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On Robert Hayden's History Poems

Wilburn Williams, Jr.

Viewed in this somber light, the primary significance of Hayden's famous poems of Cinquez, Turner, Tubman, and Douglass resides in the poet's imaginative attempt to reforge his present's broken links with the past. The past, Hayden says, need not be past at all. His speakers confront their history as active participants in its making, and not as distant onlookers bemoaning their isolation; the past is carried into the present. Although the poet's mind ventures backward in time, the poems themselves invariably close with a statement or action that points forward to the reader's present. The progress of "Middle Passage" is through death "to life upon these shores," and the reader leaves the poem with his attention riveted to this life on these shores just as much as it is fixed on the historical reality of the slave trade. The man we leave at the conclusion of "The Ballad of Nat Turner" has his revolution still before him. "Runagate Runagate" ends with an invitation, "Come ride-a my train," whose rhythm subtly anticipates the action to be undertaken, and the powerful assertion of yet another intention to act--"Mean mean mean to be free."  The accentual sonnet to Frederick Douglass is poetry that moves like the beating of a living heart. The poet emphasizes that the dead hero is still a vital force. The first long periodic sentence seems to resist coming to an end. The poem celebrates not a man who has been, but a man still coming into being. Although commemorative in nature, it does not so much elegize a past as prophesy a future.

from Wilburn Williams, Jr. "Covenant of Timelessness and Time: Symbolism and History in Robert hayden's Angle of Ascent" in Chant of Saints, ed. Michael S. Harper and Robert Stepto. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979: 74-75.

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