George Moses Horton wrote poems, and for a very long time he attempted to sell these poems to purchase his freedom from slavery.
Horton was born on a tobacco plantation in North Carolina. As a child, he taught himself to read with the bits of spelling books he managed to find. Come Sundays, he would find a place in the oaks with bark or brush candles to read by. As Horton tells it,
On well nigh every Sabbath during the year, did I retire away in the summer season to some shady and lonely recess, when I could stammer over the dim and promiscuous syllables in my old black and tattered spelling book, sometimes a piece of one, and then of another; nor would I scarcely spare the time to return to my ordinary meals, being so truly engaged with my book.
The spelling books soon gave way to the New Testament, Wesley’s hymns, and whatever verse came his way. Then, on one calm Sunday morning, Horton stepped into the deep rhythms of poetic lines and made a hymn himself,
Rise up, my soul and let us go
Up to the gospel feast;
Gird on the garment white as snow,
To join and be a guest.
Dost thou not hear the trumpet call
For thee, my soul, for thee?
Not only thee, my soul, but all,
May rise and enter free.
Not long after, a poem followed, “Excited from reading the obedience of Nature to her Lord in the vessel on the sea,” and not long after that, Horton was composing poems and storing them away in the eaves of the mind, the scent and sap of them filling bone and blood and destiny.
Slave-owners divided Horton’s family, and he was sent to the slave-owner’s son James, who in 1815 moved from Northampton to Chatham, which was close to the university at Chapel Hill where Horton was soon delivering goods from the countryside. The college students there carried out pranks on the slaves coming in from the country, and Horton relates how he was the brunt of jokes where he had to give extemporaneous speeches on a given subject. But one day, Horton said one of his own poems.
The college students didn’t laugh. They were amazed. Soon they were paying him to write poems, often love poems, on commission. Horton tells how he composed poems at the hand of the plough to remember them later when someone would record them. He lists the books he received with a book-love that any poet knows: “Milton’s Paradise Lost, Thompson’s The Seasons, parts of Homer’s Illiad and Virgil’s Aenead, Beauties of Shakespeare, Beauties of Byron, part of Plutarch, Morse‘s Geography, the Columbian Orator, Snowden‘s History of the Revolution, Young‘s Night Thoughts.” Horton learned to write, and cites Caroline Lee Hentz as a helper and friend as he did so.
In 1829, Horton’s first book of poetry was published. It was called The Hope of Liberty, for it was his hope that the money from this book would buy him his freedom. It didn’t. In 1845, Horton published another book of poetry, 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. This book didn’t buy him his freedom either.
In 1865 Horton joined the Ninth Cavalry from Michigan, and he collaborated with William H. S. Banks, an officer in this regiment, to publish his next book of verse, Naked Genius. Then, at age 68, Horton moved to Pennsylvania—a free man. He wrote poems for the local newspapers. One was called “Forbidden to Ride on the Street Cars”—freedom from slavery, of course, didn’t mean freedom from racism, and his poems could tell of such things.
One of Horton’s poems is “On the Pleasures of College Life.” The poem is rich with the best of a liberal arts education—zoology, astronomy, theology: all are unpacked with loving lists of the spectacular details within these worlds of thought. Horton’s description of these subjects seem to spark with a loving intimacy, as if he is detailing favorite parts of these subjects, which would have been all the more dear had he himself sat in the classes.
The flame of the mind flashes out in this poem, and in other poems, and it is a flame that demands us to ask, What was it like? What was it like to write poems at the hand of the plough, and sell them later, and slowly piece together poetry collections that never did buy the freedom you wanted? George Moses Horton, what was it like, writing lines like this,
I feel myself in need
Of the inspiring strains of ancient lore,
My heart to lift, my empty mind to feed,
And all the world explore.
or this, from “Man a Torch,”
Blown up with painful care, and hard to light,
A glimmering torch, blown in a moment out;
Suspended by a webb, an angler’s bait,
Floating at stake along the stream of chance,
Snatch’d from its hook by the fish of poverty.
With a heart full of pain, in the night
Mid hillocks and bogs I retire,
Through lone, deadly vallies I steer by its light,
The wild storm, the smoke, and the fire.
in the bonds of slavery? What was it like?