “unsheathed” sword is a symbol of protest as well as war. By using this symbol, Derozio voices against the subjugation of his dear countrymen.

He glorifies the brave hearts who bleed to emancipate themselves as well as their nation. His spirit salutes those who devoted their lives for the noble cause. Readers can find the repetition of the word “bleeds” that creates a resonance of the idea in their minds. It is meant for the sake of emphasis.

Lines 25-28

Blest be the generous hand that breaks 

   The chain a tyrant gave, 

And, feeling for degraded man, 

   Gives freedom to the slave. 

In the last section of “Freedom to the Slave”, the poet blessed the generous humans who felt pain when they saw their fellow humans were tied by the chain of slavery. By “generous hand”, the poet refers to the generous people. They broke the chain which a tyrant gave to the slaves. The “chain”, a symbol of subjugation or dependence, was meant for holding them back. By freeing them from these symbolic fetters, the abolitionists helped them to realize their true potential.

The last two lines show the poet’s sympathy for the degraded state of the slaves. He blesses the hearts of those who had fellow feelings for the slaves. The feeling of compassion is what gives them freedom.

Historical Background

The poem “Freedom to the Slave” was written in February 1827. It was published in the same year in Poems (1827). The volume of poetry was printed at the Baptist Mission Press. At the time of writing this poem, Derozio, who was only 17, taught English literature and history at the Hindu College. His personality and attitude made him dear to his students. He encouraged frequent debates in order to expand his students’ knowledge.

Derozio was the first “national” poet of modern India. His patriotic poetry is an important landmark in the history of Indian Writing in English. “Freedom to the Slave” is one such poem where Derozio’s love for his country is reflected. It also taps on the themes of Romanticism such as free-thinking, abolition of slavery, and humanity.

Questions & Answers

What is meant by the expression “Freedom to the Slave”?

This expression is a reference to the meaning of freedom to a slave. Through this piece, Derozio describes how a freed slave appreciates his present state and implicitly contrasts it with his life before freedom.

What does the expression “as the slave departs, the man returns” mean in the poem “Freedom to the Slave”?

This line is an allusion to Thomas Campbell’s “The Pleasures of Hope”. It means that when a slave is freed, it gives him enough space to realize his worth. Besides, it helps him to feel the joy of being a man again.

Who speaks the words “I’m free as they!” in the poem “Freedom to the Slave”?

These words are spoken by the freed slave. By uttering this exclamation, he refers to the winds, birds, and rivers that are free like him.

How did the slave feel when he was first told that he was free?

When the slave was first told that he was freed, he became proud of the freedom he was longing for. It allowed him to explore the noblest feelings buried in his soul.

When was “Freedom to the Slave” written?

The poem “Freedom to the Slave” was written in February 1827. It was published in the same year in Derozio’s poetry collection Poems (1827).


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