Excerpted Criticism

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Pontheolla T. Williams: On "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home"

In "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home" he treats the Afro-American's wish-fulfillment mechanism that reflects his discontent with America and his desire to return to Africa.

[. . . .]

Closely related to his Afro-American history poems but actually an Afro-American folk theme poem is "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home." It is the sole reprint from Hayden's prize-winning Hopwood Collection, and it is the poem that finally rewarded Hayden's efforts to have his work appear in Poetry. The poem is a skillful blend of Afro-American folk and classical subject matter. An epigraph included in the first two versions of the poem indicates that it is based on the "Legend of the Flying African," which Hughes and Bontemps state is a part of the folklore of the Georgia Sea Island blacks. This dramatic poem of six stanzas develops the speaker's invitation to a girl to dance with him. . . .

Enchanted by the night, the music, and the girl, the speaker reflects on his slave heritage and his African roots. He recalls that his "gran" was one of those slaves who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa: . . .

The classical Daedalus image compliments the "flying gran" image. The images together symbolize the blend of Western civilization with that of Africa, which the Afro-American actually represents.

African words and the names of African religious figures create a diction that promotes the voodoo theme so important in the lyric. The voodoo theme in "A Ballad of Remembrance" was a negative force that drew the observer into the charade of the Mardi Gras dance; in "Incense of a Lucky Virgin" it was treated as an unsuccessful potion that failed to bring her man home to a deserted mother. It is also used in "Witch Doctor"--a long character sketch included in A Ballad of Remembrance in which Hayden examines a modem avatar of a witch doctor who practices a mixture of voodooism and quasi-religious fundamentalism. In "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home," however, voodooism is pictured as a positive force that effects escape from a dehumanizing plight. In the original legend, according to Bontemps, on a certain plantation there was an old man to whom the slaves turned for help when their suffering became unbearable. He would whisper a magic formula to them that was inaudible to others, whereupon he transformed them into winged creatures who flew back to Africa. Thus the poem demonstrates the truth of Ralph Ellison's perceptive critique that Afro-Americans in their folklore "[back] away from the chaos of experience and from ourselves" in order to "depict the humor as well as the horror of our living."

Hayden's use of literary voodooism draws from the well of folklore that is an integral part of the Afro-American literary tradition. In this respect he joins a series of Afro-American writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Jean Toomer to Ralph Ellison. Hayden, furthermore, could not have been unmindful of the example set by W. B. Yeats in his artistic use of Irish folklore.

John Hatcher: On "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home"

In 'O Daedalus, Fly Away Home’ a Georgia slave clings to his remembrances of Africa and recalls a myth of his 'gran' who 'spread his arms and/ flew away home'.

The poem literally portrays a slave's nostalgia for his homeland. Symbolically Hayden's combining of Greek and African myth employs an image of flight, which becomes in several later poems a figurative expression of a spiritual condition. More specifically flight becomes in Hayden's poetry a symbol of spiritual transcendence and detachment. Significantly, this image of flight is here contemplated during the nighttime.

Aldon L. Nielsen: On "Middle Passage"

Between the two litanies of ships' names Hayden introduces the ironic and elegiac voice of the poem's organizing persona, a voice that speaks only a few times but that seems to have seized control over the assorted documents written in other hands that Hayden takes into his hands in his poem; it is this voice that announces the poem's defining trope: "Middle Passage: / voyage through death / to life upon these shores." Announcing also its own textual strategy, Hayden's poem immediately embarks upon an intertextual passage that refigures the Middle Passage of its title, voyaging through a textual death to rebirth in a new poetics of a new world. By next adopting the voices of the slave traders themselves and adapting their texts to his own purposes, Hayden accomplishes a scriptural revolution that mirrors the revolt of the Amistad Africans. Hayden, in rewriting the words of the slave owners and captains, in ironically voiding them and redeploying them within his historical discourse, effects a metaphorical repetition of the Amistad rebellion, a rebellion in which the cargo, the tenor, seizes the vehicle and redirects it homeward. Just before his second list of ships, Hayden transcribes the log of a captain that brings into our reading presence the absent songs of the Africans. The captain, uneasily listening to the African languages rising from his craft, must turn to an intercessor, the ship's linguist, to learn that the Africans' words are "a prayer for death, / ours and their own." He seemingly seeks no translation of the more startling songs his log states were sung as they went under the waters by those who threw themselves overboard.

Then, following the list of ships, the poem speaks again in its own voice, a voice that alludes most strongly to other texts as a means of troping its own renewed source of song, signifying its reemergence in full control of the words it masters and forms.

Fred M. Fetrow: On "Middle Passage"

Hayden's early magnum opus has its origins in the same career era and creative tendencies as "Daedalus." "Middle Passage" probably Hayden's most famous heritage poem, grew out of his research work and the "Black Spear" project of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Notable for its broad sweep of black history, and striking for its virtuoso blending of narrative voices, the poem is especially intriguing in its generic features. Hayden's epic aspirations warrant special scrutiny in view of the poem's content, structure, tone, and theme. "Middle Passage" bears virtually all the tracings of an epic in miniature, but it is neither conventional nor mocking in its epic mode. While Hayden employs most of the "standard" epic conventions and devices, he consistently and ironically inverts or alters these features. Through this inversion technique, he creates what could be called an "anti-epic," an original form with which he achieves a coherent merger of formal technique and poetic theme. His "anti-epic" approach includes characterization. With it he brings to life and ennobles Cinquez, an "antihero" and a symbolic racial representative whom Hayden glorifies in celebrating the ultimate subject of the poem--the heroic struggle for freedom by the black victims of the "Middle Passage.

Some of Hayden's ironic inversions of epic elements are rather direct and apparent; others are more subtle and have profound thematic implications. In the former category, the poet does not begin the poem with a direct statement of epic theme but instead with a brief but appalling catalog of slave ships: "Jesus, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy." These pleasant names and those that follow in line fourteen ("Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann") initiate the tone of cosmic irony that permeates the entire poem. Hayden's research shows in his deliberate use of historically factual Spanish and English names. Thus through historical selectivity Hayden emphasizes a situational irony that is as real as it is literary. The poet-narrator, in subsequently describing these symbolic ships, points up this irony: "Their bright ironical names / like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth." Those ships also figure centrally in the formal statement of theme, tersely injected early in the narrative:

 

Middle Passage:

    voyage through death

        to life upon these shores.

 

The classic epic premise of a quest-journey is thus established, but in terms that are uniquely Hayden's. He uses "death" in a literal sense to counterpoint ironically the figurative use of "life." As his narrative account makes clear, "death" as a part of the journey is no more horrible a prospect than the life to be "lived" after arrival. The transit through the Middle Passage is indeed a "voyage through death, " but the life of slavery to be experienced by the survivors will be a living death, a death in life.

Hayden thus frequently includes, but inverts, denies, or uses ironic substitutes for, the typical epic conventions and devices. His treatment of the supernatural element further exemplifies this technique. The "gods" are present in the poem, but neither as fickle pagan deities with vested interests in human endeavor nor as providential protectors in a "Christian" epic. Instead, Hayden confronts the reader with two alternate pseudosupernatural influences: indifferent brute nature, or pious hypocritical Puritanism. The sharks who hungrily await the suicidal leaps of crazed slaves are also identified as the "tutelary gods" of the harassed or endangered slavers. These gods "intervene" in that they provide a quick death to the suffering victims of the Middle Passage and ironically serve as guardians and instructors to those responsible for that suffering. These "grinning" gods accompany the slave ships in mockery of both slaves and slavers, and with their pointed presence in the poem Hayden mocks the supernatural role in "ordinary" epics.

The Christian element in the poem also seethes with irony. The poet is quite clear about his intent here:

Irony is a constant element through the poem. The reference to Christianity in this section [Section I], the lines from the hymn, emphasize the irony of the Christian acceptance and justification of the slave trade as a means of bringing "heathen souls" to Christ.

Hayden refers to a hymn entitled "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me, " parts of which he weaves between the narrative segments of Part I as an ironic refrain. For example, lines from that hymn bracket the brief stanza that represents a prayer for God's blessing upon slave ships departing from New England for the west coast of Africa:

 

Jesus     Savior     Pilot      Me

Over     Life's       Tempestuous      Sea

 

We pray that thou wilt grant, O Lord,

safe passage to our vessels bringing

heathen souls unto Thy chastening.

 

Jesus     Savior

 

By enclosing this three-line stanza with lines and phrases from the hymn Hayden evokes an atmosphere where slave trading was rationalized as a missionary rather than as a commercial venture. The poet also sets off subsequent narrative passages with more phrases from the same hymn ("Thou Who Walked on Galilee," "Pilot Oh Pilot Me"), thereby juxtaposing religious sentiments with details of horrible events and immoral carnage aboard slave ships, in order to emphasize the perverted application of Christian doctrine to human inhumanity. God exists neither as a source of hope for the enslaved nor as a divine "pilot" for seagoing Christians, but merely as an excuse to justify cruel exploitation of one group of human beings by another.

In denying the presence of Christian love through his treatment of the supernatural, Hayden characteristically provides a thematic alternative with a metaphoric basis. The slave ships negotiate the Middle Passage with navigational aids quite in contrast to God's blessing. The "voyage through death" is a "voyage whose chartings are unlove," where "horror is the corposant and compass rose." The narrator calls the slave ships "Shuttles in the rocking loom of history," and as these "dark ships move" to weave the fabric of history, their courses are governed not by divine providence but by inhumanity and horror.

Thus, in effect, God does not exist in "Middle Passage." When the poem is compared with traditional epics, this omission is notable because the presence of God or gods in such poems has often verified the favored status of the central character or epic hero. Indeed, only relatively late in Hayden's poem is the reader even introduced to the central character, and then the poet presents the hero both belatedly and indirectly. Hayden's treatment of the conventional epic concern for the fate and accomplishments of a prominent national or racial hero is probably the most thematically significant of his "epic inversions."

Cinquez, as an epic hero, demands special attention because with this character Hayden posits the primary message of the poem. Although the manner of Cinquez's presentation and his social stature as an epic hero are unorthodox, this character emerges as the spiritual symbol of the suffering and aspirations of his race. Cinquez becomes a "deathless primaveral image"; his is a "life that transfigures many lives"; his characterization is one of epic dimension achieved through an anti-epic mode. Since the narrative premise of the epic as a distinct genre involves the telling of a story that accounts the exploits of a prominent and noble warrior, such stories usually introduce the hero early in the telling. The "epic hero" of "Middle Passage" is not introduced until line 138 of a poem 179 lines in length. In the remaining forty-two lines Hayden provides an ironically indirect account of Cinquez's "adventures," establishes the character as central to the narrative structure and theme of the entire poem, and climaxes the heroic portrayal by identifying Cinquez as the ultimate symbol of the timeless human desire for freedom, a theme of epic proportions

Hayden attributes personal nobility to Cinquez by combining history with art, by confusing myth, legend, and fact. Although Cinquez clearly was the leader of the Amistad mutiny and was put on trial in that role (in the case of the United States, Appelants, v. Cinque, and Others, Africans), he was a rice planter, not a chieftain or a prince. As a leader of slaves in rebellion against their captors, he gave his followers hope and direction, but contemporary events, curiosity, and sympathy elevated him to "regal" status. Public curiosity was abetted by an idealized portrait done by Nathaniel Jocelyn, a phrenological profile, and by several sympathetic newspaper editorials in praise of Cinquez, e.g., "The more we learn of the man's character . . . the more are we impressed with a sense of his possessing the true elements of heroism." The abolitionists who took up the cause of the "Amistaders" regarded Cinquez as a "noble savage" and saw his situation as an opportunity to set a legal precedent that would forward the abolition movement.

Hayden retains these historical perspectives and then transcends them by portraying Cinquez in symbolic terms of epic scope. Cinquez's desire and struggle for freedom become the "deep immortal human wish, / the timeless will." Ultimately, then, "Middle Passage" creates a hero who represents his race in a quest for personal liberty, something in which all men have a real shared interest. Hayden's hero remains central to the entire narrative because Cinquez is the symbolic personification of the primary theme of the poem. Hayden makes the hero appear larger than life because his "life transfigures many lives." Cinquez's rebellion against enslavement thus stands for the physical and spiritual struggle for freedom by all blacks then and since.

"Middle Passage" is epic in theme and import although "anti-epic" in formal structure and technique. Due to Hayden's manner of ironically contrasting his style with traditional epic characteristics, the poem fairly reverberates with unanticipated thematic implications throughout its length. If "unlove" provides the direction for imposed travel through the Middle Passage, then irony is the thematic gloss for reader progress toward an understanding and appreciation of Hayden's epic tribute. This indirect and muted treatment of a horrible chapter in human history at once demonstrates the poet's developing craftsmanship, verifies his compassionate objectivity (his "negative capability," one might say), and substantiates Robert Hayden's own humanity.

John Hatcher: On "Middle Passage"

The dramatic and powerful "Middle Passage" is, first of all, a synthesis of historical voices recalling the inhuman cruelty of a people transported as chattel. And yet we must infer that violence from the civilized rhetoric of the court deposition:

 

that there was hardly room 'tween-decks for half

the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;

that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh

and sucked the blood.

 

We do not hear the voice of the African captives or their leader Cinquez; any indictment of the slavers comes from our own reaction to the powerful irony of the accusations of the slavers themselves, as is exemplified in the speech by the Spanish emissary from Havana:

 

We find it paradoxical indeed

that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty

are rooted in the labor of your slaves

should suffer the august John Quincy Adams

to speak with so much passion of the right

of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters

and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero's

garland for Cinquez.

 

Assembled by Hayden from historical records, these speeches document the fabric of a society, ostensibly founded on principles of freedom and justice, actually interwoven with threads of racism and injustice:

 

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,

the dark ships move, the dark ships move,

their bright ironical names

like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth ...

 

But just as the ancient identity and beliefs of the Mexican people reassert themselves, so these poems recount the "timeless will" of a people to struggle for freedom and identity:

 

the deep immortal human wish,

the timeless will:

 

Cinquez its deathless primaveral image,

life that transfigures many lives.

 

Voyage through death

                                to life upon these shores.

 

[. . . .]

 

in addition to referring to the second leg of a three-part journey of a slave ship (from America to Africa, from Africa to a Caribbean or West Indies port, from there to America) this middle journey implies the middle or transitional stage in the progress of the speaker, of the Afro-American people, and ultimately of mankind upon the shores of physical reality and history. In a most general sense the middle passage thus reflects the sentiments of the Bahá’í burial ring inscription which states that we come from God and return to God. The ascent from slavery symbolizes in broad terms the aspiration toward detachment and certitude for which the speaker longs in "Veracruz," and which the sleepers anticipate in "The Prophet."

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "The Dogwood Trees"

"The Dogwood Trees" is faintly reminiscent of Whitman's Calamus poems in its use of phallic symbols, especially trees, and the male comradeship theme. The dramatic action in this poem is set against the backdrop of violence that took place in this country during the sixties. As the speaker and his companion drive to their rendezvous, they do so with "bitter knowledge" of the "odds against comradeship." Nonetheless determined, they "dared and were at one." The note of ambiguity introduced by the phrase "crooked crosses flared" cautions against a too-strict promotion of the Whitman-like theme. Given the violent backdrop and the tenor of black-white relations, the implication would be different.

John Hatcher: On "Elegies for Paradise Valley"

'Elegies for Paradise Valley’ is a sequence of eight childhood scenes that imply both an attitude and a story. The most lavishly praised of any poems in the volume, the sequence begins with the poet's first intimations that he is himself an alien:

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In part two the speaker describes the 'Godfearing elders, even Godless grifters' as 'Rats fighting in their walls'. The ambiguous 'their' could refer here to the ghetto landlords, more often White than Black, thus implying that the persona and his people must struggle to survive in dwellings not their own, or, more inclusively, that the Black populace is viewed by the rest of the citizenry as an unwanted nuisance in the wafts of the city edifice.

The child's awareness of himself as alien and of the human mechanism of prejudice which creates such a status develops further in part seven as the persona recalls his parent's lore about Gypsies. They 'kidnap you', they had said, and he 'must never play/ with Gypsy children' who 'all got lice in their hair'. But the as yet unconditioned psyche of the child suggests the ironic process at work when his own people ascribe to the Gypsies the same alien status they have themselves: . . .

In a more general sense the poem catalogues the rich assortment of characters who populated the child's world and filled his imagination with a pageantry of human possibilities. In part five Hayden resorts to a delightful list of baroque characters succinctly captured by one-line epithets in the traditional mode of an ubi sunt elegy: . . .

Uniting these elegies throughout the eight sections is the elliptically told story of Uncle Crip who is murdered by Uncle Henry. It is Uncle Crip's laughter we hear enjoying Bert Williams on the victrola; it is his voice that wisely points out to the boy that the Gypsies grieve as 'bad as Colored Folks', and 'Die like us too'. It is Uncle Crip who dances with the boy to 'Jellyroll/ Morton's brimstone/ piano on the phonograph'. Ultimately, however, the poem focuses on the sense of 'guilt/ and secret pain' evolving in the psyche of the young boy who, in spite of his rigorous Baptist training, is charmed and enchanted by Uncle Crip's boisterous ways.

Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Elegies for Paradise Valley"

"Elegies for Paradise Valley," is a poetic treatment of some slice-of -life ghetto characters he knew. The poem alludes to the taproot of his personality. The eight-part elegy sets forth his meditations upon his life in Detroit during the twenties and thirties. In it, he reflects upon the end of a place, a time, a people. It was a place where, as a boy, he saw a iunkie die in the maggot-infested alley beneath his "bedroom's window," and it was a place where he recognized the "hatred ... glistening like tears in the policemen's eyes." Instead of the planned and gentle introduction of children to the best in a cultural environment that is alluded to in the "Pestalozzi's fiorelli" phrase, the children in his ghetto were dependent upon "shelter" that the ordinarily unusual alliance of "Godfearing elders" and "Godless grifters" jointly provided.

Among these "protectors" was his Aunt Roxie's friend, "Uncle Crip, " who was a frequent visitor in the Hayden households.

Robert Stepto: On "Elegies for Paradise Valley"

The "Elegies for Paradise Valley" are presently eight in number, and while each poem may be said to be "set" in Paradise Valley--Hayden's name for his boyhood neighborhood in Detroit--the "Elegies" do not limn a place as much as they illuminate the ties between kinfolk who are bound as well to place. In this way, Hayden's "Paradise Valley" is a historical field--a culture's magic circle--much like the one established in Harper's "Photographs/ Negatives." And, just as Harper (like Ellison, in some measure) deliberately orchestrates his images so that both birth and burial are contextual properties of photograph and negative, darkroom and graveyard, human image and apple tree, the antipodes of Hayden's field are similarly conjoined and disparate because "Paradise Valley" is also a birthing and burial zone, a vision of the Garden as well as of the Pit of the Fall.

Indeed, it is with images of the Pit that the series of Elegies begins, forcing us to wonder if the series' narrative vector will chart upward and, if so, in what form the incremental stops will appear. The first poem is short and taut, a window on a wasteland infested with race rituals including those cultural carcinogens which, as Ellison's Invisible Man observed, promote certain phases of blindness:

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