Fred M. Fetrow: On "Middle Passage"

Hayden's early magnum opus has its origins in the same career era and creative tendencies as "Daedalus." "Middle Passage" probably Hayden's most famous heritage poem, grew out of his research work and the "Black Spear" project of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Notable for its broad sweep of black history, and striking for its virtuoso blending of narrative voices, the poem is especially intriguing in its generic features. Hayden's epic aspirations warrant special scrutiny in view of the poem's content, structure, tone, and theme. "Middle Passage" bears virtually all the tracings of an epic in miniature, but it is neither conventional nor mocking in its epic mode. While Hayden employs most of the "standard" epic conventions and devices, he consistently and ironically inverts or alters these features. Through this inversion technique, he creates what could be called an "anti-epic," an original form with which he achieves a coherent merger of formal technique and poetic theme. His "anti-epic" approach includes characterization. With it he brings to life and ennobles Cinquez, an "antihero" and a symbolic racial representative whom Hayden glorifies in celebrating the ultimate subject of the poem--the heroic struggle for freedom by the black victims of the "Middle Passage.

Some of Hayden's ironic inversions of epic elements are rather direct and apparent; others are more subtle and have profound thematic implications. In the former category, the poet does not begin the poem with a direct statement of epic theme but instead with a brief but appalling catalog of slave ships: "Jesus, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy." These pleasant names and those that follow in line fourteen ("Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann") initiate the tone of cosmic irony that permeates the entire poem. Hayden's research shows in his deliberate use of historically factual Spanish and English names. Thus through historical selectivity Hayden emphasizes a situational irony that is as real as it is literary. The poet-narrator, in subsequently describing these symbolic ships, points up this irony: "Their bright ironical names / like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth." Those ships also figure centrally in the formal statement of theme, tersely injected early in the narrative:

 

Middle Passage:

    voyage through death

        to life upon these shores.

 

The classic epic premise of a quest-journey is thus established, but in terms that are uniquely Hayden's. He uses "death" in a literal sense to counterpoint ironically the figurative use of "life." As his narrative account makes clear, "death" as a part of the journey is no more horrible a prospect than the life to be "lived" after arrival. The transit through the Middle Passage is indeed a "voyage through death, " but the life of slavery to be experienced by the survivors will be a living death, a death in life.

Hayden thus frequently includes, but inverts, denies, or uses ironic substitutes for, the typical epic conventions and devices. His treatment of the supernatural element further exemplifies this technique. The "gods" are present in the poem, but neither as fickle pagan deities with vested interests in human endeavor nor as providential protectors in a "Christian" epic. Instead, Hayden confronts the reader with two alternate pseudosupernatural influences: indifferent brute nature, or pious hypocritical Puritanism. The sharks who hungrily await the suicidal leaps of crazed slaves are also identified as the "tutelary gods" of the harassed or endangered slavers. These gods "intervene" in that they provide a quick death to the suffering victims of the Middle Passage and ironically serve as guardians and instructors to those responsible for that suffering. These "grinning" gods accompany the slave ships in mockery of both slaves and slavers, and with their pointed presence in the poem Hayden mocks the supernatural role in "ordinary" epics.

The Christian element in the poem also seethes with irony. The poet is quite clear about his intent here:

Irony is a constant element through the poem. The reference to Christianity in this section [Section I], the lines from the hymn, emphasize the irony of the Christian acceptance and justification of the slave trade as a means of bringing "heathen souls" to Christ.

Hayden refers to a hymn entitled "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me, " parts of which he weaves between the narrative segments of Part I as an ironic refrain. For example, lines from that hymn bracket the brief stanza that represents a prayer for God's blessing upon slave ships departing from New England for the west coast of Africa:

 

Jesus     Savior     Pilot      Me

Over     Life's       Tempestuous      Sea

 

We pray that thou wilt grant, O Lord,

safe passage to our vessels bringing

heathen souls unto Thy chastening.

 

Jesus     Savior

 

By enclosing this three-line stanza with lines and phrases from the hymn Hayden evokes an atmosphere where slave trading was rationalized as a missionary rather than as a commercial venture. The poet also sets off subsequent narrative passages with more phrases from the same hymn ("Thou Who Walked on Galilee," "Pilot Oh Pilot Me"), thereby juxtaposing religious sentiments with details of horrible events and immoral carnage aboard slave ships, in order to emphasize the perverted application of Christian doctrine to human inhumanity. God exists neither as a source of hope for the enslaved nor as a divine "pilot" for seagoing Christians, but merely as an excuse to justify cruel exploitation of one group of human beings by another.

In denying the presence of Christian love through his treatment of the supernatural, Hayden characteristically provides a thematic alternative with a metaphoric basis. The slave ships negotiate the Middle Passage with navigational aids quite in contrast to God's blessing. The "voyage through death" is a "voyage whose chartings are unlove," where "horror is the corposant and compass rose." The narrator calls the slave ships "Shuttles in the rocking loom of history," and as these "dark ships move" to weave the fabric of history, their courses are governed not by divine providence but by inhumanity and horror.

Thus, in effect, God does not exist in "Middle Passage." When the poem is compared with traditional epics, this omission is notable because the presence of God or gods in such poems has often verified the favored status of the central character or epic hero. Indeed, only relatively late in Hayden's poem is the reader even introduced to the central character, and then the poet presents the hero both belatedly and indirectly. Hayden's treatment of the conventional epic concern for the fate and accomplishments of a prominent national or racial hero is probably the most thematically significant of his "epic inversions."

Cinquez, as an epic hero, demands special attention because with this character Hayden posits the primary message of the poem. Although the manner of Cinquez's presentation and his social stature as an epic hero are unorthodox, this character emerges as the spiritual symbol of the suffering and aspirations of his race. Cinquez becomes a "deathless primaveral image"; his is a "life that transfigures many lives"; his characterization is one of epic dimension achieved through an anti-epic mode. Since the narrative premise of the epic as a distinct genre involves the telling of a story that accounts the exploits of a prominent and noble warrior, such stories usually introduce the hero early in the telling. The "epic hero" of "Middle Passage" is not introduced until line 138 of a poem 179 lines in length. In the remaining forty-two lines Hayden provides an ironically indirect account of Cinquez's "adventures," establishes the character as central to the narrative structure and theme of the entire poem, and climaxes the heroic portrayal by identifying Cinquez as the ultimate symbol of the timeless human desire for freedom, a theme of epic proportions

Hayden attributes personal nobility to Cinquez by combining history with art, by confusing myth, legend, and fact. Although Cinquez clearly was the leader of the Amistad mutiny and was put on trial in that role (in the case of the United States, Appelants, v. Cinque, and Others, Africans), he was a rice planter, not a chieftain or a prince. As a leader of slaves in rebellion against their captors, he gave his followers hope and direction, but contemporary events, curiosity, and sympathy elevated him to "regal" status. Public curiosity was abetted by an idealized portrait done by Nathaniel Jocelyn, a phrenological profile, and by several sympathetic newspaper editorials in praise of Cinquez, e.g., "The more we learn of the man's character . . . the more are we impressed with a sense of his possessing the true elements of heroism." The abolitionists who took up the cause of the "Amistaders" regarded Cinquez as a "noble savage" and saw his situation as an opportunity to set a legal precedent that would forward the abolition movement.

Hayden retains these historical perspectives and then transcends them by portraying Cinquez in symbolic terms of epic scope. Cinquez's desire and struggle for freedom become the "deep immortal human wish, / the timeless will." Ultimately, then, "Middle Passage" creates a hero who represents his race in a quest for personal liberty, something in which all men have a real shared interest. Hayden's hero remains central to the entire narrative because Cinquez is the symbolic personification of the primary theme of the poem. Hayden makes the hero appear larger than life because his "life transfigures many lives." Cinquez's rebellion against enslavement thus stands for the physical and spiritual struggle for freedom by all blacks then and since.

"Middle Passage" is epic in theme and import although "anti-epic" in formal structure and technique. Due to Hayden's manner of ironically contrasting his style with traditional epic characteristics, the poem fairly reverberates with unanticipated thematic implications throughout its length. If "unlove" provides the direction for imposed travel through the Middle Passage, then irony is the thematic gloss for reader progress toward an understanding and appreciation of Hayden's epic tribute. This indirect and muted treatment of a horrible chapter in human history at once demonstrates the poet's developing craftsmanship, verifies his compassionate objectivity (his "negative capability," one might say), and substantiates Robert Hayden's own humanity.

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Criticism Overview
Title Fred M. Fetrow: On "Middle Passage" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Fred M. Fetrow Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Hayden
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