Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s passionate, occasionally melodramatic poem ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’, mainly written in Pisa during the autumn of 1846, was published two years later in a Boston anti-slavery compilation, The Liberty Bell. She was proud of its ‘ferocious’ theme: a black slave describes how she was separated from the man she loved, raped by her master and driven to kill her newborn child – ‘too white, too white for me!’.
Slavery was a political issue that affected Barrett Browning strongly. In a letter to her friend Anna Jameson she declared, ‘You think a woman has no business with … the question of slavery? Then she had better use a pen no more!’.
We had no claim to love & bliss
So bliss & love fell out the crack. ^ What marvel, if each turned to lack?
They wrung my cold hands out of his-
They dragged him .... why, I crawled to touch
the blood xxxxxx ^ The mark of his blood His blood’s mark in the dust .. not much,
Ye - Pilgrim=souls, .. though plain as this !
^ [the following stanza is in the left margin]
Wrong, followed by a deeper wrong!
Grief seemed too good for such as I
So the white men brought the shame ere long
To stifle the sob in my throat thereby
They w[ould] not leave me for my dull
Wet eyes! - it was too merciful
To let me weep pure tears & die;
I am black, I am black.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxx ^ I wore a child upon my breast ..
An amulet that hung too slack,
And in my unrest, could not rest -
And thus we moaned, we ^ Thus we went moaning, child & mother,
One to another, one to another,
Until all ended for the best;
For hark! I will tell you low .. low ..
‘I am black, you see’ -
And the babe that lay on my bosom so,
Was far too white .. too white for me;
As white as the ladies who scorned to pray
Beside me at church but yesterday,
Though my tears had washed a place for my knee.
And my own child ... I could not bear
To look in his face .. it was so white!
So I covered him up with a kerchief rare;
I covered his face in close & tight:
And he moaned & struggled as well as might be,
For the white child wanted his liberty -
Ha, ha! - he wanted his master’s right.
He moaned & beat, with his head & feet -
His little feet, that xxxxxx now^ever grew;
He struck them out as it was meet
Against my heart to break it through -
I might have sung, like a mother mild;
But I dared not sing to the white faced child
The only song I knew.
And yet I pulled the kerchief close -
He could not see the sun, I swear,
More then, alive, than now he does
From between the roots of the manjles [mangles] .. where?
.. I know where! Close! A child & mother
Do wrong to look at one another,
When one is black & one is fair -
And ^ Were in that single glance I had
Of my child’s face .. I tell you all ..
I saw a look that made me mad - !
The master’s look, that used to fall
On my soul like his lash .. or worse!
And so, to save it from my curse,
I twisted it round in my shawl.
[shawl is underlined in pencil; beside it in pencil in the right margin is:]
does that sound like a slave’s article of clothing?
And he moaned & struggled ^ trembled from head ^ foot to head -
He trembled ^ shivered from head to foot -
Till after a time he lay instead
Too suddenly still & mute ..
And I felt beside, a creeping cold -
I dared to lift up just a fold,
As in lifting a leaf of the mango=fruit.
But my fruit! .. ha, ha! there, had been ..
(I laugh to think on’t at this hour ..)
Your fine white angels, (who have seen
God’s secrets nearest to His power)
And plucked my fruit to make their wine . !
And sucked the soul of that child of mine,
As the humming bird sucks ^ the soul of the flower.
[flower is underlined in pencil; below it in pencil is:] (soul of the)
Ha, ha, for the trick of the angels white!
They freed the white child’s spirit so -
I said not a word, but day & night
I carried the body to & fro -
And it lay on my heart like a stone .. as chill!
The sun may shine out as much as he will -
I am cold, though it happened a year ^ month ago -
From the white man’s house & the black man’s hut
I carried the little body on -
The forest trees ^ ‘s arms did around us shut
And silence through the leaves ^ trees did run -
They asked no questions as I went:
The trees were ^ They stood too high, for astonishment;
They could see God rise on His throne -
My little body, kercheefed fast,
I bore it on through the forest .. on:
And, when I felt it was tired at last,
I scooped a hole beneath the moon-
Through the forest=tops the angels far
With a white fine finger from every star,
Did point ^ & mock at what was done -
- Full title:
- Manuscript draft of 'The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point'
- Manuscript / Draft
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- © The Provost and Fellows of Eton College
- Usage terms
- Creative Commons Attribution licence
- Held by
- British Library
- Ashley MS A2517
- Article by:
- Brycchan Carey
- Power and politics, London
From the mid-18th century, Africans and people of African descent – many of them former slaves – began to write down their stories. Brycchan Carey describes these writings and assesses their role in the abolition of slavery.
- Article by:
- Rohan Maitzen
- The novel 1832–1880
In Adam Bede, George Eliot sets out her commitment to realism as a literary genre – a commitment she would continue to develop over the course of her career. Dr Rohan Maitzen explains how detailed research and Eliot’s own experience fed into the realist project, enabling her to express her beliefs about religion, sympathy and understanding.
- Article by:
- Simon Avery
- Gender and sexuality, Victorian poetry
Dr Simon Avery considers how Elizabeth Barrett Browning used poetry to explore and challenge traditional Victorian roles for women, assessing the early influences on her work and thought.