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...
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