Pontheolla T. Williams: On "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home"

In "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home" he treats the Afro-American's wish-fulfillment mechanism that reflects his discontent with America and his desire to return to Africa.

[. . . .]

Closely related to his Afro-American history poems but actually an Afro-American folk theme poem is "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home." It is the sole reprint from Hayden's prize-winning Hopwood Collection, and it is the poem that finally rewarded Hayden's efforts to have his work appear in Poetry. The poem is a skillful blend of Afro-American folk and classical subject matter. An epigraph included in the first two versions of the poem indicates that it is based on the "Legend of the Flying African," which Hughes and Bontemps state is a part of the folklore of the Georgia Sea Island blacks. This dramatic poem of six stanzas develops the speaker's invitation to a girl to dance with him. . . .

Enchanted by the night, the music, and the girl, the speaker reflects on his slave heritage and his African roots. He recalls that his "gran" was one of those slaves who escaped slavery by flying back to Africa: . . .

The classical Daedalus image compliments the "flying gran" image. The images together symbolize the blend of Western civilization with that of Africa, which the Afro-American actually represents.

African words and the names of African religious figures create a diction that promotes the voodoo theme so important in the lyric. The voodoo theme in "A Ballad of Remembrance" was a negative force that drew the observer into the charade of the Mardi Gras dance; in "Incense of a Lucky Virgin" it was treated as an unsuccessful potion that failed to bring her man home to a deserted mother. It is also used in "Witch Doctor"--a long character sketch included in A Ballad of Remembrance in which Hayden examines a modem avatar of a witch doctor who practices a mixture of voodooism and quasi-religious fundamentalism. In "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home," however, voodooism is pictured as a positive force that effects escape from a dehumanizing plight. In the original legend, according to Bontemps, on a certain plantation there was an old man to whom the slaves turned for help when their suffering became unbearable. He would whisper a magic formula to them that was inaudible to others, whereupon he transformed them into winged creatures who flew back to Africa. Thus the poem demonstrates the truth of Ralph Ellison's perceptive critique that Afro-Americans in their folklore "[back] away from the chaos of experience and from ourselves" in order to "depict the humor as well as the horror of our living."

Hayden's use of literary voodooism draws from the well of folklore that is an integral part of the Afro-American literary tradition. In this respect he joins a series of Afro-American writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Jean Toomer to Ralph Ellison. Hayden, furthermore, could not have been unmindful of the example set by W. B. Yeats in his artistic use of Irish folklore.

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Pontheolla T. Williams: On "O Daedalus, Fly Away Home" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Pontheolla T. Williams Criticism Target Robert Hayden
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry
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