{The Infernal Character of Slavery} “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass” by Frederick Douglass (1881)

There are four examples of poetry in the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, two in the narrative body and two in the appendix; each has a singular as well as collective purpose in the narrative. Douglass’ first use of poetry within his narrative occurs in Chapter Eight, where he describes the fate of his grandmother after Mistress Lucretia and Master Andrew die. The poem that follows his account functions as a kind of counterpoint to his narrative.

The poem is an excerpt from a fellow slave’s poem and it is effective as a complement to Douglass’ illustration of the “infernal character of slavery.” It may be described as a counterpoint because it functions as a digression to the narrative, while at the same time continuing the Douglass’ narrative. Instead of disrupting the narrative, the poem enriches the drama of the grandmother’s plight and the experience of the slaves at large. The poem is almost an aside from the grandmother, a dirge for her “stolen daughters.”

The second instance of poetry in Douglass’ narrative is in Chapter Ten, where the narrator and some of his fellow slaves are planning an escape to freedom. The second poem functions in a similar fashion to the first. Douglass’ uses the poetic fragment to reveal the hesitation of the slaves to meet further danger along the road to escape: “rather bear those ills we had,/Than fly to others, that we knew not of.” The inclusion of the fragment reinforces the idea that the slave experience was collective and to rescue “the character of slavery from the involuntary evidence of the masters.”

Douglass’ is interested in presenting the ills of slavery from the perspective of the suffering slave. The embedded poetry within the narrative reveals that other slaves suffered and thought exactly as Douglass did in his life: Douglass’ pursuit of freedom is the pursuit of his race as a whole. The idea of placing poetry within the autobiographical prose narrative is similar to counterpoint in a musical piece, with the only difference being that in music nested voices are not so markedly differentiated, but the polyphonic element is present nonetheless.

The poetry does not interfere with the harmony of the narrative, instead it places credence to the claim that Douglass is presenting, “No one-sided poetry,” and that the depictions of suffering in the story “are no incidental aggravations, no individual ills.” Douglass’ narrative is a pioneering story detailing the collective experience of his people, driven to exodus from their African homeland, into a state of bondage in America, and then to freedom again.