John Hatcher: "Runagate Runagate"

"Runagate Runagate" portrays the Underground Railroad, which in the middle 1800s aided slaves to escape north to freedom via a secret network. Led by Harriet Tubman and traveling mostly at night, the slaves would rely on navigation by stars, such as the 'drinking gourd' (the Big Dipper constellation which incorporates the North Star).

Rhythmically, the poem captures the mood of frantic flight of a 'runagate' (a renegade or escaped slave):


Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness

and the darkness thicketed with shapes of terror


Another good example of his organic use of metrics is in the abundant stresses and onomatopoetic pace of the lines in 'Runagate Runagate'. Like the rhythm of the title, the meters in the poem suggest the frenetic pace of the running slaves and the steady, rumbling movement of a train, appropriate to the motif of the Underground Railroad:


   /      /       /         /            /                 /                    /

Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness

                /              /                      /              / and the darkness thicketed with shapes of terror

                /             /                       /             / and the hunter pursuing and the hounds pursuing ...


Obviously playing off the whole symbolic implications of this period in history as a time of darkness, Hayden uses the journey northward (upward on a map) as a figural expression of incipient spiritual ascent. just as the speaker has, after his descent, journeyed through the dark to discover the 'hidden ones' and his own means for escape and enlightenment, so this poem uses the physical journey to symbolize that spiritual pilgrimage.

But the journey is not an easy one; like the diver or the persona at Veracruz, the escapees are tempted to give up, until they are prodded into action by the indomitable heroine Harriet Tubman:


And fear starts a-murbling,

Never make it, we'll never make it. Hush that now,

and she's turned upon us, leveled pistol

glinting in the moonlight:

Dead folks can't jaybird-talk, she says;

you keep on going now or die, she says.


As in the final poem 'Frederick Douglass', the journey here is at midpoint and true freedom is a vision of the future, but these heroic figures, especially in the context of the Bahá’í perspective of history, substantiate that vision and flesh out the dream: 'Mean mean mean to be free'.


Title John Hatcher: "Runagate Runagate" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Hatcher Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden
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