Troubled with the Itch and Rubbing with Sulphur

’Tis bitter, yet ’tis sweet;
        Scratching effects but transient ease;
Pleasure and pain together meet
        And vanish as they please.

My nails, the only balm,
        To every bump are oft applied,
And thus the rage will sweetly calm
        Which aggravates my hide.

It soon returns again:
        A frown succeeds to every smile;
Grinning I scratch and curse the pain
        But grieve to be so vile.

In fine, I know not which
        Can play the most deceitful game:
The devil, sulphur, or the itch.
        The three are but the same.

The devil sows the itch,
        And sulphur has a loathsome smell,
And with my clothes as black as pitch
        I stink where’er I dwell.

Excoriated deep,
        By friction played on every part,
It oft deprives me of my sleep
        And plagues me to my heart.

More by George Moses Horton

On Hearing of the Intention of a Gentleman to Purchase the Poet's Freedom

When on life's ocean first I spread my sail,
I then implored a mild auspicious gale;
And from the slippery strand I took my flight,
And sought the peaceful haven of delight.

Tyrannic storms arose upon my soul,
And dreadful did their mad'ning thunders roll;
The pensive muse was shaken from her sphere,
And hope, it vanished in the clouds of fear.

At length a golden sun broke through the gloom,
And from his smiles arose a sweet perfume--
A calm ensued, and birds began to sing,
And lo! the sacred muse resumed her wing.

With frantic joy she chaunted as she flew,
And kiss'd the clement hand that bore her through;
Her envious foes did from her sight retreat,
Or prostrate fall beneath her burning feet.

'Twas like a proselyte, allied to Heaven--
Or rising spirits' boast of sins forgiven,
Whose shout dissolves the adamant away,
Whose melting voice the stubborn rocks obey.

'Twas like the salutation of the dove,
Borne on the zephyr through some lonesome grove,
When Spring returns, and Winter's chill is past,
And vegetation smiles above the blast.

'Twas like the evening of a nuptial pair,
When love pervades the hour of sad despair--
'Twas like fair Helen's sweet return to Troy,
When every Grecian bosom swell'd with joy.

The silent harp which on the osiers hung,
Was then attuned, and manumission sung;
Away by hope the clouds of fear were driven,
And music breathed my gratitude to Heaven.

Hard was the race to reach the distant goal,
The needle oft was shaken from the pole;
In such distress who could forbear to weep?
Toss'd by the headlong billows of the deep!

The tantalizing beams which shone so plain,
Which turned my former pleasures into pain--
Which falsely promised all the joys of fame,
Gave way, and to a more substantial flame.

Some philanthropic souls as from afar,
With pity strove to break the slavish bar;
To whom my floods of gratitude shall roll,
And yield with pleasure to their soft control.

And sure of Providence this work begun--
He shod my feet this rugged race to run;
And in despite of all the swelling tide,
Along the dismal path will prove my guide.

Thus on the dusky verge of deep despair,
Eternal Providence was with me there;
When pleasure seemed to fade on life's gay dawn,
And the last beam of hope was almost gone.

On Liberty and Slavery

Alas! and am I born for this,
   To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
   Through hardship, toil, and pain!
   
How long have I in bondage lain,
   And languished to be free!
Alas! and must I still complain--
   Deprived of liberty.

Oh, Heaven! and is there no relief
   This side the silent grave--
To soothe the pain--to quell the grief
   And anguish of a slave?
   
Come, Liberty, thou cheerful sound,
   Roll through my ravished ears!
Come, let my grief in joys be drowned,
   And drive away my fears.
   
Say unto foul oppression, Cease:
   Ye tyrants rage no more,
And let the joyful trump of peace,
   Now bid the vassal soar.
   
Soar on the pinions of that dove
   Which long has cooed for thee,
And breathed her notes from Afric's grove,
   The sound of Liberty.
   
Oh, Liberty! thou golden prize,
   So often sought by blood--
We crave thy sacred sun to rise,
   The gift of nature's God!
   
Bid Slavery hide her haggard face,
   And barbarism fly:
I scorn to see the sad disgrace
   In which enslaved I lie.
   
Dear Liberty! upon thy breast,
   I languish to respire;
And like the Swan upon her nest,
   I'd to thy smiles retire.
   
Oh, blest asylum--heavenly balm!
   Unto thy boughs I flee--
And in thy shades the storm shall calm,
   With songs of Liberty!

A Billet Doux

DEAR MISS: Notwithstanding the cloud of doubts which overshadows the mind of adoring fancy, when I trace that vermillion cheek, that sapphire eye of expressive softness, and that symmetrical form of grace, I am constrained to sink into a flood of admiration beneath those heavenly charms. Though, dear Miss, it may be useless to introduce a multiplicity of blandishments, which might either lead you into a field of confusion, or absorb the truth of affection in the gloom of doubts; but the bell of adulation may be told from the distance of its echo, and cannot be heard farther than seen. Dear Miss, whatever may be the final result of my adventurous progress, I now feel a propensity to embark on the ocean of chance, and expand the sail of resolution in quest of the distant shore of connubial happiness with one so truly lovely. Though, my dearest, the thunders of parental aversion may inflect the guardian index of affection from its favorite star, the deviated needle recovers its course, and still points onwards to its native poll. Though the waves of calumny may reverberate the persevering mind of the sailing lover, the morning star of hope directs him through the gloom of trial to the object of his choice.

My brightest hopes are mix'd with tears,
Like hues of light and gloom;
As when mid sun-shine rain appears,
Love rises with a thousand fears,

To pine and still to bloom.
When I have told my last fond tale
In lines of song to thee,
And for departure spread my sail,
Say, lovely princess, wilt thou fail
To drop a tear for me?

O, princess, should my votive strain
Salute thy ear no more,
Like one deserted on the main,
I still shall gaze, alas! but vain,
On wedlock's flow'ry shore.


About this poem:
George Moses Horton holds the distinction of being the first African American to publish a book, and the only to publish while living in slavery.

Related Poems

far memory

a poem in seven parts


1   
convent

my knees recall the pockets
worn into the stone floor,
my hands, tracing against the wall 
their original name, remember
the cold brush of brick, and the smell   
of the brick powdery and wet
and the light finding its way in
through the high bars.

and also the sisters singing
at matins, their sweet music
the voice of the universe at peace   
and the candles their light the light   
at the beginning of creation
and the wonderful simplicity of prayer   
smooth along the wooden beads   
and certainly attended.


2
someone inside me remembers

that my knees must be hidden away   
that my hair must be shorn
so that vanity will not test me
that my fingers are places of prayer
and are holy      that my body is promised   
to something more certain
than myself


3   
again

born in the year of war
on the day of perpetual help.

come from the house   
of stillness
through the soft gate   
of a silent mother.

come to a betraying father.
come to a husband who would one day   
rise and enter a holy house.

come to wrestle with you again,   
passion, old disobedient friend,   
through the secular days and nights   
of another life.


4
trying to understand this life

who did i fail, who
did i cease to protect
that i should wake each morning   
facing the cold north?

perhaps there is a cart   
somewhere in history
of children crying “sister   
save us” as she walks away.

the woman walks into my dreams   
dragging her old habit.
i turn from her, shivering,
to begin another afternoon
of rescue, rescue.


5   
sinnerman

horizontal one evening   
on the cold stone,
my cross burning into   
my breast, did i dream   
through my veil
of his fingers digging
and is this the dream   
again, him, collarless
over me, calling me back   
to the stones of this world   
and my own whispered   
hosanna?


6   
karma

the habit is heavy.   
you feel its weight
pulling around your ankles   
for a hundred years.

the broken vows
hang against your breasts,   
each bead a word
that beats you.

even now
to hear the words
defend
protect
goodbye
lost or
alone
is to be washed in sorrow.

and in this life
there is no retreat   
no sanctuary
no whole abiding   
sister.


7
gloria mundi

so knowing,
what is known?
that we carry our baggage   
in our cupped hands   
when we burst through   
the waters of our mother.   
that some are born
and some are brought
to the glory of this world.   
that it is more difficult   
than faith
to serve only one calling   
one commitment
one devotion
in one life.