The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 655

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Melvin B. Tolson, a professor of English at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and author of a collection of poems entitled Rendezvous with America (1944), was appointed poet laureate of Liberia by that African nation’s president, William V. S. Tubman, in 1947. Tolson was commissioned to compose a poem to celebrate Liberia’s centennial. He spent six years at the task, and the book-length Libretto for the Republic of Liberia was eventually published in 1953. While he might have fulfilled this commission with a flattering poem, Tolson had a much more ambitious idea. He told an interviewer in 1965, “I, as a black poet, have absorbed the Great Ideas of the Great White World, and interpreted them in the melting-pot idiom of my people. My roots are in Africa, Europe, and America.” This self-image as an intellectual synthesizer of world culture informs his poem.

Tolson produced an epic poem in the tradition of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), presenting Liberia’s history in terms of a grand mythology, recounting significant events, and attaching symbolic resonance to the deeds of great leaders. The poem is divided into eight sections—each given the title of one of the notes in the do-re-mi musical scale—which Tolson thought of as the rungs on a ladder. Each section brings the reader (and the poet) closer to attaining an overview of history. Because Libretto for the Republic of Liberia is intended to be an epic poem, this view of history—like Dante’s in The Divine Comedy (c. 1320) or John Milton’s in Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671)—includes past, present, and future.

Section 1, “Do,” opens with a series of questions about the Eurocentric view of Africa as a mysterious continent, the very shape of which suggests “a question mark.” The meaning of the independent black nation of Liberia is the question that Tolson must answer. He contends that Liberia’s unique history makes it “A moment in the conscience of mankind.” “Re,” the next section, presents the history of Africa before the slave trade began, citing the Songhai Empire, the great city of Timbuktu, and other precolonial centers documented in works by J. A. Rogers and in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The World and Africa (1947). In section 3, Tolson describes the establishment of Liberia as a haven for freed slaves from the United States sponsored by the American Colonization Society. He describes these settlers as “Black Pilgrim Fathers” because their return to Africa in 1820 reverses the direction of the voyage of the Mayflower exactly two hundred years earlier. The section ends with a leap forward in time to 1942, when airfields in Liberia were a staging area for Allied bombers in World War II.

Section 4 presents images of predatory nature juxtaposed with the refrain “in the interlude of peace,” symbolizing Liberia’s struggle to remain independent while European nations partitioned the rest of the continent into colonial possessions. Section 5, “Sol,” emphasizes that the Liberian settlers must survive perilous conditions, but in addition they are charged with the task of refuting Europe’s racist judgment of African inferiority. Tolson counters such views with a series of African proverbs, beginning: “Africa is a rubber ball;/ the harder you dash it to the ground,/ the higher it will rise.” The next section, “La,” recounts the heroic efforts of Jehudi Ashmun, the white American missionary who devoted his life to help establish the Liberian settlement.

Section 7, “Ti,” is a 232-line tour de force of literary allusions and intricate rhyme schemes that attacks European imperialism and the Eurocentric misreading of history that supported the exploitation of other continents. The final “Do” section—which rivals “Ti” for inventive density—is a vision of a glorious African future that will herald a new era of genuine peace and international cooperation. In this coming age, after centuries of turmoil, Tolson predicts that it will become possible for human beings to balance “the scales of Head and Heart.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

In form, Libretto for the Republic of Liberia may be considered an irregular ode, but its eight-hundred-line length and historical subject matter also qualify it as a modernist epic comparable with Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930) or Ezra Pound’s much longer Cantos (1925-1968). Tolson’s poem also has some stylistic similarities to these works. However, as the title suggests, he intended Libretto for the Republic of Liberia to be a grand song joined by many voices.

Tolson’s dividing of the poem into sections titled with notes from the musical scale indicates that each section has its own distinct tonality, allowing the poet to use a number of different poetic forms. Since a libretto is ordinarily understood to be the words for an opera, this arrangement suggests that Tolson intends the reader to understand that his words form the “meaning” of each musical note. Music is ordinarily thought of as an abstract or nonreferential art form, but there are African traditions suggesting that specific notes or musical tones have specific meanings. Indeed, the tones produced by the West African dundun (or “talking drum”) can simulate words in a tonal language such as Yoruba. Tolson studied African proverbs extensively, and his use of them in the poem indicates his concern that Libretto for the Republic of Liberia would embody traditional African artistic elements.

The poetic techniques that Tolson most often employs in this poem are metaphors and highly concentrated allusions (references to other literary works). As in his earlier long poem “Rendezvous with America,” he also devises different rhyme patterns for each section of the work.

Tolson’s complex structure of literary allusions and historical references is similar to the juxtapositions found in Pound’s Cantos, and he directs the reader to his sources with footnotes in the manner of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). The range of references documents Tolson’s own scope of knowledge and suggests a curriculum for the reader’s further education. The scope of these references supports Tolson’s belief that culture and knowledge are not limited by racial, geographical, or political boundaries; he cautions the reader not to ignore “the dusky peers of Roman, Greek, and Jew” in attempting to assess the progress of human civilization, to which all of the world’s cultures have contributed. The dedicated reader of Libretto for the Republic of Liberia can seek out the specific references behind the poem’s allusions and, by so doing, gain a deeper understanding of Tolson’s argument and his unique mental associations. To use a musical analogy, exploring this level of the poem is like focusing on the bass line of a familiar song; suddenly one becomes aware of a delightful new set of designs and parallel inventions. When Tolson alludes to a line from Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem “Recessional,” for example, he is leading the reader to the idea that the advent of an independent, peaceful future for African nations must necessarily also involve the recessional or retreat of the exploitative European colonialism that Kipling’s poem celebrated.

Section 5 demonstrates that, while he was an avid student of European literature, Tolson’s approach to writing this epic poem includes the traditions of the West African griots, the oral historians and bards described in Tolson’s footnote as “living encyclopedias.” Just as those poets were responsible for memorizing the genealogies of the families in their region, Tolson’s poem contains the stories of the Reverend Jehudi Ashmun, the Reverend Robert Finley of the American Colonization Society, and Liberia’s first president, Joseph Jenkins Roberts. Although he employs the elevated language suitable to an epic poem, Tolson does not provide a straightforward narrative structure. The reader who consults encyclopedia entries on Liberia and the American Colonization Society can learn many of the historical details needed to follow Tolson’s references.