- Editor's Selection of Poems (The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
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Editor's Selection of Poems
The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


I stand on the mark, beside the shore, 
Of the first white pilgrim's bended knee; 
Where exile changed to ancestor, 
And God was thanked for liberty. 
I have run through the night -- my skin is as dark -- 
I bend my knee down on this mark -- 
I look on the sky and the sea. 


O, pilgrim-souls, I speak to you: 
I see you come out proud and slow 
From the land of the spirits, pale as dew, 
And round me and round me ye go. 
O, pilgrims, I have gasped and run 
All night long from the whips of one 
Who, in your names, works sin and woe! 


And thus I thought that I would come 
And kneel here where ye knelt before, 
And feel your souls around me hum 
In undertone to the ocean's roar; 
And lift my black face, my black hand, 
Here in your names, to curse this land 
Ye blessed in Freedom's, heretofore. 


I am black, I am black, 
And yet God made me, they say: 
But if He did so -- smiling, back 
He must have cast his work away 
Under the feet of His white creatures, 
With a look of scorn, that the dusky features 
Might be trodden again to clay. 


And yet He has made dark things 
To be glad and merry as light; 
There's a little dark bird sits and sings, 
There's a dark stream ripples out of sight; 
And the dark frogs chant in the safe morass, 
And the sweetest stars are made to pass 
O'er the face of the darkest night. 


But we who are dark, we are dark! 
O God, we have no stars! 
About our souls, in care and cark, 
Our blackness shuts like prison-bars! 
And crouch our souls so far behind, 
That never a comfort can they find, 
By reaching through their prison-bars. 


Howbeit God's sunshine and His frost 
They make us hot, they make us cold, 
As if we were not black and lost; 
And the beasts and birds in wood and wold, 
Do fear us and take us for very men;-- 
Could the whippoorwill or the cat of the glen 
Look into my eyes and be bold? 


I am black, I am black, 
And once I laughed in girlish glee; 
For one of my color stood in the track 
Where the drivers' drove, and looked at me: 
And tender and full was the look he gave! 
A Slave looked so at another Slave,-- 
I look at the sky and the sea. 


And from that hour our spirits grew 
As free as if unsold, unbought; 
We were strong enough, since we were two, 
To conquer the world, we thought. 
The drivers drove us day by day: 
We did not mind; we went one way, 
And no better a liberty sought. 


In the open ground, between the canes, 
He said "I love you," as he passed: 
When the shingle-roof rang sharp with the rains, 
I heard how he vowed it fast. 
While others trembled, he sate in the hut 
And carved me a bowl of the cocoa-nut, 
Through the roar of the hurricanes. 


I sang his name instead of a song; 
Over and over I sang his name: Backward and forward I sang it along, 
With my sweetest notes, it was still the same! 
But I sang it low, that the slave-girls near 
Might never guess, from what they could hear, 
That all the song was a name. 


I look on the sky and the sea! 
We were two to love, and two to pray, 
Yes, two, O God, who cried on Thee, 
Though nothing didst thou say. 
Coldly thou sat'st behind the sun, 
And now I cry, who am but one,-- 
Thou wilt not speak today! 


We were black, we were black, 
We had no claim to love and bliss -- 
What marvel, ours was cast to wrack? 
They wrung my cold hands out of his -- 
They dragged him -- why, I crawled to touch 
His blood's-mark in the dust -- not much, 
Ye pilgrim-souls, --though plain as THIS! 


Wrong, followed by a greater wrong! 
Grief seemed too good for such as I; 
So the white man brought the shame ere long 
To stifle the sob in my throat thereby. 
They would not leave me for my dull 
Wet eyes! -- it was too merciful 
To let me weep pure tears, and die. 


I am black, I am black! 
I wore a child upon my breast,-- 
An amulet that hung too slack, 
And, in my unrest, could not rest! 
Thus we went moaning, child and 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 and tight! 
And he moaned and struggled as well as might be, 
For the white child wanted his liberty,-- 
Ha, ha! he wanted his master's right. 


He moaned and beat with his head and feet-- 
His little feet that never 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 mangles -- where? 
I know where! -- close! -- a child and mother 
Do wrong to look at one another, 
When one is black and one is fair. 


Even 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, 
Therefore, to save it from my curse, 
I twisted it round in my shawl. 


And he moaned and trembled from foot to head,-- 
He shivered from head to foot,-- 
Till, after a time, he lay, instead, 
Too suddenly still and 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 secret nearest to His power, -- 
And gathered my fruit to make them wine, 
And sucked the soul of that child of mine, 
As the humming-bird sucks the soul of the flower. 


Ha, ha! for the trick of the angels white! 
They freed the white child's spirit so; 
I said not a word, but day and night 
I carried the body to and 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 month ago. 


From the white man's house and the black man's hut 
I carried the little body on; 
The forest's arms did around us shut, 
And silence through the trees did run! 
They asked no questions as I went, 
They stood too high for astonishment,-- 
They could see God rise on his throne. 


My little body, kerchiefed fast, 
I bore it on through the forest -- on -- 
And when I felt it was fired at last, 
I scooped a hole beneath the moon. 
Through the forest-tops the angels far, 
With a white fine finger in every star 
Did point and mock at what was done. 


Yet when it all was done aright, 
Earth twixt me and my baby strewed, 
All changed to black earth,-- nothing white,-- 
A dark child in the dark,-- ensued 
Some comfort, and my heart grew young; 
I sate down smiling there, and sung 
The song I told you of, for good. 


And thus we two were reconciled, 
The white child and black mother, thus; 
For, as I sang it,-- soft and wild, 
The same song, more melodious, 
Rose from the grave whereon I sate! 
It was the dead child singing that, 
To join the souls of both of us. 


I look on the sea and the sky! 
Where the Pilgrims' ships first anchored lay, 
The great sun rideth gloriously! 
But the Pilgrims' ghosts have slid away 
Through the first faint streaks of morn! 
My face is black, but it glares with a scorn 
Which they dare not meet by day. 


Ah, in their stead their hunter-sons! 
Ah, ah! they are on me! they form in a ring! 
Keep off,-- I brave you all at once,-- 
I throw off your eyes like a noisome thing! 
You have killed the black eagle at nest, I think; 
Did you never stand still in your triumph, and shrink 
From the stroke of her wounded wing? 


(Man, drop that stone you dared to lift!--) 
I wish you, who stand there, seven abreast, 
Each for his own wife's grace and gift, 
A little corpse as safely at rest, 
Hid in the mangles! yes, but she 
May keep live babies on her knee, 
And sing the song she liketh best. 


I am not mad,-- I am black! 
I see you staring in my face,-- 
I know you staring, shrinking back,-- 
Ye are born of the Washington race! 
And this land is the Free America,-- 
And this mark on my wrist,-- (I prove what I say) 
Ropes tied me up here to the flogging-place. 


You think I shrieked there? not a sound! 
I hung as a gourd hangs in the sun; 
I only cursed them all around 
As softly as I might have done 
My own child after. From these sands 
Up to the mountains, lift your hands 
O Slaves, and end what I begun. 


Whips, curses! these must answer those! 
For in this UNION, ye have set 
Two kinds of men in adverse rows, 
Each loathing each! and all forget 
The seven wounds in Christ's body fair; 
While He sees gaping everywhere 
Our countless wounds that pay no debt. 


Our wounds are different -- your white men 
Are, after all, not gods indeed, 
Nor able to make Christs again 
Do good with bleeding. We who bleed,-- 
(Stand off!) --we help not in our loss, 
We are too heavy for our cross, 
And fall and crush you and your seed. 


I fall,-- I swoon,-- I look at the sky! 
The clouds are breaking on my brain: 
I am floated along, as if I should die 
Of Liberty's exquisite pain! 
In the name of the white child waiting for me 
In the deep black death where our kisses agree,-- 
White men, I leave you all curse-free, 
In my broken heart's disdain! 

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