Robert Hayden American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2456

Hayden repeatedly affirmed that he did not want to be labeled simply as an African American poet who wrote about and for black readers. In his work, he said,I am not so interested in pointing out what is singularly black or Afro-American as in pointing out something about the way...

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Hayden repeatedly affirmed that he did not want to be labeled simply as an African American poet who wrote about and for black readers. In his work, he said,I am not so interested in pointing out what is singularly black or Afro-American as in pointing out something about the way people live. . . . Perhaps we’ve had to go through a phase of ethnicity, but now we must move to our common heritage.

This could hardly mean that Hayden, who had grown up in a black slum, who had faced racial obstacles throughout his life, and who had steeped himself in African American history would ignore or downplay the black experience in his work. On the contrary, most of his significant poems are careful reflections on this experience. Rather, his emphasis on “common humanity” is to be seen in how he presents this ethnic experience within a broad philosophical framework and in how he reserves special attention for molding a personal language and style that draw on, without being subsumed by, black English.

One of the major focuses of Hayden’s work is religion. A turning point in the poet’s life came when he abandoned the fundamentalist Christianity of his youth to embrace the Baha’í religion, a faith that emphasizes the underlying unity of all religious credos and of all races. The Baha’í religion provided a pattern of belief that would inform many of his poems. In Words in the Mourning Time, for example, it is only a faith in the evolving brotherhood of all peoples that leads the poem’s speaker out of the despair brought on by a meditation on America’s troubles.

A second religious motif found in Hayden’s work, to which he was sensitized by his own journey from the religion of his youth to the one of his adulthood, is that of the personal crisis that results in a change of faith. Hayden is acutely aware of how an ethical orientation may grow, and, in the process, possibly cause a change in religious allegiance. This is illustrated in “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” a 1962 poem that concentrates on the antebellum slave-revolt leader’s conversion experience. Wandering in the woods, Turner has a vision of a war in Heaven between good and evil angels that transmutes into a battle between slaves and masters, with the slaves eventually winning the victory. Thus Turner’s Christianity—a faith that, as disseminated by the masters, stressed forbearance and acceptance of life’s yokes—is transformed by Turner’s vision into a radicalized liberation theology.

Equally important as a theme for Hayden was the black struggle for freedom. Rather than seeing this struggle in parochial terms as one limited ethnic fight, the poet sets it within humanity’s perpetual striving for justice. Thus in the poignant “Frederick Douglass” (1949), Hayden’s aim is not so much to eulogize a great leader as to emphasize that Douglass will neither be properly celebrated nor even correctly understood until the world has escaped all oppression and freedom has become “reflex action.” Whereas in “Words in the Mourning Time” Hayden links antiblack racism in the South with anti-Asian racism in Southeast Asia, in his poem about Douglass he situates the African American struggle for freedom in illuminatingly wide parameters.

This contextualization of one struggle within a wider horizon is carried out by Hayden at the linguistic level through a unique blending of voices and idioms. His work sometimes gives distinctly African American diction pride of place, but as only one element that is part of a felicitous mixture of styles and voices.

His mixing of discourses appears in the way that some of his most powerful poetic vehicles involve a shifting among voices. This is displayed clearly in a poem that has often been identified as his masterpiece, “Middle Passage” (1945). The poem describes the voyages of slave ships carrying human cargo from Africa to plantations in the Americas. Not only does the poem recount the sufferings of the captives, but it also alternates these viewpoints with accounts given by the slave traders. In presenting these accounts, Hayden never takes the sides of the purveyors of human flesh, but he is willing to adopt their viewpoints in some passages. The technique allows him to present a much wider picture of the slave trade as well as to provide a wider feeling for the human tragedy of the whole enterprise, which dehumanized all involved.

Even where Hayden eschews the use of more than one speaker, he artfully mixes different types of language. An example of Hayden’s combinatorial style is “El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X)” (1967), in which the poet weaves together in one voice a heightened Romantic diction, slang, and phrases from the American Black Muslim movement and the religion of Islam as practiced in the Middle East. Such poems give the reader the impression that a single voice is picking its way through the varied, interconnecting dialects of the United States in order to create one unified, mighty speech.

In such relatively monovocal presentations, the leading part is supplied by a nuanced, ambiguous voice loved by academics. Hayden’s decision to use this voice as his principal one brought him into disfavor with those African American writers who called for an identifiably black tone in literature. It is worth arguing, however, that this one voice best represents Hayden’s stance as one who, in his writing, wanted to take a step away from his own and his race’s specific life experiences in order to be able to return with redoubled clarity and feeling.

“Middle Passage”

First published: 1945 (collected and revised in Collected Poems, 1985)

Type of work: Poem

A historical collage re-creates the voyages of slave ships taking Africans to the New World.

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.

“Words in the Mourning Time”

First published: 1970 (collected in Words in the Mourning Time, 1970)

Type of work: Poem

The poet laments the burgeoning violence and chaos afflicting his homeland but is consoled by seeing this as part of a divine preparation.

In “Words in the Mourning Time,” Hayden comes to terms with the tempestuous, violent 1960’s. Explicitly, Hayden is mourning the deaths by assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. Implicitly, he is concerned with the damage done to the body politic by enduring injustice. He alludes to the riots that had rocked African American ghettos, sparked by King’s death but nourished by years of inequality. Further, as a poet, Hayden is concerned with the destruction of language that results when words are pressed to service in an ignoble cause. He decries the distortions used to justify the war in Vietnam: “Killing people to save them, to free them?” the poet asks.

In traditional mourning for a loved one, a person moves through horror at the death to a grudging understanding of nature to, in some cases, a deeper appreciation of spiritual realms. This is the path Hayden follows in his ten-part poem, drawing on his ability to play with multiple voices, though not so much to ventriloquize different speakers as to move through various styles of writing.

In the first six sections, the poet recites a litany of contemporary American problems. This is hardly a monotonous cataloging, as the writer keeps changing tacks as he drives home his message: An aphorism in section 2 suggests an ugly alliance between platitudes and violence; section 3 contains the arresting image of a wasted beggar whose peeling flesh mixes with his food; section 6 includes an attempt to personify the black rage of the times in the antic figure of Lord Riot.

In parts 7 through 9, the author seeks for positive meaning in the historical situation. Part 7 is given in the voice of Bahál’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’í faith, who leads the poet to the guiding insight that those who act brutally are not so much savages as people misguided in their search for meaning. In this second step of mourning, Hayden understands humanity from a deeper angle.

In the final section, what at first appears to be Hayden’s own voice lamenting contemporary difficulties turns out to be Bahál’u’lláh’s voice ruing the conditions of the ancient Middle East. The final vignette is that of the prophet himself making a decision to live righteously. Hayden indicates that people of integrity must persevere in trying to bring enlightenment to all the world’s lost souls. Thus, he ends with a reaffirmed spiritual purpose.

“Runagate Runagate”

First published: 1949 (collected in Collected Poems, 1985; revised 1996)

Type of work: Poem

Harriet Tubman, who helped American slaves escape, is portrayed both as a character and through the effect she had on her charges and on enemies.

Hayden tended to shy away from the martyrology practiced by some militant African American writers who presented highly varnished depictions of the heroes of black history. In “Runagate Runagate,” however, he did paint a glowing portrait of Harriet Tubman, an African American abolitionist who smuggled slaves from the South to the free North before the Civil War.

All ethnic and racial groups have enshrined ideal members who have accomplished great things. It became the special province of radical black writers of the 1960’s to supply such champions for their race, heroes who, these writers correctly claimed, had been neglected by the dominant culture. These militant writers often dismissed Hayden for the lack of revolutionary flourishes in his verse, and they also looked in vain through his works for idealized depictions of African American historical figures. When Hayden did present such figures, as in his allusions to Cinque in “Middle Passage,” the portrait was neither touched up—the atrocities practiced by Cinque’s followers are not glossed over—nor direct (Cinque, for example, is described only through the words of his opponent). Without compromising his commitment to indirection or objectivity, in “Runagate Runagate,” Hayden does give a larger-than-life, though not overly flattering, picture of a valiant woman.

Again Hayden plaits together a number of voices, often hostile ones, to give a rounded picture of both Tubman and her surrounding circumstances. There are snippets from advertisements for runaway slaves along with quotations from spirituals and wanted posters.

The poem falls into two sections. The first, which does not mention Tubman, is concerned with sketching the milieu in which slave hunters and fleeing slaves coexisted. The description is focused by the stream of consciousness of a harried but determined escaped slave who is swimming rivers and crashing through thickets to escape pursuing hounds. In this part of the poem, the lines taken from spirituals appear as tonics to strengthen the escapee’s resolve.

The second section is less generic, pinpointing Tubman as the leader who is ferrying fugitives to the North. The voice now comes from an escapee under Tubman’s direction. The slave’s voice is counterpointed by the words on a wanted poster that describe Tubman: “Alias Moses, Stealer of Slaves.” Ironically, by calling her “Moses,” the masters adopt the slaves’ way of reading the Bible, according to which the slaves see themselves as Israelites under unjust Egyptian bondage.

In the end, though, Tubman is not so much idealized as merged with the forces of nature. Hayden describes how the shadows of fugitives blend with the dark trees and how their voices mix with the bird calls they imitate. These comparisons act not so much to lift Tubman high as to suggest that the impulse to freedom is as inexhaustible as nature’s impulse to grow.

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