Arna Bontemps Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Several themes dominate Arna Bontemps’s poetry: protest against social inequity, the decline in religious belief, and the search for identity through examination of the past. His social protest was more suggested than directly stated, however. He always wrote in a brooding, sad way, never showing joy or laughter. His dismay at what he considered the loss of right behavior, ethics, responsibility, and faith is pronounced in some of his poetry. However, his greatest interest was in exploring roots, most often African, summoning up the past by returning to it and seeing what could be learned. The return could be to a memory or be an actual relocation to a place or to a loved one. The Africa of his poetry is a bit idealized, with verdant grasses and scarlet birds in lush palms and tom-toms beating out hypnotic rhythms and never sounding warnings of impending danger.
“Golgotha Is a Mountain”
Often, further study is necessary for a complete understanding of Bontemps’s poetry, in which biblical references abound. For example, the poem “Golgotha Is a Mountain” refers to Golgotha, a hill near Jerusalem believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The name of the hill comes from an Aramaic word that means “place of the skull.” Golgotha is a place of death, as evidenced through Bontemps’s oblique reference to those who “. . . hanged two thieves there,/ And another man,” causing a flood of tears then and now, enough to make a river. Romans and Jews in biblical times carried out executions on the outskirts of cities, preferably on elevated spots so that the executions would serve as warnings to passersby. In this poem, Bontemps may be linking the suffering of Jesus with that of blacks. The excavation at the mountain could serve as a reminder that the Africans who dig precious stones out of mountains get no recompense. The mountains are theirs, but the wealth eludes them.
“The Return” describes the poet’s attempt to summon up the past and understand...
(The entire section is 840 words.)