The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 639 words.)