Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Runagate Runagate"

"Runagate Runagate," an archaic expression for a runaway slave, opens with especially keen heights of dramatic tension that bring alive the sense of dangerous enterprise and desperate, breathless, and uneven flight that the runaway slaves must have experienced:

 

Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness into darkness

and the darkness thicketed with shapes of terror

and the hunters pursuing and the hounds pursuing

and the night cold and the night long and the river

to cross and the jack-muh-lanterns beckoning beckoning

and blackness ahead and when shall I reach that somewhere

morning and keep on going and never turn back and keep on

    going

        Runagate

            Runagate

                Runagate

 

Verbs in the present tense, lack of punctuation, use of various feet from the prevailing trochaics in line 1, extra syllables in line 4, help evoke the sense of dramatic tension and create reader involvement in the situation. Throughout the remainder of parts 1 and 2 of the poem, changes in cadence, the techniques of fragmentation that he used so effectively in "Middle Passage"--lines from hymns, spirituals, antislavery songs, wanted posters, voices of the slaves and of Harriet Tubman--and typographical spacing that helps carry the sense of the passages while further demonstrating Hayden's debt to T, S. Eliot, reveal that the poem does, indeed, belong to the same creative period as "Middle Passage." "Runagate Runagate" however, must surely have been intended as a companion piece to "The Ballad of Nat Turner," for it treats the part of the female revolutionist in the antislavery war that blacks raised in their own fight to be free.

Hayden's revisions of "Runagate" for the 1966 version are characteristic: rearrangement of passages for better order, cadence, and emphasis; a stripping away of rhetoric to develop sharper images. These changes, slight in part 1, are marked in part 2, where he shifts the emphasis from a rhetorical and laudatory description of Harriet Tubman to a few lines that show her in action and vividly evoke her presence.

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Title Pontheolla T. Williams: On "Runagate Runagate" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Pontheolla T. Williams Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry
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