Horton’s selection of poetry begins by assuring white audiences that the black author has no intentions of subverting white supremacy.
George Moses Horton in Slavery and Verse
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Americans of all sorts–even African Americans in rare cases here and there–not only tolerated, but positively benefited from slavery for over two hundred years by the time George Moses Horton published the following poems. In the first colonies, slavery was a haphazard affair; it was an adaptation to frontier life in which Christian peoples forced non‐Christians to produce cash crops for a steadily globalizing economy. At first, slavery was not racial, nor was it even much of an institution. English law, for example, had no statutes governing the conduct of slaves or slavemasters because there were no slaves in England. It simply was not a recognized social category and had not been since…well, into the depths of ancient history. If the colonists wanted to keep their slaves, then, they would have to make their own laws to do it. After white servants (many of them exiled veterans of the New Model Army) joined African slaves in plots like the Gloucester County Conspiracy or Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) the Virginia House of Burgesses embarked on a campaign to both fully institutionalize and racialize slavery. By drawing a clear, legal delineation between slaves and freemen, the colonial elite hoped to drive a permanently divide their interests. By making race the dividing line–the thing that marked you as either a slave or a free person–the legislature completed the maneuver. Virginia’s new “Black Codes” became the model for every other British colony, even cold and rocky New England. By 1700, slavery was already absolutely central to the emerging imperial economy. Even the idealistic, antislavery proprietors of Georgia were essentially overcome with waves of planters who crossed the border from Carolina with their chattels in tow. Slavery was a fundamental component of American life for centuries, part of the institutional framework that defined who could be successful and who was forever doomed to stay in their foreordained place.
During the Enlightenment in particular, scientists and philosophers like the Comte de Buffon and Voltaire did the work of naturalizing what the colonial states had already institutionalized. Virginia, the other British colonies, and indeed all the other European empires already defined Africans as slaves and whites as free people, with levels of whiteness and blackness in between. Now, the Great Thinkers stepped in to explain how all of this was quite natural, quite right, highly scientific: Africans were particularly well‐developed for manual labor. Their muscles were denser, or their limbs longer, or their skins well‐adjusted to heat, or their hair gave them some sort of magical powers to resist disease and fatigue, or whatever pseudoscientific nonsense you care to imagine. For the next two centuries and more, “scientific racism” took over where the state’s unpretentious racism started the ball rolling. We should not be surprised, then, that Horton (or perhaps his southern transcriptionist) felt the need to assure his audience of his own inferiority. Before them there was clearly a brilliant man–a slave who taught himself to read and compose poetry on all sorts of romantic and bucolic subjects. We have here page after page of heartfelt, insightful, empathetic, and skillful poetry springing from the least likely source imaginable in American society, and Horton’s introduction sounds a note of warning to his white audience: the slave has not “flatter[ed] himself with an idea of superiority, or even equality with ancient or other modern poets.” Readers are assured that Horton and his clear genius pose no threat to their own artificial (essentially state‐granted) sense of superiority: “He is deeply conscious of his own inferiority from the narrowness of the scope in which he has lived during the course of his past life.” We are assured that Horton desires no fame–his poems will be used strictly to benefit their white audience–but he does wish to show that Africans are capable of genius, too. The introduction remarks that Horton’s genius is doomed to remain an unpolished diamond never allowed to “shine forth to the world.” With a wink and a nod, then, to the people who both love to read his poems and love to keep him oppressed, Horton begins the collection.
D. Heartt, Printer: Hillsborough, NC. 1845.
The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North‐Carolina, to Which is Prefixed The Life of the Author, Written By Himself
The author of the following miscellaneous effusions, asserts that they are original, and recently written; and they are now presented to the test of criticism, whatever may be the result. It is entirely different from his other work entitled the Museum, and has been written some time since that, and is not so large. The author is far from flattering himself with an idea of superiority, or even equality with ancient or other modern poets. He is deeply conscious of his own inferiority from the narrowness of the scope in which he has lived during the course of his past life. Few men of either a white or colored population, have been less prompted by a desire for public fame than he whose productions are now before you. He was actuated merely by pleasure and curiosity, as a call to some literary task, or as an example to remove the doubts of cavilists with regard to African genius. His birth was low, and in a neighborhood by no means populous; his raising was rude and laborious; his exertions were cramped, and his progress obstructed from start to goal; having been ever deprived of the free use of books and other advantages to which he aspired. Hence his genius is but an unpolished diamond, and can never shine forth to the world.
Forbid to make the least attempt to soar, The stifled blaze of genius burns the more; He still prevails his drooping head to raise, Plods through the bogs, and on the mountains gaze.
The Poetical Works of George M. Horton.
“The Musical Chamber”
I trust that my friends will remember, Whilst I these my pleasures display, Resort to my musical chamber, The laurel crown’d desert in May.
Resort to this chamber at leisure, Attend it by night and by day; To feast on the dainties of pleasure, Which cannot be stinted in May.
This place is both pleasing and moral, A chamber both lovely and gay, In the shade of a ne’er fading laurel, Whose grace in December is May.
Abounding with every fine story, While time passes hurrying away, This place is a banquet of glory, Which rings with the ditties of May.
The chamber of Chatham and Dolly, A place of a comical play, Gave place unto Lovel’s fine folly, The birds and sweet flowers of May.
Here Venus attends with her lover, Here Floras their suitors betray, And uncommon secrets discover, Which break from the bosom of May.
Here ever young Hebe sits smiling, The wonders of youth to portray, Excluding old age from deflining The lads and the lassies of May.
Call by, little stranger, one minute, Your joy will reward your delay; Come, feast with the lark and the linnet, And drink of the waters of May.
Walk in, little mistress, be steady, You’r welcome a visit to pay; All things in the chamber are ready, Resolve to be married in May.
Deserted of her Spouse, she sat lamenting in the chamber.
Hast thou gone and left me, Void of faults but strictly true? Fly far away Without delay, Adieu, my love, adieu.
Hast thou gone and left me, Hence to seek another bride? I must be still, Thou hast thy will, The world is free and wide.
Only hadst thou told me Ere I drunk the bitter cup, I could with shame, Now bear the blame, And freely give thee up.
But I’m left to ponder, Now in the depth of sorrow’s gloom; Like some dull sprite, In dead of night, Bewailing o’ver her tomb.
Swiftly fly and welcome; It is the fate of fools to rove; With whom I know Wedlock is wo Without the stream of love.
Where constant love is wanting, Pleasure has not long to dwell; I view my fate, Alas, too late! So partner, fare thee well.
But, my love, remember, Hence we meet and face to face, Thy heart shall ache, Thy soul shall quake, The wretch of all disgrace.
“Death of a Favorite Chamber Maid.”
O death, thy power I own, Whose mission was to rush, And snatch the rose, so quickly blown, Down from its native bush; The flower of beauty doom’d to pine, Ascends from this to worlds divine.
Death is a joyful doom, Let tears of sorrow dry, The rose on earth but fades to bloom And blossom in the sky. Why should the soul resist the hand That bears her to celestial land.
Then, bonny bird, farewell, Till hence we meet again; Perhaps I have not long to dwell Within the cumb’rous chain, Till on elysian shores we meet, Till grief is lost and joy complete.
“The Fearful Traveller in the Haunted Castle.”
Oft do I hear those windows ope And shut with drea surprise, And spirits murmur as they grope, But break not on the eyes.
Still fancy spies the winding sheet, The phantom and the shroud, And bids the pulse of horror beat Throughout my ears aloud.
Some unknown finger thumps the door, From one of faltering voice, Till some one seems to walk the floor With an alarming noise.
The drum of horror holds her sound, Which will not let me sleep, When ghastly breezes float around, And hidden goblins creep.
Methinks I hear some constant groan, The din of all the dead, While trembling thus I lie alone, Upon this restless bed.
At length the blaze of morning broke On my impatient view, And truth or fancy told the joke, And bade the night adieu.
‘Twas but the noise of prowling rats, Which ran with all their speed, Pursued in haste by hungry cats, Which on the vermin feed.
The cat growl’d as she held her prey, Which shriek’d with all its might, And drove the balm of sleep away Throughout the live‐long night.
Those creatures crumbling off the cheese Which on the table lay; Some cats, too quick the rogues to seize, With rumbling lost their prey.
Thus man is often his own elf, Who makes the night his ghost, And shrinks with horror from himself, Which is to fear the most.
I’ll love thee as long as I live, Whate’er thy condition may be; All else but my life would I give, That thou wast as partial to me.
I love thee because thou art fair, And fancy no other beside; I languish thy pleasures to share, Whatever my life may betide.
I’ll love thee when youth’s vital beam Grows dim on the visage of cares; And trace back on time’s rapid stream, Thy beauty when sinking in years.
Though nature no longer is gay, With blooms which the simple adore, Let virtue forbid me to say, That Cath’rine is lovely no more.
“The Swan–Vain Pleasures.”
The Swan which boasted mid the tide, Whose nest was guarded by the wave, Floated for pleasure till she died, And sunk beneath the flood to lave.
The bird of fashion drops her wing, The rose‐bush now declines to bloom; The gentle breezes of the spring No longer waft a sweet perfume.
Fair beauty with those lovely eyes, Withers along her vital stream; Proud fortune leaves her throne, and flies From pleasure, as a flattering dream.
The eagle of exalted fame, Which spread his pinions far to sail, Struggled to fan his dying flame, Till pleasure pall’d in every gale.
And gaudy mammon, sordid gain, Whose plume has faded, once so gay, Languishes mid her flowery train, Whilst pleasure flies like fumes away.
Vain pleasures, O how short to last! Like leaves which quick to ashes burn; Which kindle from the slightest blast, And slight to nothing hence return.
“The Powers of Love.”
It lifts the poor man from his cell To fortune’s bright alcove; Its mighty sway few, few can tell, Mid envious foes it conquers iil [sic]; There’s nothing half like love.
Ye weary strangers, void of rest, Who late through life have strove, Like the late bird which seek sits nest, If you would hence in truth be blest, Light on the bough of love.
The vagrant plebeian, void of friends, Constrain’d through wilds to rove, On this his safety whole depends, One faithful smile his trouble ends, A smile of constant love.
Thus did a captured wretch complain, Imploring heave above, Till one with sympathetic pain, Flew to his arms and broke the chain, And grief took flight from love.
Let clouds of danger rise and road, And hope’s firm pillars move; With storms behind and death before, O grant me this, I crave no more, There’s nothing half like love.
When nature wakes soft pity’s coo The hawk deserts the dove, Compassion melts the creature through, With palpitations felt by few, The wrecking throbs of love.
Let surly discord take its flight From wedlock’s peaceful grove, While union breaks the arm of fight, With darkness swallow’d up in light, O what is there like love.
“To a Departing Favorite.”
Thou mayst retire, but think of me When thou art gone afar, Where’er in life thy travels be, If tost along the brackish sea, Or borne upon the car.
Thou mayst retire, I care not where, Thy name my theme shall be; With thee in heart I shall be there, Content thy good or ill to share, If dead to lodge with thee.
Thou mayst retire beyond the deep, And leave thy sister train, To roam the wilds where dangers sleep, And leave affection sad to weep In bitterness and pain.
Thou mayst retire, and yet be glad To leave me thus alone, Lamenting and bewailing sad; Farewell, thy sunk deluded lad May rise when thou art gone.
‘Tis sweet to think of home.
When from my native clime, Mid lonely vallies pensive far I roam, Mid rocks and hill where waters roll sublime, ‘Tis sweet to think of home.
My retrospective gaze Bounds on a dark horizon far behind, But yet the stars of homely pleasures blaze And glimmer on my mind.
When pealing thunders roll, And ruffian winds howl, threat’ning life with gloom, To Heaven’s kind hand I then commit the whole, And smile to think of home.
But cease, my pensive soul, To languish at departure’s gloomy shrine; Still look in front and hail the joyful goal, The pleasure teeming line.
When on the deep wide sea I wander, sailing mid the swelling foam, Tost from the land by many a long degree, O, then I think of thee.
I never shall forget The by‐gone pleasures of my native shore, Until the sun of life forbears to set, And pain is known no more.
When nature seems to weep, And life hangs trembling o’er the watery tomb, Hope lifts her peaceful sail to brave the deep, And bids me think of home.
My favorite pigeon rest, Nor on the plane of sorrow drop thy train, But on the bough of hope erect thy nest, Till friends shall meet again.
Though in the hermit’s cell, Where eager friends to cheer mail fail to come, Where Zeph’rus seems a joyless tale to tell, No thought is sweet but home.
“Recent Appearance of a Lady.”
The joy of meeting one so fair, Inspires the present stream of song; A bonny belle, That few excel, And one with whom I few compare, Though out of sight so long.
It is a cause of much delight, When lads and lasses meet again; But, bonny belle, No long to dwell, For soon, upon the wing of flight, We haste away in pain.
That long hid form I smile to trace, A star emerging out of gloom, Exalted belle, Whose powers impel, And draw the heart by every grace, The queen of every bloom.
Long out of sight, but still in mind, Eternal mem’ry holds its grasp. Still, bonny belle, ‘Tis sweet to tell Of thee, when I am left behind In sorrow lonely clasp.
“Meditation on a Cold, Dark, and Rainy Night.”
Sweet on the house top falls the gentle shower, When jet black darkness crowns the silent hour, When shrill the owlet pours her hollow tone, Like some lost child sequester’d and alone, When Will’s bewildering wisp begins to flare, And Philomela breathes her dulcet air, ‘Tis sweet to listen to her nightly tune, Deprived of star‐light or the smiling moon. When deadly winds sweep round the rural shed, And tell of strangers lost, without a bed, Fond sympathy invokes her dol’rous lay, And pleasure steals in sorrow’s gloom away, Till fost’ring Somnus bids my eyes to close, And smiling visions open to repose; Still on my soothing couch I lie at ease, Still round my chamber flows the whistling breeze, Still in the chain of sleep I lie confined, To all the threat’ning ills of life resign’d, Regardless of the wand’ring elfe of night, While phantoms break on my immortal sight. The trump of morning bids my slumbers end, While from a flood of rest I straight ascend, When on a busy world I cast my eyes, And think of nightly slumbers with surprise.
“On an Old Deluded Suitor.”
See sad deluded love, in years too late, With tears desponding o’er the tomb of fate, While dusky evening’s veil excludes the light Which in the morning broke upon his sight. He now regrets his vain, his fruitless plan, And sadly wonders at the faults of man. ‘Tis now from beauty’s torch he wheels aside, And strives to soar above affection’s tide; ‘Tis now that sorrow feeds the worm of pain With tears which never can the loss regain; ‘Tis now he drinks the wormwood and the gall, And all the sweets of early [sic] pleasures pall, When from his breast the hope of fortune flies, The songs of transport languish into sighs; Fond, lovely rose, that beamed as she blew, Of all the charms of youth the most untrue, She, with delusive smiles, prevail’d to move This silly heart into the snare of love; Then like a flower closer against the bee, Folds her arms and turns her back on me. When on my fancy’s eye her smiles she shed, The torch by which deluded love was led, Then, like a lark, from boyhood’s maze I soar’d, And thus in song her flattering smiles adored. My heart was then by fondling love betray’d, A thousand pleasures bloom’d but soon to fade, From joy to my heart exulting flew, In quest of one, though fair, yet far from true.
“The Woodman and Money Hunter.”
Throughout our rambles much we find; The bee trees burst with honey; Wild birds we tame of every kind, At once they seem to be resign’d; I know but one that lags behind, There’s nothing lags but money.
The woods afford us much supply, The opossum, coon, and coney; They all are tame and venture nigh, Regardless of the public eye, I know but one among them shy, There’s nothing shy but money.
And she lies in the bankrupt shade, The cunning fox is funny; When thus the public debts are paid, Deceitful cash is not afraid, Where funds are hid for private trade, There’s nothing paid but money.
Then let us roam the woods along, And drive the coon and coney; Our lead is good, our powder strong, To shoot the pigeons as they trong, But sing no more the idle song, Nor prowel the chase for money.
“The Eye of Love.”
I know her story‐telling eye Has more expression than her tongue; And from that heart‐extorted sigh, At once the peal of love is rung.
When that soft eye lets fall a tear Of doating [sic] fondness as we part, The stream is from a cause sincere, And issues from a melting heart.
What shall her fluttering pulse restrain, The life‐watch beating from her soul, When all the power of hate is slain, And love permits it no control.
When said her tongue, I wish thee well, Her eye declared is must be true; And every sentence seem’d to tell The tale of sorrow told by few.
When low she bow’d and wheel’d aside, I saw her blushing temples fade; Her smiles were sunk in sorrow’s tide, But love was in her eye betray’d.
“The Setting Sun.”
‘Tis sweet to trace the setting sun Wheel blushing down the west; When his diurnal race is run, The traveler stops the gloom to shun, And lodge his bones to rest.
Far from the eye he sinks apace, But still throws back his light From oceans of resplendent grace, When sleeping vesper paints her face, And bids the sun good night.
To those Hesperian fields by night My thoughts in vision stray, Like spirits stealing into light, From gloom upon the wing of flight, Soaring from time away.
Our eagle, with his pinions furl’d, Takes his departing peep, And hails the occidental world, Swift round whose base the globes are whirl’d, Whilst weary creatures sleep.
“The Rising Sun.”
The king of day rides on, To give the placid morning birth; On wheels of glory moves his throne, Whose light adorns the earth.
When once his limpid maid Has the imperial course begun, The lark deserts the dusky glade, And soars to meet the sun.
Up from the orient deep, Aurora mounts without delay, With brooms of light the plains to sweep, And purge the gloom away.
Ye ghostly scenes give way, Our king is coming now in sight, Bearing the diadem of day, Whose crest expels the night.
Thus we, like birds, retreat To groves, and hide from ev’ry eye; Our slumb’ring dust will rise and meet Its morning in the sky.
The immaterial sun, Now hid within empyreal gloom, Will break forth on a brighter throne, And call us from the tomb.
Sweet Memory, like a pleasing dream, Still lends a dull and feeble ray; For ages with her vestige teems, When beauty’s trace is worn away.
When pleasure, with her harps unstrung, Sits silent to be heard no more, Or leaves them on the willows hung, And pass‐time glee forever o’er;
Still back in smiles thy glory steals With ev’ning dew drops from thine eye; The twilight bursting from thy wheels, Ascends and bids oblivion fly.
Memory, thy bush prevails to bloom, Design’d to fade, no, never, never, Will stamp thy vestige on the tomb, And bid th’ immortal live forever.
When youth’s bright sun has once declined And bid his smiling day expire, Mem’ry, thy torch steals up behind, And sets thy hidden stars on fire.