Rita Dove: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia"

An Introductory Overview of the Libretto

[Dove’s summary economically portrays the breadth and scope of Tolson’s epic, suggesting the structural soundness of its sequencing. ]

… Tolson contained multitudes and did not shy away from the contradictions therein to look for single-minded issues or simple solutions; he had no problem harboring the paradoxes of the melting-pot – indeed, he was able to refine from that cruel matrix a golden, ostentatious lyricism, drenched in the pain and beauty of the blues. …

…In 1947 Tolson was appointed Poet Laureate of Liberia; he wrote Libretto in honor of the centennial of the founding of that African country. With its litany of African / Asian / European heroes, its griot rhapsody and telescoped aeons, this work rises above the circumstances of its genesis. No trace of the occasional lingers in this unique poetic celebration: a public ode that gives us not only the scoop on the nitty-gritty nasties of Western history but also, in a propulsive finale, predicts the rise of African nations.

Divided into eight sections corresponding to the notes of the scale, the Libretto has a built-in progression, a rising and compelling tension. The first "DO" contains eight stanzas, each beginning with the rhetorical question "Liberia?" This query is countered by images of what Liberia most emphatically is not – neither "micro-footnote in a bunioned book" nor "caricature with a mimic flag" – followed in turn by positive images of Liberia as the "iron nerve of lame and halt and blind" and "the quicksilver sparrow that slips / The eagle’s claw." After a lamentation ("RE") for the lost glory of the golden empire of Africa, "MI’ gives credit to various American abolitionists and church leaders for their role in the plans to settle Liberia with former slaves. "FA" provides a moment’s respite from instances of historical aggression; this "interlude of peace," however, is troubled by images of suspended violence: a giant snake ("fabulous mosaic log") poised to strike, a predatory bird (the American eagle?) looming over its stilled victim. History grinds on in "SOL" as the freed slaves set sail for Africa. Their reverse trail through the long terror of the Middle Passage is accompanied by the communal chant of the griot (the elder assigned the task of memorizing tribl history), reciting African proverbs: "The diplomat’s lie is fat / at home and lean abroad. / It is the grass that suffers when / two elephants fight."

"LA" devotes seven stanzas to the geological formation of the Liberian coastline and the advance of Christianity as the former slaves struggle to survive the ravages of nature. "TI" abounds with allusions and foreign phrases, French spilling into Latin even as Banquo’s ghost mingles with the outrageous tyrants of World War II. "You want erudition? I’ll give you erudition," Tolson seems to be saying, mocking the champions of the Western world by summarizing this dizzying sweep through history – largely a progression of wars and ravishment – as "unparadised nobodies with maps of Nowhere / ride the merry-go-round! / Selah!"

"DO" completes the octave. And though there are structural parallels between the first section and the eighth (the question-and-answer pattern of section one has, in section eight, become an elaborate call-and-response around key terms such as the United Nations, Bula Matadi, and Parliament of African Peoples), this conclusion explodes the boundaries of free verse. It resembles the stylized sermon of a charismatic black minister, borne along by the intensity of his vision.

Tolson takes the form of a libretto – literally a "little book" but usually understood as a text to the musical theatre – to its limits. The melodrama of man’s ambitions is swirled across a canvas that begins with prehistoric glaciers and tumbles into the Futurafrique – pageantry and intrigue abreast on a tide of high-fidelity language. With Libretto, Tolson learns to sing in the operatic mode.


Title Rita Dove: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Raymond Nelson, Melvin B. Tolson Criticism Target Melvin B. Tolson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Introduction
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