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Robert Hayden's "Frederick Douglass"

Updated on April 2, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Hayden

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Frederick Douglass"

Robert Hayden's American (innovative) sonnet, "Frederick Douglass," achieves its message with a sestet and an octave, in reverse order from the Italian sonnet.

The poem offers a well-deserved tribute to one of America's most important founding fathers. The road to freedom for black Americans has been built and maintained by men and women the stature of Frederick Douglass. Poet Robert Hayden understood well his debt to people like Douglass, as this marvelous sonnet reveals.

Even today as "the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians" would seek to pander over the historical plight of the black American in their pitiful identity politics, that true "beautiful, needful thing" called "this freedom, this liberty" remains the genuine goal of all Americans of all metaphorical color, gender, and national origin.

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty,
this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

Robert Hayden reading his poem, "Frederick Douglass"

Frederick Douglass

Source

Commentary

Robert Hayden is one of the most skillful of American poets. His poem, "Frederick Douglass," is a tribute to the former slave, who helped liberate black Americans.

Sestet: The Focus in on Freedom

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty,
this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:

The sestet, first six lines, offers a series of five adverbial "when" clauses, all focusing on freedom: when it is ours, when it belongs to all, when it is instinct, when it is finally won, and when it is more than a political topic. With the first clause, the speaker portrays freedom, liberty, as "this beautiful / and terrible thing."

The speaker avers that liberty for the human being is as necessary as the air he breathes, and it is as much a tool for life as the earth itself. In the second clause, he suggests that eventually freedom will, in fact, belong to everyone. Not just a privileged few will be able to use this useful tool and breathe the air of liberty, as they all need to do.

Freedom is not just a luxury for some, but also a requirement for every man, woman, and child of every race, creed, or class. In the third clause, the speaker proposes that freedom must become "truly instinct." It is not something worn on the sleeve or a badge on the chest; it is part of the "brain matter," and it is as close to the human being as the beating of the heart, "diastole, systole."

The fourth clause renders the literal fact, "when it is finally won," and the fifth clause offers a breathtaking, plain truth that even offers a humorous description: "when it is more / than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians." What an irony that a need so vital to everyone could become the "gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians"!

Octave: Beneficiaries of the Struggle for Liberty

this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

The speaker then moves to the culmination of all those fundamentals framed in the five adverbial "when" clauses in the sestet. When all that has taken place and freedom is won, Frederick Douglass will "be remembered."

Frederick Douglass had experienced life as a slave, who escaped from his captivity. He became an educated man, learning to read. Later in his life, he put all of his effort into working for the abolition of slavery and seeking freedom for all people.

The speaker of Hayden's poem offers a clear portrait of Douglass: "this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro / beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world / where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, / this man, superb in love and logic."

Douglass penned his autobiography, which became a bestseller and has never been out of print. And the speaker in Hayden's poem offers a tribute to the fearless leader.

The speaker claims that Douglass will not be remembered only in flowery rhetoric or in bronze statues, but more importantly the former slave's life will shine in the lives that "grow[ ] out of his life."

The lives that will be beneficiaries of his legacy of liberty will pay homage to the man as no rhetoric or statue could. The lives that Douglass' efforts will affect are the lives that will "flesh[ ] [out] [Douglass'] dream of the beautiful, needful thing."

Robert Hayden Commemorative Stamp - USA

Source

Life Sketch of Robert Hayden

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, to Ruth and Asa Sheffey, Robert Hayden spent his tumultuous childhood with a foster family headed by Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, in the lower class neighborhood called ironically, Paradise Valley. Hayden's parents had separated before his birth.

Hayden was physically small and had poor vision; thus being precluded from sports, he spent his time reading and pursuing literary studies. His social isolation thus led to his career as a poet and professor. He attended Detroit City College (later renamed Wayne State University), and after spending two years with the Federal Writers' Project, he returned to higher education at the University of Michigan to finish his Masters Degree. At Michigan, he studied with W. H. Auden, whose influence can be seen in Hayden's use of poetic form and technique.

After graduation with the M.A. degree, Hayden began teaching at the University of Michigan, later taking a teaching position at Fist University in Nashville, where he stayed for twenty-three years. He returned to the University of Michigan and taught for the last eleven years of his life. He once quipped that he considered himself, "a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then."

In 1940, Hayden published his first book of poems. The same year he married Erma Inez Morris. He converted from his Baptist religion to her Baha’i faith. His new faith influenced his writing, and his publications helped publicize the Baha'i faith.

A Career in Poetry

For the remainder of his life, Hayden continued to write and publish poetry and essays. He disdained the political correctness that isolated "black poets" to give them a special critical treatment. Instead Hayden wanted to be considered just a poet, an American poet, and criticized only for the merits of his works.

According to James Mann in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Hayden "stands out among poets of his race for his staunch avowal that the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks." And Lewis Turco has explained, "Hayden has always wished to be judged as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism ought to be applied in order to make his work acceptable in more than a sociological sense."

Other blacks who had bought into the false comfort of a segregated criticism for them harshly criticized Hayden's perfectly logical stance. According to William Meredith, "In the 1960s, Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity."

While serving as professor, Hayden continued to write. His published collections include the following:

  • Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems (Falcon Press 1940)
  • The Lion and the Archer (Hemphill Press 1948) Figures of Time: Poems (Hemphill Press 1955)
  • A Ballad of Remembrance (P. Breman 1962) Selected Poems (October House 1966)
  • Words in the Mourning Time (October House 1970) Night-Blooming Cereus (P. Breman 1972)
  • Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (Liveright 1975)
  • American Journal (Liveright 1982)
  • Collected Poems (Liveright 1985).
  • Collected Prose (University of Michigan Press 1984).

Robert Hayden was awarded the Hopwood Award for poetry on two separate occasions. He also earned the Grand Prize for Poetry at the World Festival of Negro Arts for A Ballad of Remembrance. The National Institute of Arts and Letters bestowed on him the Russell Loines Award.

Hayden's reputation became well established in the poetry world, and in 1976, he was nominated to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the position later designated Poet Laureate of the United States of America. He held that position for two years.

Robert Hayden died at age 66 on February 25, 1980, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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