Ronald E. Sheasby: On "Heritage"
Many critics have pointed out that Countee Cullen's poetry was written largely in traditional English forms, such as the sonnet, and was heavily influenced by the romantic poets, most of all John Keats. However, no one has yet suggested that Cullen's "Heritage," his best and most famous work, may owe a debt to William Blake's "The Tiger." This paper will.
That a black American of the twentieth century should adopt a style popular among white Englishmen of the previous one offends some people and fills others with pride and pleasure. Those who like it see a black man expressing racial and nonracial themes in traditional and beautiful ways; those who do not like it see a slavish imitation which weakens the antiracist poetry and dilutes the rest.
Gerald Early is one of the latter, calling Cullen's use of traditional forms "quaint and old fashioned." Cullen uses the clause "so I lie" so often in "Heritage" that Early thinks he may be also lying when he says that Africa is important to him (59-60). Early is not certain, but Darwin T. Turner is: he calls Cullen a liar who fakes an African heritage, though being neither particularly black nor militant; his conventional poetic devices mask his pretense. Harvey Curtis Webster agrees, and Blyden Jackson adds the condemnation that Countee was black but had a white outlook.
In Silence to the Drums, Margaret Perry sees Cullen's romantic heritage as a mixed blessing, both inspiring and hampering him, elsewhere comparing him favorably to John Keats. Houston A. Baker, Jr., is also ambivalent: Countee has to use traditional forms to please the white audience and African themes to satisfy the black one; it is perhaps because of this that he is simply "a minor poet" who never achieves the "Vision Splendid."
Alan R. Shucard is unequivocal in his praise: Countee Cullen is an "absolute master of conventional structures and language." Writing with a true lyric gift, Cullen produces pretty poems such as "Heritage." Ronald Primeau sees the Keatsian influence as positive: the imagery and theme of "Heritage" shows traces of the Englishman. Gary Smith adds that Cullen chooses sonnets because those forms lend themselves rather well to syllogistic reasoning, an approach that is used in the racial poems, and Richard Lederer agrees (219-23). And, finally, Baker quotes James Weldon Johnson:
Cullen is a fine and sensitive lyric poet, belonging to the classical line. . . . All of his work is laid within the lines of the long- approved English patterns, and by that very gauge a measure of his gifts and powers as a poet may be taken. The old forms come from his hands filled with a fresh beauty. A high test for a poet.
And so, whether or not Countee "sold out" or heightened his themes by the use of traditional romantic forms, all agree that he did, indeed, use those forms. Let us turn to the poem itself. "Heritage" first appeared in the 1 March 1925 Survey. Since the poem was published well before Cullen's Harvard matriculation (where, incidentally, his studies led him to produce "the first rime royal in America," according to Robert Hillyer), we must turn to his NYU days for a time of composition and possible influences. Apart from school magazines, there is no record of a published poem by Countee Cullen before NYU.
Cullen did not study at NYU under a Blake scholar but he did take most of his courses from a traditionalist--a Keats specialist and a collector of ballads named Hyder Rollins—including a course entitled English Poetry of the Nineteenth Century. Tuttleleton says that Rollins had written books on both Keats and ballads, and adds that "there is no doubt that for Hyder Rollins the English tradition from the Middle Ages onward was the right foundation for a poet." It would not take much of an imagination to picture that somewhere in the above-mentioned two-semester poetry survey course was an analysis of William Blake's "The Tiger." Young Countee's mind must have been like a sponge, incorporating everything he studied—and if he did study Blake's poem, it would not be too much of a surprise to find it reappearing, considerably altered, to be sure, but reappearing nonetheless, in the body of Cullen's poetry! Let us look at both poems in question.
William Blake's "The Tiger" is written in either iambic tetrameter truncated or trochaic tetrameter catalectic. The last stanza exactly repeats the first:
Tiger, Tiger, burning bright, In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
The second couplet is characterized by a half rhyme-eye and symmetry, and ends with a question; indeed, every stanza in the poem ends with a question which either announces or repeats the theme: "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" The capitalized "Lamb" evokes "the Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world," Jesus Christ. According to Robert Hillyer, this poem was a companion piece for "The Lamb," which overtly Christianizes lambs: "He is called by thy name / For he calls himself a lamb." "The Tiger" asks if the creator who made Jesus also made the big cat, suggesting a pagan, non-Christian and lower-case god similar to those described in William Ernest Henley's "Invictus," a god who made the tiger while another lamb-like Christian God made the Iamb and the Lamb. How could one deity make both? Imagery of fire dominates the poem until almost the end. The tiger's eyes are "burning bright," with references to their fire: "What the hand dare seize the fire?" is asked, then "In what furnace was thy brain?" Soon, however, the imagery shifts to water. Stars throw "Down their spears," then water "Heaven with their tears." Having briefly digressed from fire to water, Blake returns to his furnace: "Tiger, tiger, burning bright. . . ." Blake's imagery thus comes full circle, from fire to water and back to fire.
Countee Cullen's "Heritage" is written in either iambic tetrameter truncated or trochaic tetrameter catalectic. He repeats his thematic question "What is Africa to me?" several times, word for word and in variations such as "What's your nakedness to me?" or "What is last year's snow to me?" And he twice repeats an italicized chorus that echoes Blake's opening and closing stanza syllable for syllable, beat for beat:
One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me?
And just as Blake half rhymes "eye" and "symmetry," Cullen half rhymes "removed" and "loved."
The echoes extend far beyond meter and rhyme. As Blake's theme is announced by answering "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?" Cullen answers "What is Africa to me?"
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek, Lamb of God although I speak With my mouth thus, in my heart Do I play a double part. . . . Wishing He I serve were black. . . . (Italics mine)
The black narrator trying to relate to a white god is a contradiction at least as striking as a God (or gods) who makes tigers and lambs (or Lambs). The poet is Christian but black; Africa calls to him with the burning eyes of a tiger hidden in the deep, lush, green jungle. There is no release
From the unremittent beat Made by cruel padded feet Walking through my body's street. Up and down they go, and back, Treading out a jungle track.
Now the tiger, or at least a near relative, is stalking through Cullen’s poem and body!
Some tiger-like animals appear elsewhere in this poem: cats crouch
. . . in the river reeds Stalking gentle flesh that feeds By the river brink; no more Does the bugle throated roar Cry that monarch claws have leapt From the scabbards where they slept.
The "monarch claws" suggest lions rather than tigers, but they are both predatory cats—and described as making circles "through the night," not unlike Blake's tiger, eyes aflame "in the forests of the night."
And Blake's "forests of the night" are composed of trees like this:
. . . The tree Budding yearly must forget How its past arose and set. . . .
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me?
Water imagery dominates "Heritage," until almost the very end, when it shifts to fire, somewhat the opposite of "The Tiger," which goes from fire to water and back to fire.
So I lie, whose fount of pride, Dear distress, and joy allied, Is my somber flesh and skin, With the dark blood damned within Like great pulsing tides of wine That, I fear, must burst the fine Channels of the chafing net Where they surge and foam and fret.
The links with Christianity once established ("fount" and "wine"), he continues with water:
So I lie, who never quite Safely sleep from rain at night— I can never rest at all When the rain begins to fall: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . While its primal measures drip Through my body, crying, "Strip! Come and dance the Lover's Dance!" In an old remembered way Rain works on me night and day.
The poet says that he must "Quench my pride and cool my blood, / Lest I perish in the flood." He then switches images, just as does Blake, and continues:
Lest a hidden ember set Timber that I thought was wet Burning like the dryest flax, Melting like the merest flax,
and five lines later, concludes his poem.
The narrator's dilemma is that he is neither Iamb nor tiger, pagan nor Christian, native African nor inheritor and modifier of the romantic tradition—and it is in this very dichotomy that "Heritage" most resembles "The Tiger." What sort of world is it, both poets ask, that has meek lambs and barbaric tigers, the Christian God and pagan gods, poets who write out of the romantic tradition but whose ancestors come from darkest Africa? It is the same question which Countee Cullen asks in "Yet Do I Marvel": What sort of God would "make a poet black and bid him sing"? Caucasian William Blake had no such concern—but still in all, he saw the world divided into two parts, and so did Countee Cullen.
There are other differences, as well. Blake's work is much shorter, only twenty-four lines, asking fourteen questions. "Heritage" asks six questions and takes 129 lines to do it. However, Cullen deliberately modeled "The Ballad of the Brown Girl" after an old English source that was either ten or fifteen lines long, depending on the source book. Cullen's ballad is very nearly exactly as much longer than its model as "Heritage" is longer than "The Tiger"!
Cullen's poem, despite its structural similarities to Blake's, flows more rhythmically, pulsing in a manner more evocative of jungle drums, somewhat reminiscent of Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo." A reader of "The Tiger" sees feline eyes glowing in the dark; a reader of "Heritage" hears "Great drums throbbing through the air."
And finally, Blake writes of a tiger, Cullen about a man. However, that highlights the difference between plagiarism and the sort of modeling (or at least unconscious influence) that I am suggesting. Cullen took bits and pieces—meter, rhyme scheme, symbolism, theme—from Blake and echoed them in his own poem, about his own experiences, in ultimately his own way.
So there are identical meters and rhyme schemes, the repetition of thematically significant questions in both poems. There is a similar dichotomy in both, the Lamb of God versus paganism, and the appearance of predatory felines, as well as the trees of the jungle—and water turning into fire, which turns into water. And, of course, there are all those critics agreeing that Countee Cullen was heavily influenced by traditional English sources.
Are such echoes deliberate, as Cullen's work with ballads was? I do not know—nor do I think anybody does, at least until further evidence appears. They are at the very least unconscious, and it may be that some overt modeling took place, as well. Did he model "Heritage" after "The Tiger"? Perhaps. Was Cullen's poem influenced by Blake's? It seems likely. Did Cullen even read "The Tiger?" Almost certainly, but I can not prove it.
Geniuses such as Countee Cullen are readers before they are poets or novelists—and after they start writing, they continue to read. Almost all writers read voraciously, and many, if not all, write in occasional imitation of those writers they most admire. Sometimes this is deliberate, sometimes unconscious. It is not important whether or not they occasionally mirror their sources (Need I mention more than Shakespeare?) as it is how well they execute their designs, how well the finished product flows organically. Poetry is meant to be enjoyed, with or without a knowledge of the influences that might have helped shape it. And "Heritage" is a poem that people have enjoyed reading for over two thirds of the twentieth century! It seems petty to criticize its creator for using language more germane to the nineteenth.
|Title||Ronald E. Sheasby: On "Heritage"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Ronald E. Sheasby||Criticism Target||Countee Cullen|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||11 Jul 2021|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Dual Reality: Echoes of Blake's Tiger in Cullen's Heritage|
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