The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Middle Passage” is a three-part narrative poem that uses various personae to depict in the Symbolist style—using suggestion rather than direct statement—the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Resembling T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), the poem is a synthesis of historical voices, an assemblage of brief dramas unified by both a poetic consciousness—“Middle Passage: voyage through death/ to life upon these shores”—and an invisible, ethereal consciousness in the guise of a spiritual voice: “Deep in the festering hold thy father lies.” The poet uses these two voices to manipulate the perspective on events that are related to slavery.

The title “Middle Passage” refers to the middle journey of the triangular slave trade that began in the fifteenth century. The first leg of the journey entailed leaving the home port and sailing to the African coast to pick up Africans who would be sold as slaves in the New World. The middle passage is the portion of the journey in which Africans were transported to the New World, particularly the Caribbean, “Hispaniola,” or the American South, the “barracoons of Florida.” The third part of the trip was the return to the home port.

The major voices in section 1 are from a sailor’s diary and a court deposition. The diary conveys the uneasiness, fear, and anxiety of the crew: “misfortune follows in our wake like sharks.” It also describes the ways in which captured Africans committed suicide to avoid enslavement: “some try to starve themselves[some] leaped with crazy laughter to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.” The sailor’s voice also questions why he and his crewmates are cursed—“Which one of us has killed an albatross?”—referring to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798).

The voice of the court transcript contrasts a public account of the slave trade—“cargo of five hundred blacksstowed spoon-fashion”—with the previous private account of the middle passage. The deposition describes the nature of the “plague among our blacks”—physical diseases, madness, and thirst arising from “sweltering” conditions—and a shipwreck. The lasciviousness and immorality of the “Crew and Captain” are indirectly introduced as a “curse” upon the captured Africans: “the negroes howling and their chains entangled with the flames,” “the comeliest of the savage girls kept naked in the...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poet Michael S. Harper refers to Robert Hayden as a Symbolist poet struggling with the facts of history. “Middle Passage” reflects that view. It is both a historically based dramatic narrative and a Symbolist poem. The narratives, interspersed voices, and names, which are derived from a variety of historical sources, are intended to serve as symbols. Little-known and well-known “objective correlatives,” historical and literary rather than personal, are used throughout the poem. For example, the poem begins with “Jesus, Estrella [Star], Esperanza [Hope], Mercy,” which are later referred to as “bright ironical names” of “dark ships.” The ship Jesus was sailed in 1562 by Captain John Hawkins from England to Guinea. He loaded his ship with Africans, sailed to the islands in Hispaniola, sold his human “cattle stowed spoon-fashion” to planters, and returned with a rich cargo of ginger, hides, and pearls. The large profits Hawkins made encouraged English involvement in the slave trade.

Section 3 refers to a well-known event. In 1839, a group of Africans led by Cinquez mutinied against being transported to Cuba. Gaining control of the ship, they sailed to Montauk, Long Island, and sought freedom. John Quincy Adams defended the fifty-four Africans before the Supreme Court and gained their freedom.

In addition to direct historical references, the poem utilizes literary references. One...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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