UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Voices of Equality: American Anti-Slavery and Russian Anti-Serfdom Poetry

Olga Zolotareva

This study proposes a comparison between American anti-slavery poetry and Russian anti-serfdom poetry of the nineteenth century, discussing the ways in which poets used verse as a creative tool for fighting inequality. It traces a number of considerable similarities in style, form and content between the works that were written with the intention to oppose the two related institutions of unfree labor. Analysis of poems by William Lloyd Garrison, James Monroe Whitfield, John Pierpont, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolay Nekrasov, among others, reveals that both Russian and American authors sought to captivate their audiences with resonant imagery and emotive oratory, frequently employing the same stylistic devices. The study, then, shows that poetic resistance to inequality transcends not only linguistic, but also cultural and stylistic boundaries.




Едва ужасоносный молот испустил свой тупой звук и четверо несчастных узнали свою участь, – слезы, рыдания, стон пронзили уши всего собрания. Наитвердейшие были тронуты. Окаменелые сердца! Почто бесплодное соболезнование? О квакеры! если бы мы имели вашу душу, мы бы сложилися и, купив сих несчастных, даровали бы им свободу. Жив многие лета в объятиях один другого, несчастные сии к поносной продаже восчувствуют тоску разлуки. (Радищев 192)


In the above extract, the indignant author describes the scene of a peasant family being sold separately from each other – a scene strikingly similar to one that could commonly be witnessed at slave auctions in North America. He also highlights his affinity with the Quakers, for he feels that they are bound by a common cause: namely, the abolition of unfree labor in their respective countries.

Russia’s first abolitionist, A.N. Radishev, published The Journey from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, a fiercely polemical book portraying the horrors of slavery, in 1790. At that time, serfdom was at its height, and the power of the Russian landowners over their serfs was “as great as that of the American slaveowner over his chattel – almost total, short of deliberate murder” (Kolchin 41). By the nineteenth century, the government had taken measures to improve the serfs’ condition and render some of the cruelest practices obsolete (for instance, peasant families were no longer liable to be sold separately from each other).  Legally, however, they remained the property of the landlord, who had total control over their possessions and their lives. Therefore, itt is  not surprising that Russians themselves used the term “slavery” to refer to the conditions of peasants who lived on the lands owned by the nobility, although serfdom was  technically not slavery.

Understandably, the existence of both institutions, which by the nineteenth century had come to be seen by many as barbarous relics of the past,  drew considerable ethical resistance from many nineteenth century literati. This paper proposes a comparison between         nineteenth- century American and Russian poetry written before or shortly after the abolition of slavery/serfdom, which has not previously been read in parallel. I identify similarities between the ways the two groups of poets used verse as a creative tool for fighting inequality. Notably, authors from both countries aimed to captivate their audiences with fiery rhetoric and resonant imagery and frequently built on the same set of symbols (such as the chain, a metaphor for slavery). While each tradition’s poetry is culturally specific, the similarities in style, form, content and persuasive techniques are considerable, and tracing them may help us understand how poets employed the expressive potential of their medium to draw attention to the plight of the unheeded social groups.

Although the principles declared and defended by the authors I will discuss here are universal, their verse cannot be fully understood if it is stripped of its cultural and political baggage. Therefore, I am going to discuss it, in the words of Foucault, “in the exact specificity of its occurrence” (Foucault “Archaelogy of Knowledge”). Although I have slighted some important topics for reasons of space, I have attempted to provide a reasonably comprehensive comparative analysis of abolitionist poetry in Russia and America, which I consider to be more than simple political manifesto. Since the writings by some of these poets are so varied as to inhibit characterization, and because certain poets were not formally involved in any movements or classified as abolitionists, I will use the terms “abolitionist” and “abolitionist poetry” loosely to refer to the poets who advocated emancipation of slaves/serfs and to their poetry which served this purpose. I will start by examining and juxtaposing the historical backgrounds against which Russian and American abolitionist poetry grew. I will then proceed to a direct discussion of the style of the poems, the themes the poets treated and the rhetorical strategies they employed to engage with their audiences.


Historical Background. Anti-slavery and Anti-Serfdom Thought

If one seeks parallels between American chattel slavery and Russian serfdom, what immediately stands out is that they existed within a roughly similar timeframe. In 1619, the first African slaves arrived in Virginia. Thirty years later, the new Russian code of laws, Svobodnoje Ulojeniie, stripped Russian peasants – that is, the majority of the Russian population – of the right to leave the lands where they resided, thus firmly establishing serfdom as an intrinsic feature of  Russian society. Both systems of bondage had consolidated and reached their apogee by the middle of the eighteenth century, and they were abolished almost simultaneously, with only four years between the abolition of serfdom (1861) and slavery (1865).

Other similarities are also apparent. In particular, the economic reasons for the existence of these two binding institutions were the same, as both arose to meet demands for cheap agricultural labor. In both, the oppressed groups became property, meaning that landowners had a total (or, in the case of peasants, nearly total) control over all aspects of the bondsmen’s lives.  Backbreaking work also constituted a conspicuous feature of these two systems, as did corporal punishments and sexual abuse (Kolchin 41-43; 112). Forced separation of bondsmen’s families was widespread in both America and Russia, despite the fact that in Russia,  peasant marriages were legally recognized (Kolchin 117). In America, families were separated at slave auctions, with different family members being sold to different masters. The abolitionists strove to expose and condemn this outrageous practice, their efforts finding fruition in The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book, which was, without a doubt instrumental in swaying the North’s public opinion about slavery. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Russian serf auctions also were one of the two major causes of separation. The other cause, which instilled just as much fear in peasants and which survived into the nineteenth century, was  compulsory military service, “which was for life until 1793, when it was reduced to a twenty-five-year term”(Kolchin 42). Every noblemen, himself exempt from  the service, had to provide a fixed number of men (or “souls”, as  male serfs were called) from his estate for the Russian army as a form of homage. The frequent and bloody wars that Russia fought at that time, and the appalling conditions under which low-ranking soldiers were forced to exist meant that, in all probability, the parents would never see their children again. It is therefore not surprising that, as Nikolay Nekrasov (whose rough-hewn poems probably come closest to representing the life of a Russian peasant) famously wrote in his poem “Who is Happy in Russia?”, peasants awaited a levy with the horror one would expect in those awaiting execution (2. 4).

Perhaps paradoxically, despite the nature of the binding systems of which they were beneficiaries, both planters and Russian noblemen considered themselves the guardians of morality, treating their bondsmen with a degree of paternalism. This paternalism was inextricably connected with the notion of stability, which the abolition of bondage threatened to undermine. Although pro-slavery thought was more developed in America than in Russia (where the landowning class, being the main pillar of the monarchy, did not need to defend itself) (Kolchin 181), Russian and American noblemen put forward similar arguments in support of the existing order, many of them backed by the church. James Thornwell, for instance, used the words of the apostle Paul to justify that slavery should be treated as a “moral debt” and “a homage to God”, rather than a toll (Thornwell, 20). Southern clergymen also cited Genesis 9:25-27 as a main justification for slavery, insisting that “the curse of Ham marked blacks for slavery” and that planters therefore were the executors of the divine order (Kolchin 174). In Russia, the religious arguments in defense of serfdom were not so elaborate; however, they still existed and were similar to those of American polemicists. Ironically, they were best summarized in Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends – a later work by Nikolay Gogol, an eminent writer and the author of Dead Souls, a biting satire on Russian society which derided serfdom as an unnatural and inhumane institution. Selected Passages testifies to the fact that Gogol’s views underwent a profound change later in life as he turned to religious mysticism. This book stated in no uncertain terms that the landowner’s authority was sanctioned by God; he therefore was advised to assert his superiority over his bondsmen from the very outset, directing them to the Bible if they dared to question his authority (Гоголь “Выбранные места”). The book caused many a heated debate among the Russian intellectual elite, and it was hotly contested by Vissarion Belinsky, Russia’s foremost literary critic and an ardent advocate of serf emancipation. In his inflammatory “Letter to Gogol”, he accused the author of radically misconstruing one of the fundamental principles of Christianity, insisting that all humans are “brothers” and therefore slavery has no place in the world (Белинский  419). This was the main argument the Quakers used to demonstrate that slavery is a crime against humanity; however, it was hardly ever used in Russia and does not feature in any of the poems discussed here. In fact, Belinsky is a rare – if not the only – instance of a Russian abolitionist evoking religion to make his case. This may in part be due to Russian liberal circles’ disappointment in the institution of the Orthodox Church, which condoned slavery.

Both Russian noblemen and their American counterparts frequently cited chaos, which they believed would inevitably follow emancipation, to support their conservative stand. The southern planters used the Haitian Revolutions as an example of what could follow if the mob were given free rein, while Russian noblemen were haunted by the horrors of Pugachev’s  Rebellion, the most powerful peasant uprising in Russian history (Kolchin 174-175).

Despite these striking similarities, the two systems of bondage were not identical. Kolchin, one of the scholars who make direct comparison between American slavery and Russian serfdom, identifies several important distinctions between them, which heavily influenced the conditions of the bondsmen. First, serfs were self-supporting. They worked for their owner for a fixed number of weekdays in order to pay their dues and dedicated the remaining time to working for their own benefit. Slaves, on the other hand, “worked for their masters all the time and received sustenance in exchange” (45). Second, although serfs were deprived of their rights and considered the property of the landowner, they lived on their ancestors’ land and often considered it theirs, although it was not juridically so. They fought in the Russian army; they  constituted over 90% of the Russian population; and the majority – especially serfs in central Russia – were of the same ethnicity as their owners. All this meant that serfs still belonged to Russian society, albeit to its lowest strata. It was not so with slaves, who were regarded as outcasts from society: not only were their ancestors brought from the “outside” (Africa) to work on the colonized lands, but they also were of a different race than their masters (Kolchin 43-44). The racial distinction engendered a deep-seated prejudice against slaves and was actively employed by pro-slavery thinkers who insisted on the “otherness” of the black people in their efforts to justify slavery. Although Russian landowners gradually came to view peasants as being so different from them that they were almost considered a different race – “lazy”, “childlike” and incapable of emotion – this ideology was not as elaborate as racial arguments in America and never entered the “official” anti-serfdom rhetoric, where economic arguments prevailed (Kolchin 170-171).  In short, serfdom was a class-based, rather than race-based, system.

The third important differences between the two systems lay in the different forms of government in Russia and America. America was a republic; Russia was an absolute monarchy. In America, it was possible to oppose slavery openly; in Russia, censorship made it infinitely more difficult to voice an independent opinion, and works critical of the government were distributed in handwritten form to limited audiences. Therefore, many Russian abolitionists believed, not without reason, that the key to serf emancipation lay in destroying or severely limiting the power of the monarch. This led many of the poets discussed here –notably the Decembrist circle –to seem preoccupied with overthrowing the government rather than explicitly portraying the horrors of sefdom. Yet the very idea of the rebellion was born out of the desire to free serfs. The Decembrists never lived to see that serf liberation and revolution did not correlate. While in America, emancipation came after the Civil War, a major national upheaval, the liberation of Russian serfs was the result of a reform. Russian landowners not only quickly became resigned to it , having grown too weak economically to oppose the government; they also played a major role in its implementation, attempting to minimize its effect on their lives (Kolchin 157). Thus, unlike South American planters, Russian nobles managed to preserve their privileges and, in many cases, to capitalize on the reform by minimizing the plots serfs were allowed to keep and imposing heavy redemption payments on them. Russian landowners’ lives changed little after serfdom was abolished.

However, for all their differences, the similarities between the two systems were apparent to contemporaries in both countries. John Greenleaf Whittier mentioned Russian serfs and “menials” (landless peasants, or domestics) as an example of inequality “across the wave” in the poem “Our Countrymen in Chains!” (Whittier 80, 34), and American abolitionists celebrated serf liberation by Alexander II (“Russian Serfs, Emancipation of” in Oxford Index).

The question of American slavery occupied a prominent place in Russian abolitionist thought. In his review of A narrative of the captivity and adventures of John Tanner, Alexander Pushkin, who himself was of African ancestry, condemned not only the attitude of white settlers to native Americans (perhaps paradoxically, this issue is rarely, if ever, touched upon in American abolitionist poetry, with “The Tocsin” by John Pierpont being a notable exception), but also “the slavery of the black people in the midst of freedom and enlightenment” (Пушкин “Джон Теннеръ”; Lockard “Introduction”).  Radishev, Bestujev and Belinsky, among others, repeatedly pointed out that the condition of Russian peasants was much more similar to that of American slaves than to that of  serfs in medieval Europe, with Belinsky referring to Russian peasants as the “white blacks” in his “Letter to Gogol” (419). Therefore, although the poems discussed in this paper are culturally specific, they are bound by common themes, as evidenced by their imagery, language and style.


Common Themes, Imagery ,Symbolism

The subjects of the abolitionist poems are polarized around two key concepts: slavery and liberty. For all the poets, without exception, liberty is, in the words of George Moses Horton, the “golden prize” (“On Liberty and Slavery” 25), an ultimate goal of their artistic (and social) endeavours. This attitude, prevalent among both Russian and American abolitionist poets, is instantiated – and  encapsulated –   in the “Sonnet to Liberty” by William Lloyd Garrison and the “Ode to Liberty” by young Alexander Pushkin. It is evident, even from a cursory reading, that these two poems lend themselves to comparison exceptionally well – so well that it may seem that Garrison’s sonnet condenses Pushkin’s discourse. In these poems, the concept of liberty is endowed with symbolic significance and personified through capitalization (and, in the “Sonnet”, through the speaker’s direct address to Liberty in the first line). Unlike Garrison, Pushkin capitalizes nearly all the abstract concepts in his ode (including “Power” and “Slavery”) to underscore their influence on humans’ lives and possibly elevate them into the realm of the metaphysical – something that Whittier accomplishes by capitalizing the words such as “slavery”, “pride”, and “law” in his poems. The word “Liberty”, however, is capitalized out of reverence, as in Garrison’s poem; the adjective “sacred”, which Pushkin uses to describe it, is indicative of such attitude (27). Although both poets build on the same perception of liberty as the universal value of humanity, they imbue the concept with subtly different meanings.  Both poets articulate the idea of the “eternal rights which none may violate” (Garrison 13); yet, if Garrison means primarily “the liberty of the slaves from their masters”, Pushkin does not deal with the question of serfdom directly in his ode (something that he eventually would do two years later in “The Countryside”), focusing instead on the freedom from the absolute power of the monarch. However, he still clarifies in the third stanza that it is “slavery” (“Рабства грозный Гений”) which renders it impossible for him to remain silent.  The idea that underlies Garrison’s poems –  that “God never made a tyrant nor a slave” (Garrison 10) –  is formulated by Pushkin in the following lines:


Лишь там над царскою главой

Народов не легло страданье,

Где крепко с Вольностью святой

Законов мощных сочетанье;

Где всем простерт их твердый щит,

Где, сжатый верными руками

Граждан, над равными главами

Их меч без выбора скользит…


Владыки! вам венец и трон

Дает закон – а не природа;

Стоите выше вы народа,

Но вечный выше вас Закон. (25-40)


This extract affirms the idea of equality, of which fair and impartial laws constitute the essence; yet it also makes Pushkin’s “Ode” seem less radical than the sonnet. Garrison, strongly influenced by Quaker ideas, advocates universal equality, while Pushkin appears to offer the reader a more “secularized” and less inclusive concept of liberty. Although the poet espouses the principle that the monarchs are “below” the law, he is still prepared to accept that they are “above” their subjects. Condemning tyranny, he also condemns the executors of the “tyrant” Louis XVI. Therefore,  the “Ode to Liberty” is a political proclamation making the case for constitutional monarchy, modeled after the doctrines of Montesquieu (Proskurin 106). It is certainly less radical than Radishev’s ode which it recalls in its title (Radishev’s “Ode to Liberty” justified the execution of the “tyrants”), or Garrison’s sonnet. Nevertheless, given the poets’s emotive oratory and an intense indignation which suffuses the ode, it becomes apparent why it was not published in Pushkin’s lifetime. In a country ruled by a czar who believed that his right to the throne was God-given, it was clearly dangerous to question this right. The poet’s condemnation of the “tyrant” who chose to quench his thirst for power at the expense of the public good is even more dangerously phrased in what Shklovsky aptly identifies as an “emotional centerpiece” of the ode (Шкловский 16):


Самовластительный злодей!

Тебя, твой трон я ненавижу,

Твою погибель, смерть детей

С жестокой радостию вижу.

Читают на твоем челе

Печать проклятия народы,

Ты ужас мира, стыд природы,

Упрек ты богу на земле. (57-64)


Attempts to identify the addressee of these words, who is (perhaps, deliberately) unidentified, have sparked many a heated critical debate. Despite considerable argumentation to the contrary, I endorse the view held by Shklovsky and critics before him that Alexander’s father Paul I or even Alexander himself is being targeted in this stanza (Шкловский 16). Even if it were not so, there can be no doubt that the condemning words are addressed to an absolute monarch, or even to absolute monarchs collectively, and come perilously close to reiterating Radishev’s revolutionary message. Clearly, had Alexander read the ode, he could hardly have failed to be angered by it. Remarkably, the accusation in the last line of the stanza (“упрек ты Богу на Земле”) resembles Garrison’s description of slave-owners who “desecrate His glorious image” (11). Garrison prophesizes divine retribution for their sins, while Pushkin warns that the public anger and execution may await rulers who attempt to destroy civil liberties, mentioning the fates of Louis XVI  and Paul I by way of illustration. Therefore, the  two poems have a similar structure, although the resemblance is imperfect: both start with describing the society’s depravity, then move on to proclaim the principles the poets espouse (for Garrison, it is “equal brotherhood” (7); for Pushkin, it is the law that protects civil liberties),  finally issuing a warning to those who curtail freedom and question its sanctity.

A theme crucial to the abolitionists’ art in both American and Russian poetic traditions, freedom evokes the same associations and is therefore represented by the same symbols. Whittier, for instance, uses the extended metaphor of fire in a number of his poems, notably in “Our Countrymen in Chains!”:


And shall we scoff at Europe’s kings,

When Freedom’s fire is dim with us,

And round our country’s altar clings

The damning shade of Slavery’s curse? (61-64)


In this passage, Whittier makes skillful use of the antithesis by placing in tension with each other two contrasting images: “the damning shade” of slavery, a barbarous relic of the past, and the “holy light” of “Freedom’s fire,” a sign of progress and spiritual revival. Pushkin also introduces a similar binary opposition in his poem “To Chaadaev,” contrasting light and darkness and  sleep and awakening. Freedom is represented as a fire that spurs the young poet to action and as a triumphant but still distant light of the “enchanting star of happiness” (“звезда пленительного счастья”) – a beacon of hope which the speaker believed would awake Russia from its heavy “sleep” and free it from the yoke of slavery ( 18, 19).  In Alexander Odoevsky’s arguably most famous poem, “Струн вещих пламенные звуки…”,  which was to become a manifesto not only of the Decembrist movement but also of later revolutionary movements in Russia, the last two stanzas are built around an extended metaphor of a “spark” which gives birth to “freedom’s fire” (10, 14).  These lines bear more than a passing resemblance to Whittier’s exhortations to “on the nation’s naked heart/ Scatter the living coals of Truth,” for the “coals,” too, may ignite the open flames of freedom and revolt (84).  The bell is yet another powerful symbol of freedom that transgresses national boundaries, doubtlessly because the poets liked to ascribe the profound impact of its deep and resonant sound to their art. They felt, not without reason, that they spoke for the progressive forces within their societies, and the “tocsin of freedom” embodies their attempts to make their voices heard (Pierpont, “The Liberty Bell” 2).  For instance, John Pierpont’s poem “The Liberty Bell” is resonant in the literal sense of the word because he makes use of poetic devices such as alliteration ([l], [n], [m], [ŋ]) and assonance ([o]) to masterfully convey the bell’s triumphant sound. The liberty bell in Russian poetry is less abstract, being imbued with strong historical and political connotations. It is explicitly not a church bell (the sound of church bells being, in Lermontov’s poetry in particular, associated with monotonous and  suffocating reality); rather, it is almost always a summoning bell of the Novgorod Republic. Novgorod had historically enjoyed unprecedented independence and democracy, which it had jealously guarded until 1478, when it was finally conquered by Ivan III and forced to join the expanding Muscovite state. The summoning bell, which was immediately taken down after the conquest of the principality and transported to Moscow, was the most powerful symbol of freedom not only in Novgorod, but also across the whole of the Kievan Rus – so powerful that, as legend has it, Ivan III ordered its tongue to be taken out so that it could never ring again . Clearly, with such a dramatic history, the Novgorod bell as symbol of freedom was particularly suited to Russian abolitionist poetry, for it symbolized a freedom desecrated and lost. It epitomized the ongoing struggle to save the masses from the imprisoning institution of serfdom in a country whose government was continuously attempting to drown opposing voices. The representations of the Novgorod bell in poetry are usually intended to evoke sadness interlaced with hope and longing for liberty, as in Lev May’s early poem “The Veche Bell.” Here, the bell is personified through a passionate, half-sad, half-hopeful monologue, addressed to the Volkhov river. In the monologue, the Bell mourns his fate, but asks the river to wreck the boat in which he is due to be transported to Moscow, hoping that his tolling will still be heard from the depths and will encourage the people of Novgorod to try to regain their lost liberties (18-33).

American abolitionists also turned to history or historicized contemporary events to accentuate their significance and endow them with a symbolic status. Whittier’s poem “The Curse of the Charter-Breakers” provides a fine example of a direct reference to history. Although initially designed to protect the power of the barons and strengthen the feudal system, the Magna Carta brought the royal power under control and laid the foundation for the development of parliamentary government not only in England, but also in the United States. The curse, Whittier repeatedly highlights, may betide anyone who violates the charter, “whatsoe’er his rank or might” (22). This poem is essentially an eloquent indictment of arbitrary uncontrolled power (such as the power masters had over their slaves). It invites comparison with Pushkin’s ode, which also promotes the idea of the “higher law”. Edmund Clarence Stedman’s long narrative poem “How Old Brown Took Harper’s Ferry,” which initially appeared under the title  “John Brown’s Invasion.  How old Brown took Harper’s Ferry.  A Ballad of the times (containing ye true history of ye great Virginia fight.)” (“Antislavery Literature Project”), is an instance of “historicizing” a contemporary event. Since the ballad  is usually “ derived from a tragic incident in local history or legend” (Baldick, Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms 32), by giving his long narrative poem a ballad-like quality Stedman doubtlessly wanted to emphasize that “the great Virginia fight” would leave an indelible mark in history. The Decembrist Mikhail Bestujev  also historicizes a contemporary event in his “Song,” inspired by the revolt of the Chernigov regiment.This revolt was led by his brother-in-arms Sergey Muravyov-Apostol, who was tried by the Imperial Court  and hanged shortly after the rebels were defeated. The “Song” imitates the style of Russian heroic ballads (bylinas), and Muravyov-Apostol is portrayed as a hero of such a ballad – young, fearless and willing to give his life for freedom. Pushkin was also fascinated by folklore. He not only wrote “The History of Pugachev”, but also made Stepan Razin, the leader of a full-scale serf revolt which anticipated Pugachev’s Rebellion, a character of the three poems entitled “Songs about Sten’ka Razin” (“Песни о Стеньке Разине”), where he made use of the metrical patterns of Russian folk songs.  Although Pushkin portrays Razin as an unruly outlaw, the unrestricted, absolute freedom he so fearlessly enjoys is intended as a contrast to the suffocating and imprisoning reality the poet inhabits.

References to classical antiquity are just as common in Russian literary culture. Many poets, notably the Decembrists, regarded it as a source of “ethical instruction” and “politicized the ancients by veiling their own agendas in classical costume” (Kahn 220). This attitude is instantiated in one of Kondraty Ryleyev’s most well-known poems, “К временщику” – an imitation of the satire by Aulus Persius Flaccus:


Тиран, вострепещи! родиться может он,
Иль Кассий
, или Брут, иль враг царей Катон!
О, как на лире я потщусь того прославить,
Отечество моё кто от тебя избавит!(26-29)


It is clear from the preceding lines that Ryleyev draws parallels between the Russia he lives in and ancient Rome, identifying himself and the Decembrists with classical heroes. In his famous “Address Read at the Opening of the Pensylvania Hall,” Whittier also manifests his fascination with  classical aesthetics, comparing the “fair and lofty Hall” (15) to the majestic buildings of Athens and Rome (19-36). Yet he also acknowledges something that Ryleyev chose to disregard for the sake of a dramatic effect, namely that


…in the porches of Athena’s halls,

And in the shadows of her stately walls,

Lurked the sad bondsman, and his tears of woe

Wet the cold marble with unheeded flow… (37-40)


The Pennsylvania Hall is “loftier” than the halls of the ancient Rome, because it is a place where, as John Adams wrote in a letter read at its opening, “liberty and equality of civil rights can be freely discussed” (qtd. in “Pensylvania Hall”). It is, therefore, a monument to future freedom.

If the understanding of the symbols of freedom is nuanced by the different political and cultural contexts in which the poets worked, the symbol of slavery –  the chain  – is universal. It is central to a number of poems: Whittier, for instance,  refers to slavery as “the chain which binds our states” (“In the Evil days” 7)  and Nekrasov uses the image of  “цепь великая” (“the great chain”)  in “Who Is Happy in Russia?” to speak about serfdom (1.5). He evokes chain in another poem, “На Волге”, to show how the treatment of serfs and criminals overlaps: “…ты шагаешь под ярмом/ Не краше узника в цепях…” (4). This symbol is also used to a lasting effect in John Pierpont’s poem “The Chain,” from which I will quote three stanzas:


Is it his daily toil that wrings
From the slave’s bosom that deep sigh?
Is it his niggard fare that brings
The tear into his down-cast eye?

O no; by toil and humble fare
Earth’s sons their health and vigor gain;
It is because the slave must wear
His chain.

Is it the sweat from every pore
That starts, and glistens in the sun,
As, the young cotton bending o’er,
His naked back it shines upon? (1-12)


The word “chain” in the above example disturbs and arrests. It immediately stands out not only because it disrupts the heavy regularity of the first seven lines, but also because it also makes a striking visual impact, closing the shortest, two-word line. This effect is retained throughout the rest of the poem, for every time the chain is mentioned, the rhythm undergoes a temporary deformation. Ivan Nikitin achieves a similar effect in his richly metaphorical poem “The Host” (“Хозяин”). The poem is split down the middle by the song of a madman –  which is, essentially, a poem inside a poem – and its irregular rhythm jars with  the narrator’s calm voice, instantly capturing the reader’s attention. The madman sings about an enchained falcon, who waits for liberty for a thousand years in vain and expresses his frustration by clawing himself (113-120). Since the falcon is a metaphor for Russia, this act of ultimate self-destruction symbolizes the corrosive effect that serfdom had on society.

If the chain denotes slavery, then the broken chain is another symbol for liberty. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper employs it to refer to the slave emancipation after the Civil War in her poem “The Deliverance”: “After years of pain and parting,/ Our chains was broke in two” (11). Nekrasov extends this metaphor, describing the abolition of serfdom thus: “Порвалась цепь великая,/ Порвалась – расскочилася:/ Одним концом по барину,/ Другим – по мужику!” (1.5).  Implicit in this image is the life-changing nature of the 1861 reform, which engendered transitional difficulties for both peasants and noblemen.  However, the author is adamant that the peasant will be able to overcome these obstacles and build a better future.  Many Russian abolitionists did not live to see the burden of serfdom lifted; instead, they were destined – and prepared – to share it. This happened with the Decembrists, who were either executed, imprisoned or exiled to Siberia. Many, though, remained undeterred by the failure of the revolt:


                     … цепями,

Своей судьбой гордимся мы,

И за затворами тюрьмы

В душе смеемся над царями. (Одоевский, “Струн вещих пламенные звуки…” 5-8)


However, as some abolitionist poets point out, the burden sometimes proves too much to bear.  For the character in the aforementioned Bestujev’s poem, for instance, enchainment and imprisonment is tantamount to death.

The representation of death as “the only refuge for a slave who mourns for liberty” is common in abolitionist poetry in both Russia and America (Horton, “Slavery” 29-30).  In the poems “Slavery” and “The Slave’s Complaint” by George Moses Horton, the speaker becomes resigned to his fate as a slave, and the only hope that sustains him is that he will be freed from the imprisoning constraints of servitude in the afterlife. For the slave in Pierpont’s poem “I Would Not Live Always,” death is a “deliverer” (8). Exactly the same feeling is expressed by one of the barge-haulers (many of whom were serfs hired out by their owners) in Nikolay Nekrasov’s poem “На Волге”:


Когда бы зажило плечо,

Тянул бы лямку, как медведь,

А кабы к утру умереть –

Так лучше было бы еще… (3)


These words are a devastating indictment of the inhumanity of bondage, and, given the circumstances, they take on a literal meaning. If people were born slaves or serfs, their fate was pre-determined and their chances to escape were practically non-existentas the fugitive slave laws and their Russian equivalents were equally tough. Death was frequently the only way of liberation for many;  hence the heart-wrenching declaration of a slave mother in Thomas Hill’s poem “The Mother’s Prayer,”  who asks from heaven the death of her children, because her only hope is that “there’ll be no slavery in the world/ That follows after this” (35-36)

The blow this slave mother suffered is crushing, because, as we learn from the poem, her children were “sold into strangers’ cruel hands”(11). Forced separation of families was one of the most  appalling and dehumanizing forms that the master’s power over the bondsmen could take; it emphasized the prevailing perception of the latter as property, rather than as human beings capable of affection. Frances Harper is among those who countered this attitude by portraying the suffering of the victims of a slave-owner’s inhumane actions in poems such as “The Slave Mother” and “The Slave Auction.” The first poem attempts to paint a word picture of the “anguish none may paint or tell” (12) – the anguish of the family members who are “rudely forced to part” (22).  The second mourns the fate of a mother, who is deprived of motherhood. Her son is taken from her, never to be seen again, and she is powerless to change this, because, although she gave birth to him, “he is not hers.” These words are repeated three times, in lines 21, 23 and 25, and the anaphora reinforces the sad paradox that even the people as close as a mother and her child can be torn apart on a master’s whim. This is what angers Alexander Andreevitch Chatsky, the main character of “Woe from Wit”, a comedy in verse by Alexander Griboedov. Defying the genre of a comedy, Chatsky is a tragic hero, who denounces serfdom in long, fervent soliloquys, which are frequently treated in Russian criticism as poems in their own right. In the most well-known of his soliloquys, famously beginning with the words “Who are the judges?”, Chatsky  recounts a story of serf children  who were  “torn from their mothers and fathers” to become ballet dancers in a wealthy nobleman’s private theater (Chatsky act 2 scene 5 strophe 8). Nekrasov’s poem “Who is Happy in Russia?” contains the story of a house serf, Jacob, whose nephew, Grisha, was sent to the army because of his love for a peasant girl Jacob’s master liked. Unable to bear the shock of a separation from his only relative, Jacob commits suicide (2.1.  “Про холопа примерного…”).

This story also probes the theme of betrayal. Although Jacob has been by his master’s side for many years, nursing his ill health, the latter still chooses to get rid of Jacob’s nephew, dealing his faithful servant a crushing blow. Such could be the treatment of even the most loyal servants; however attached they were to their master (which could happen if  they cared for him in his early childhood),  in most cases, they were still treated as inferior beings and could not expect gratitude. In “Woe from Wit,” Chatsky mentions the serfs with a similar fate:


Усердствуя, они [the servants] в часы вина и драки

И честь и жизнь его не раз спасали: вдруг

На них он [the nobleman] выменял борзые три собаки!!! (Chatsky act 2 scene 5 strophe 7)


Longfellow’s poem “The Quadroon Girl” describes an even more atrocious betrayal – that of a father selling his mixed-blood daughter. The onerous deed of selling one’s own child, allowing avarice to prevail over “the voice of nature” (41), unmasks the depravities of a slave-owning society and the degree of slaveowners’ psychological mutilation.

It is hardly surprising that in so corrupt a society, the life of a bondsman matters very little.  The planters clearly would prefer to draw a veil over the numberless “unknown graves” of the victims of the slave trade that Longfellow visualizes in “The Witnesses” (31). Yet “the skeletons in chains” “glare” accusingly from the sunken ship, refusing to forget the cruelty to which they were subjected (3, 30). Longfellow’s poem demonstrates a clear connection with “The Railroad” by Nekrasov, a poem which sought to remind nineteenth-century readers that the railroad, a convenience they took for granted, cost the lives of many of its builders (the majority of whom were serfs hired out by their owners). The railroad in the poem is a shorthand for serfdom; it is portrayed as a vast burial ground for those workers who did not survive the backbreaking work and frequent epidemics. The wealthy passenger refuses to discuss their deaths with his traveling companion, yet their shadows haunt the carriage and appear in his little son’s dream to tell of their struggles. After death, the oppressed finally find their voice.


Persuasive Techniques

However great its artistic value may be, an abolitionist poem is invariably characterized by the subjugation of the aesthetic to the ethic. It is essentially a public statement. Keeping this in mind, it seems relevant to examine the strategies the poets employed to shape and direct popular opinion. Notably, these strategies are the same in Russian and American poetry. However, before analyzing them, it is essential to specify the types of readers the poets addressed, because the function of the devices that they employed is inflected by the role of the addressee. The abolitionists wrote for three types of audiences:

  1. for their allies, to inspire and rekindle the enthusiasm for the common cause;
  2. for those on the other side of the ideological spectrum, intending to counter and condemn their ideology;
  3. and for the general public, whose ambivalence had to be converted into support.

Most abolitionist poems addressed these three groups simultaneously, intending to captivate them with resonant imagery and fiery rhetoric. The crucial feature that characterizes  abolitionist poetry, much of which lends itself exceptionally well to public declamation, is that it is polemical verse and therefore takes its cue from the classical rhetoric. I have briefly discussed alliteration and antithesis; many other rhetorical figures were successfully employed in both sentence-level and text-level discourses.

The abolitionist poets injected pathos into their verse. Their works were often written in an assertive, politicized, and indignant language. Garrison famously wrote: “I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?… I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation” (“To the Public”).  Clearly, Garrisson, along with the other abolitionist poets, refused to remain an impassive recorder of human behavior or an aloof, detached observer of society’s ills. He could not – and would not – keep his criticism muted. In polemical verse, emotional appeals (“Восстаньте, падшие рабы!” [Pushkin “Ode to Liberty” 16]; “Up – While ye pause, our sun may set …”[Whittier “Our Countrymen” 87]) are common. Hypophora is yet another frequently used device on which the authors rely to elicit an emotional response from their audience. It is used to a lasting effect in Nekrasov’s thought-provoking lines, addressed to the oppressed peasants, in which he implies that their fate is worse than death:


Чем хуже был бы твой удел,
Когда б ты менее терпел?
Как он, безгласно ты умрешь,
Как он, безвестно пропадешь (“На Волге” 4).


and in “The Slave’s Complaint” by George Moses Horton: “Is it Hope? – then burn and blaze / Forever!” (16-17) 

A device that further intensifies the engagement between the work and the reader is the rhetorical question.   It is an effective way to open a poem, instantly integrating the readers into the fabric of the text by appealing to their emotions (as in “The Chain” by Garrison or “The Slave Mother” by Frances Harper) or their sense (as in Chatsky’s monologue, which opens with the proverbial question “Who are the judges?”, inviting the public to look more closely at the morals of those who establish laws and social mores). It is an equally effective way to end a poem, ensuring that the reader’s impression lingers. Pushkin, for example, closes his poem “The Countryside” thus:


Увижу ль, о друзья! народ неугнетенный
И рабство, падшее по манию царя,
И над отечеством свободы просвещенной
Взойдет ли наконец прекрасная заря?(24-27)


Here he also employs another rhetorical device, the apostrophe, which he will use again in his poem “To Chaadaev.”  Poems such as “To Abolitionists” by Pierpont and “To William Lloyd Garrison” by Whittier testify that the apostrophe was also favored by American poets as a means of sending inspirational messages to fellow abolitionists. It can also convey profound indignation or scorching condemnation, such as when Pushkin addresses the tyrant in his ode or in the following lines from James Whitfield’s “America”:


America, it is to thee,

Thou boasted land of liberty,—

It is to thee I raise my song,

Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong (1-4).


That Whitfield addresses to the nation as a whole foregrounds the fact that he is speaking for the whole of the oppressed population, to whom the contrast between the country’s surface appearance as a “land of liberty” and the slave’s  predicament was evident. The image of the “land of liberty” is instantly undermined by the contrasting image in the last line, and this juxtaposition lends the poem a fiery intensity.  The poet employs parallel constructions; he therefore is using a device that may be classified as the “antithesis of both wording and sense” (Rhetorica ad Alexandrum  qtd. in “Literary Theory: An Anthology”).  The “antithesis of sense” is even more frequently used, and it is at the core of much of the abolitionist verse. Whittier employs it in his “Address,” contrasting the glory and civilization of ancient societies with the predicament of a “sad bondsman” exploited by this society (37). Similarly, Pushkin divides his poem “The Countryside” (“Деревня”) into roughly equal halves. The first describes the countryside as seen through the admiring eyes of a city dweller, that is, “a calm refuge for labors and inspiration” (2); the second uncovers the atrocities committed by the landowners in the midst of this rural paradise – a shocking juxtaposition, intended to call attention to the appalling conditions in which serfs were forced to exist. George Moses Horton makes use of the antithesis in a strikingly similar context in his poem “Slavery,” in which he mourns his fate of being born a slave:


When first my bosom glowed with hope,

I gazed as from a mountain top

On some delightful plain;

But oh! how transient was the scene –

It fled as though it had not been

And all my hopes were vain.


Why was the dawning of my birth

Upon this vile, accursed earth,

Which is but pain to me?(1-15)


The first lines are permeated with serene and tranquil lyricism, yet the effect of the rest of the poem is sobering, as the sublime illusion of freedom is dispelled by the vividly concrete reality. In much the same way, the “tantalizing blaze” (Horton 7) in the first part of “The Countryside,” in all the beauty of the “meadow piled with fragrant haystacks” (Pushkin 11) and “the stripes of cornfields” (16) is just as delightful as it is transient. Antitheses such as these would certainly catch the readers’ attention and probably prompt them to support efforts to achieve equality.



Through the parallel reading of Russian and American abolitionist poetry, I have demonstrated a clear connection between verse created in different countries, but with the same purpose –  to oppose the two related institutions of unfree labor. The similarities can be observed in the imagery and the thematic repertoire the poets used, as well as in their persuasive techniques. Without a doubt, the above discussion could be developed further; for example, it would be useful to delve deeper into the performative aspects of poetic speech and the mechanisms behind it. Although this analysis is far from exhaustive, I hope  it proves that poetic resistance to inequality transcends not only linguistic, but also cultural and stylistic boundaries, because poetry is, in the words of Garrison, “naturally and instinctively on the side of liberty” (qtd. “Abolition, Anti-Slavery Movements…”).

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