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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 145

Middle Passage is a poem that tells the story of African slaves being transported across the Atlantic to America in the 1800s. The slaves are tortured by the conditions that they are forced to live in within the carrier ships—there was hardly enough room for all of them. Thus, some of them preferred to commit suicide by starving themselves to death. The story is told by an unknown narrator who questions the morality of treating human beings like animals. Something interesting is that the poem has a twist. In the end, the reader realizes that "the voyage through death" meant the demise of everyone on the ship. At one point, the tides change and the slaves manage to rebel, disarming the crew members and killing most of them. They allow some crew members to survive so that they can return them back to Africa.

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Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

In “Middle Passage” Hayden mingles the voices of multiple speakers to depict the voyages of slave traders bringing Africans across the Atlantic Ocean. He had been deeply moved by “John Brown’s Body,” Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic 1928 poem about the Civil War, and Hayden marked a passage in which Benét stated he could not fairly describe the titanic battle from the African American viewpoint. Such a depiction, Benét declared, waited upon a black pen. It became Hayden’s ambition to write such an epic, and though he was never to write a full-scale work on this theme, “Middle Passage” became the largest and most compelling of the fragments of his promised epic.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, there have been at least two other great American fragmented epics, T. S. Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece The Waste Land and Hart Crane’s 1930 The Bridge, both of which influenced Hayden. Eliot used a collage of voices and mangled quotations to suggest the disunity of the twentieth century. Hayden uses the same techniques, but he turns their implications in another direction by suggesting that it is the past, not the present, that is fragmented. He views the past as a time when tribal Africans lost their culture and slave traders their humanity. The distorted quotations mingled in Hayden’s text, taken from the works of William Shakespeare and from gospel hymns, do not, as in Eliot’s poem, suggest the amnesia of the present. Rather, they are used to assail the integrity of the material itself. Christian lines, for example, seem hollow when they are presented as prayers uttered by slave traders.

In the less despairing The Bridge, Crane sought to locate figures who embodied the best in American life. Hayden finds such an inspiring figure for his poem in Cinque, a character based on a real-life captive who led a successful rebellion on a slave ship.

“Middle Passage” consists of three sections, each of which is centered on a statement of a slave trader. In the first section, a crew member unconsciously reveals the brutalizing effects of the trade, and in the second, the complacency of slave traders is shown. In the last section, however, a flicker of surprise appears in the mind of a slave trader who observes the Africans’ intelligence and passion, exhibited in how they matched the merchants for guile and savagery in carrying out their rebellion. Significantly, neither Cinque nor any of the other slaves speaks in the poem, indicating their ominous, forced silence in the historical record.

The poem ends on a note of tempered hope. A crew member who is speaking about getting the slaves extradited—Cinque’s boat crashed in the United States—notes that he was opposed by the lawyer John Quincy Adams, who had implied in his case that slaves have a right to rebel. This hints that the poem’s repeated refrain, “Voyage through death/ to life upon these shores,” can be read in a less ironic way than might at first seem indicated. The phrase may symbolically refer to the historical “voyage” that African Americans would take through the Civil War and, much later, through the Civil Rights movement to achieve a freedom that really is a life won through deaths.

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Themes