James Russell Lowell worked as an editor for a newspaper that took an abolitionist stance. He wrote Stanzas on Freedom to express how slavery ought to be viewed by one and all, as a malignancy in society that needed immediate treatment in the form of protest. It’s a good example of a poem that reflects on a social issue in a particular time period. This poem was written priorto the Civil War and pleads to the citizens of New England to stand up against slavery.
There are altogether 4 stanzas (8 lines in each), consisting of 4 rhyming couplets. The first stanza is directed to the men of New England while the second stanza is directed at the women. The third and fourth stanzas are meant for citizens in general. So Lowell has slowly built up his message and targeted separate categories of people with each stanza, making sure that it struck those who read it in different ways that they could empathise with the plight of the African American slaves. In this way the poem progresses from particular examples to a general concept of slavery.
The first two stanzas are considered to be the questioning and reflection stanzas while the latter two stanzas are more like answers to the questions previously put forth. Ultimately the poem is not only speaking about slavery but of the spirit of America. The poem is exactly as it is titled, about freedom rather than rattling on about slavery and its oppression, questioning whether America is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Here are the summaries for the stanzas:
Lowell addresses the men of New England who boast of being brave and free. The references in this poem of brave and free are in the context of the Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key particularly the line “O’ say does that Star- Spangled Banner yet wave, or the land of the free and the home of the brave?”.
“If there breathe on earth a slave, are ye truly free and brave?” He asks them whether they can truly wear their freedom and bravery as a medal of honour on their chests if slavery still prevails in their country. They cannot boast of coming from a lineage of brave men if they ignore the shackles chaining the ‘brotherhood’.
The point being extenuated in this stanza is that humankind is only as good as the lowliest of them. By using derogatory terms like ‘base’ and ‘unworthy’ he impresses upon the so-called free men that they are not free at all so long as they stand by injustice and oppression as if they were mute witnesses in a catastrophe. If you cannot feel the pain of the chain, then you are a successful brick in the foundation of slavery.
This stanza is addressed to the women of New England who, at the time, did not enjoy any rights like the right to vote. When reading this stanza it is clear that women were not free nor brave in their own right in society at the time and were given importance not as individuals but as child bearers and mothers. That is why they are questioned about how they could call their children free when slavery exists. He says they are not fit to be mothers in the first place if they cannot speak out against slavery and ought not to bring children into a world where it exists. Lowell also thinks they should feel the pain of their ‘sisters now in chains’ because although they may not be physically oppressed like slaves are, women are the oppressed gender on other levels.
Although women did not have the direct ability or power to stand up for what they believe in, they could influence the men in their lives so Lowell chose to address them so that if they read his poem, they could spread the word to men. He appeals to the women’s sense of humanity to stand up for what is right and encourage their husbands to have the courage to stand up to abolish slavery.
A simile is used in this stanza that conveys the untapped power held by women. “Deeds to make the roused blood rush/Like red lava through your veins” compares the latent frustration and indignation boiling under their calm surface to the blood flowing in their veins. The way the heart pumps blood in the body, women ought to push out their outrage against slavery like a volcano spewing out red hot lava.
Is it true freedom when all you do is look out for yourself? Is it truly the land of the free and home of the brave if America was built on the toil and sweat of slaves, living their lives in chains? In this case then those who are free owe man kind a debt because everyone is a slave whose service will be called for at one point in life, be it in the present or the near future. These are some points made in the third stanza. Lowell claims that true freedom is sharing the chains of others. The individual and mankind should be considered as one rather than separate entities.
This stanza builds on the concept that those who do not speak out against slavery are in the same boat as slaves if not worse for they are in a position to do something but choose not to. Slaves are those who are afraid to speak up on behalf of those who are fallen and weak. Saves are those who will not face the hatred, scoffing and abuse that accompany sticking up for what one believes in, instead shrinking into the silence of continued and permitted oppression. Those who would rather be in the majority despite being wrong instead of being in the minority who is right, are slaves. Lowell brings to light the various levels of slavery that exist in this stanza. He elucidates that those who are not physically enslaved are mentally enslaved especially by society’s norms and ways. So, if you cannot stand hand in hand with those who are suffering unjustly, you cannot be considered brave and free. For these people, fear of failure, rejection and becoming a social outcast are the figurative chains that weigh down on them. This can be equally disastrous for the progress of a nation and more importantly, for humanity and all of mankind.