Michael Bérubé: On "Dark Symphony"

The only notable exception to Tolson’s acclaim by African-American critics in the 1940s is a notice by Robert A. Davis, whose critique of "Dark Symphony" in the Chicago Sunday Bee of 21 September 1941 apparently affected Tolson greatly. Davis offered strong support for the poem overall (and a schoolmasterly injunction for its further dissemination): "The poem is definitely worth reading. It will be talked about for a long time to come and you should have comments based on your own impressions to contribute to the discussions ‘Dark Symphony’ will provoke." But alone among the poem’s critics, Davis considered the work lamentably uneven. Citing Tolson’s "use of well worn allusions … coupled with the obvious fault of redundance," he suggested that some sections were "far short of what the author is capable of and intends." Davis particularly contrasted the poem’s "perfect" first six lines with its next six, protesting that "it is almost sacrilege to follow such magnificent lines with others as flat and Pollyannaish" as these:


And from that day to this

    Men black and strong

For Justice and Democracy have stood,

Steeled in the faith that Right

    Will conquer Wrong,

And Time will usher in one brotherhood.


Davis’s objection is well taken, and apparently Tolson thought so too, for he revised the stanza before it was published in Rendezvous with America. Some anthologists have reprinted only the earlier version, however, so let us look at both versions side by side. Here is the revision:


Waifs of the auction block,

    Men black and strong

The juggernauts of despotism withstood,

Loin-girt with faith that worms

    Equate the wrong

And dust is purged to create brotherhood.


Because Tolson has so long and so often been accused of revising Libretto at Allen Tate’s behest, it may be helpful to note that this revision (together with a few minor adjustments to the third stanza) appears to be the only section of the Tolson oeuvre whose different versions were motivated by published professional criticism. Though Allen Tate, like Robert Davis, had deigned to point out Tolson’s weaknesses, it appears that Tolson was no more moved by Tate’s reservations than he was by Poetry’s initial rejection of Libretto in 1948 – a rejection upon which he signified when he wrote to James Decker, at the Decker Press, that "maybe [Poetry’s editors] think the propaganda sticks through the seams of the verse."


Title Michael Bérubé: On "Dark Symphony" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael Bérubé Criticism Target Melvin B. Tolson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Marginal Forces / Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of Canon
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