Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central purpose of “Middle Passage” is to record, poetically and objectively, the process of change and the paradox of permanence among all humans: “immortal human wish, the timeless will.” The poem does so by using images to illustrate conflicting claims and viewpoints about the slave trade. The nature of exploiters—private, public, religious, and legal—is contrasted with the voices of their victims. “Jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth” assault the concept of moral “human progress” for which the voices are praying.

A protest against man’s inhumanity to man and the presence of evil is implicit in the description of the realities of the slave trade. Figuratively, the middle passage can also be regarded as a middle part of the evolving human consciousness—“Shuttles in the rocking loom of history”—a consciousness that requires evolving from a deathlike spiritual condition to a new life, a new beginning.

Another theme, which appears in the symbol of the invisible voice and the image of Cinquez, is the universal and ageless desire for freedom. Ariel, in his angelic whiteness, and Cinquez, in his “murderous” blackness, represent the primeval in the poem. They are also related, historically and metaphorically, to all those who seek justice and liberty. Invisibility caused by various forms of internal and external blindness is a metaphor for African Americans, as in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952).

Although the time period of the poem begins in the sixteenth century and its final event occurs in the nineteenth century, “Middle Passage” also reflects a transitory stage in the development of America and African Americans: “weaving toward New World littorals that are mirage and myth and actual shore.” The universal quest to arrive safely, in a religious, commercial, private, or public sense, is a recurrent theme in “Middle Passage.” By means of this theme, Hayden projects death as an intensification of life. All of humanity is in a middle passage, traveling toward mental, social, physical, and spiritual salvation.