Poem #5: Troubled With the Itch and Rubbing With Sulphur by George Moses Horton

Estimated Reading Time:  3.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleTroubled With the Itch and Rubbing With Sulphur

Author: George Moses Horton

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


'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 ev'ry bump are oft applied,
And thus the rage will sweetly calm
Which aggravates my hide.

It soon returns again;
A frown succeeds to ev'ry 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 play'd on ev'ry part,
It oft deprives me of my sleep,
And plagues me to my heart.


Morton's poetry here is both amusing and yet also, an interesting contemplation about trade-offs and comfort. To better understand this poem, I did have to look a little bit up about sulfur as I didn't realize its use for addressing skin irritations

Scratching the itch only soothes it shortly before the itch begins again.  Sulfur may help but it also makes him stink as he says ("loathsome smell").  Thus, he feels cursed (the devil causing the itch) and no real cure that gives him peaceful rest.  And on its face, this could be a straightforward poem and observation about the trade-offs of problems and solutions.  Yet, when I look at that last line ("It oft deprives me of my sleep, And plagues me to my heart."), it makes me wonder if there is more here given this is the same author of "On Liberty and Slavery". 

He explains that this is a "deceitful game" and that "The devil, sulphur, or the itch" "are but the same", with the devil the source of the itch and the sulfur creates a "loathsome smell"--a smell that's worth noting is reminiscent of Hell with its fire and brimstone.  Thus, the Devil's rock (sulfur) is somehow the cure for the devil's itch.  But the next line is where things are most curious.  "And with my clothes as black as pitch, I stink where'er I dwell."  The black coloring here could mean the clothes (though I'm not sure the role sulfur has in making clothes black), but I think more likely clothes here is meant to mean his skin.  It's curious to use "black as pitch" given that pitch is essentially "tar", a term often used in reference to African Americans. (e.g. tar-baby). So he could be using the phrase to hide the over reference to being black. I'm not sure.  

However, if we took that to be the case, then we have a poem that does delve into the experience of Black lives because it could also raise the question about what are the skin irritations that require the sulfur in the first place and does the "devil" stand in for white oppressors who "sow the itch" by use of chains, poor quality clothing, and shelter or something else. Much of this would then make the final line "and plagues me to my heart" feel a bit more heavier than if we were just talking about skin irritation.

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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