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On "Runagate Runagate"

John Hatcher

"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'.

from From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1984 by John Hatcher.

Pontheolla T. Williams

"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

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.

From Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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