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Robert Hayden's "The Whipping"

Updated on March 17, 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, circa 1958

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "The Whipping"

Robert Hayden's "The Whipping" consists of six unrimed stanzas that dramatize the violent whipping of a boy by an enraged woman. The speaker's wise commentary at the conclusion changes the reader's perspective from the one originally gained from the beginning of the poem.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Whipping

The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

Reading of "The Whipping"

Commentary

In Robert Hayden's, "The Whipping," the speaker reports his observations of a woman brutally beating a child but adds a redeeming conclusion that may be unexpected.

First Stanza: A Disturbing Event

The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.

The speaker plunges in immediately describing the disturbing event that seems to occur routinely: "The old woman across the way / is whipping the boy again." And as the neighbor lady is corporally punishing the boy, she loudly condemns him testifying so that her neighbors can hear about "her goodness and his wrongs."

Second Stanza: Sad Relationship

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

The next installment of the narration reveals that the woman who habitually "whips" this boy is morbidly obese; the speaker dubs it "crippling fat." But even so, she is able to chase the boy through her flower garden as he "[w[ildly [ ] crashes through elephant ears" and "pleads in dusty zinnias."

The poem never makes it clear that the woman and boy are, if in fact, mother and son, but the nature of their relationship is more important than the specifics. The speaker refers to the woman as "the old woman," which might imply that she is his grandmother, since she clearly serves as a guardian-parent, but the speaker is focusing on the implications of that relationship.

Third Stanza: Out of Control

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:

The speaker then reveals that the woman is repeatedly thwacking the boy with a stick "till the stick breaks / in her hand." She is trailing him as he shrieks and moves around trying to avoid the whacks.

The speaker then announces that the boy's tears remind him of his own back when he used to take beatings from a parent. Hayden's masterful lines, "His tears are rainy weather / to woundlike memories," serves as segue to his speaker's flashback that is portrayed in the fourth stanza.

Fourth, Fifth Stanzas: An Anguishing Memory

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,

The speaker then becomes the boy receiving the punishing violence against him from someone he had loved. But the speaker remembers his "head gripped in a bony vise / of knees." He thrashed about violently trying to free himself from that vise-grip, but unable to do so, he continued to endure the wallops. The speaker divulges that those blows brought to him a fear "worse than blows that hateful // Words could bring."

And he found that he no longer "knew or loved" that person delivering his beating. Then suddenly, "Well, it is over now, it is over"—this masterfully crafted line signals that the speaker's own beating is over, and the boy, whom he has been currently observing, is no longer being whipped. The boy is now in his own room crying.

Sixth Stanza: Victims Victimizing

And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

The woman of the "crippling fat" has used up all her energy in this whipping, so she "leans muttering against / a tree, exhausted, purged." The speaker then offers a remarkable commentary in his brief remark that the woman is "avenged in part for lifelong hidings / she has had to bear." He implies that beating children is done by those who have been victims of beatings themselves.

Sympathy for All

While experiencing the poem, the reader will first sympathize with the boy, then additionally with the speaker who was also beaten as a boy. But then after the completion of the scene and sociological commentary of the speaker, the reader now feels sympathy for all concerned in this drama, even the woman administering the brutal "whipping."

Robert Hayden Commemorative Stamp

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.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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