About Arna Bontemps' Poetry
Minrose C. Gwin
In "Nocturne at Bethesda" and in other poems as well, Bontemps joins McKay, Cullen, Hughes, Hurston, and others in creating the archetypal black consciousness as a suffering but indomitable self. This black self becomes a symbol of endurance in the face of the dark despair of the slavery years, which is so graphically described in Bontemps's "Southern mansion" as echoing the "chains of bondmen dragging on the ground." It is this black self, the self that Bontemps and other black artists of the Harlem awakening were artistically growing toward, which gives many of Bontemps's poems their strength and resonance and makes Personals a significant reflection of the growth of black American literature during the 1920s. In much of his poetry, Bontemps links the black self to the cycle of the seasons and a closeness to natural rhythms. "A black man talks of reaping," the last poem in this collection, moves slowly and powerfully to the conclusion that it is unnatural and disastrous for human beings not to reap what they themselves sow. The persona of the poem represents the black race forever planting but never reaping. Just as Cullen's "From the Dark Tower" advises the white world that blacks "shall not always plant while others reap," and Hughes threatens that continual deferral of dreams may result in explosion, Bontemps ends "A black man talks of reaping" with an implied threat:
Yet what I sowed and what the orchard yields
my brother's sons are gathering stalk and root;
small wonder then my children glean in fields
they have not sown, and feed on bitter fruit.
Yet, on the whole, Bontemps's poems speak more about the persistent will of blacks to endure to a better day. "The day-breakers" reflects black strength and determination not "to waste the life" yet also an insistence upon acknowledgment: "Yet would we die as some have done:/beating a way for the rising sun."
From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 48: American Poets 1880-1945, Second Series. Ed. Peter Quartermain. Copyright © 1986 by the Gale Group.
Kirkland C. Jones
'A Black Man Talks of Reaping" explores the question of labor without reward that has so characterized the status of blacks in America. Although the speaker has "scattered seed enough to plant the land/in rows from Canada to Mexico," there is no healthy yield that he can pass on to his children . . .
The sentiment Bontemps expresses here echoes that of Countee Cullen in "From the Dark Tower, " in which he asserts "we shall not always plant while others reap/The golden increment of bursting fruit,/Not always countenance, abject and mute,/that lesser men should hold their brothers cheap."
From Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 51. Ed. Trudier Harris. Copyright © 1987 by the Gale Group.
Because of the significance of religion and religious feeling in his life and work, Arna Bontemps stands apart from most of his peers in the Harlem Renaissance. Born in 1902 in Louisiana but reared in Los Angeles, Bontemps grew up at home and in school under the tight discipline of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Coming to Harlem from Los Angeles in 1924, he taught for seven years at the Harlem Academy run there by his church. Although his closest friend among the figures of the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes, his poetic career in the 1920s developed largely independent of Hughes's standards and interests. Bontemps wrote neither dialect verse nor jazz and blues poetry, which would have offended his brethren in the church. Sometimes he expressed racial feeling (as in "A Black Man Talks of Reaping") but he did so only mildly, for the most part; a sense of decorum suffuses his work. His one break with tradition was in eschewing rhyme in favor of a restrained, often stately free verse well suited to his meditative utterances.
Most of Bontemps's published poems appeared in the 1920s, although a pamphlet of his verse, Personals, appeared in London near the end of his life. His most successful poem is almost certainly "Nocturne at Bethesda," from the twenties:
I thought I saw an angel flying low,
I thought I saw the flicker of a wing
Above the mulberry trees; but not again.
Bethesda sleeps. The ancient pool that healed
A host of bearded Jews does not awake.
Without a specific allusion to time and place, the poem mourns the loss of spiritual values where once God was immanent. When, finally, it appears to turn, tentatively, on an optimistic note ("Yet I hope, still I long to live") the idea of a saving racial destiny enters the poem. If then is indeed an afterlife, and if the speaker returns to this world, "it will not be here; / If you want me you must search for me / Beneath the palms of Africa." Characteristically of Bontemps, however, the work ends on a doubting, even forlorn sound: "There is a simple story on your face; / Years have wrinkled you. I know, Bethesda! / You are sad. It is the same with me."
From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.
Return to Arna Bontemps