John Leyden, "The Wail of Alzira. A Negro Song" (1819)



The Wail of Alzira,

A Negro Song.

SWEET bird of twilight, sad thy notes,
  That swell the citron-flowers among !
But sadder on the night-breeze floats
  Forlorn Alzira's plaintive song.

While, bending o'er the western flood,
  She soothes the infant on her knee,-
Sweet babe ! her breast is streak'd with blood,
  And all to ward thy scourge from thee.

"Green are the groves on Benin's strand;
  And fair the fields beyond the sea:
Where, lingering on the surf-beat sand,
  My youthful warrior pines for me.

"And each revolving morn, he wears
  The sandals his Alzira wore,
Ere whites, regardless of her tears,
  Had borne her far from Benin's shore.

"And, each revolving mourn, he bears
  The sabre which his father bore:
And, by the negro's God, he swears
  To bathe its glimmering edge in gore.
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Notes on the poem

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Introduction

When Thomas Leyden (1775-1811) graduated near the top of his class at Edinburgh University, most believed he was destined to the church. He excelled in matters of language and natural history. He was briefly affiliated with the church but left in 1800 to pursue scientific and linguistic studies. It was also then that he began to focus on writing. He contributed to Lewis's Tales of Wonder and to Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Soon after, his interest in Asian languages and cultures led him to seek for a job that would enable him to pursue "Oriental" studies. He was given a position as ship's surgeon. In several months he completed the necessary training and set off for the East. Shortly after his arrival in Madras he fell ill and was left behind. He spent the the following years traveling throughout the Malay Peninsula and the East Indies collecting vast amounts of linguistic and ethnographic information. He wrote several dissertations on language. He became a professor at Bengal College and later a judge in Calcutta. He died in 1811 in Java of a fever. The majority of his works were not published until after his death. These works include translations of the oriental texts Sejarah Malayu (The Malay Annals) and Commentaries of Baber, and The Poetical Remains (1819), from which this poem is taken.

"The Wail of Alzira" is an anti-slavery poem that works differently than most anti-slavery poems of the time. Its diction fairly simple--direct and lyrical. The rhyme is not complex. Any reader should be able to understand its message. As opposed to focusing on more abstract themes or developing extended metaphors, Leyden paints a picture of the mother nursing her child and longing for the company of the baby's father who has remained in Africa. The poem shows the effect of slavery on basic matters of family and love, aiming for a universal appeal. Yet Leyden also gives expression to a desire for active vengeance on the part of the "youthful warrior" still in Africa. "The Wail of Alzira" is an engaging and provocative anti-slavery poem.

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Bibliographical note

Leyden, John, "The Wail of Alzira. A Negro Song," The Poetical Remains, (London: Strahan and Spottiswoode, 1819), pp. 128-29.
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This hypertext was created on November 1, 1999, by Matthew Cannavale.