Mariann Russell: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia"

[Russell, one of the pioneering scholars who wrote at length on Tolson in her 1980 study, Melvin B. Tolson’s "Harlem Gallery": A Literary Analysis," provides a detailed overview of the entire work, with close-up focus on several passages.]

In the period between the publication of Rendezvous and the writing of Libretto, Tolson included in his eclectic reading the moderns who set the tone of the two decades between the world wars. The reading and the public occasion of Liberia’s centenary resulted in the style and content of Libretto. In the poem packed with Eliotic notes, we have Tolson’s venture in a style aimed at the literary caviar. [Footnote 1]

Here his view extends from Liberia and Africa to the world. The hero is, symbolically, Liberia, one of only two uncolonized nations in Africa then. Tolson reflects on this historical fact [footnote 2], on Liberia’s contribution to Allied efforts in World War II, and on the history of this republic founded by American Blacks freed from slavery; he therefore celebrates its national identity. The epic qualities from Portaits and Rendezvous appear here in a different context. Liberia, historically exploited by France and England, aids these two countries by supplying rubber and providing airports during the war. The campaign against "fascists" becomes almost a holy war. Liberia, the name and motto signifying freedom, emerges as both real and symbolic. Transcending racial and economic biases, it foreshadows Africa’s triumph in the world. Tolson thus fuses epic and "academic" style [footnote 3].

The poem is either an ode or a series of eight odes [footnote 4]. The titles of metrically varying sections range the diatonic scale from "Do" to "Do." The sections are thematically and symbolically interconnected in the ode form:

Metrically, the term ode usually implies considerable freedom in the introduction of varied rhythmic movements and irregularities of verse-length and rhyme-distribution. There is something ‘oratorical’ about a true ode; and its irregularities may be conceived of as produced by its adaption to choric rendition or to public declamation, either actual or imagined. … Primarily, it [ode] refers to the content and spirit of a poem, implying a certain largeness of thought, continuity of theme, and exalted feeling [quoted from J. F. A. Pye, "A Short Introduction to English Versification," Appendix, English Poetry of the Nineteenth Century, New York, 1929.]

Tolson, faced with the problem of writing an occasional poem about a little-known nation, turns deliberately to the ancient form.

Besides the real and symbolic Liberia, there is a lesser heroic image in the poet-visionary. Because for Tolson man completely fuses the biological, the sociological, and the psychological, only the Ishamelite poet knows him deeply. Knowing humanity, historical and contemporary, the poet-prophet discerns the future. Tolson embodies human history in the ferris wheel symbol, which subsumes empires and nations. They rise and fall, alternating decadence and "bright new beginnings." To escape the cyclic nature of power, Tolson asserts through the protagonist [footnote 5] that humankind must advance teleologically to a classless utopia. Liberia therefore marks the vanguard, the poet-prophet being instrumental to the movement. …

The first and final "Do" illustrate the manner. The first sets out the principal themes in the attempt to define the meaning of Liberia. A centered question, "Liberia?," highlights the dominant image. In each eight-line stanza, there follows a negation of some cliché: "micro-footnote," "barker’s bio-accident," "pimple on the chin of Africa," "caricature with a mimic flag," and "wasteland" (Europe) or "destooled elite" (Africa). After a denial, the fifth line in each stanza recenters the definition around the repentend "You are." In regular rhyme-schemes the metrically irregular verses relate Liberia to Europe as lightning rod and Canaan’s key and "The rope across the abyss…." …

The [Libretto] poem, unlike earlier ones, minimizes direct, hortatory rhetoric. Allusions help structure and codify meanings. Here the tagends of quotations as well as infusions from different languages, including Spanish, French, German, Italian, Latin, Russian, Greek, Turkish, and Hebrew, complicate a line already abstruse. So do the African languages. Symbols like Hohere, the ferris wheel, the merry-go-round, and the tiny republic enrich the verse.

The first section reveals the tone and many of the poetic devices which recur throughout the verse, Liberia has survived the exploitation of Western colonizers. Although its freedom is "flayed and naked," the ideal lives on in promise. "Liberia and not Liberia," the dialectic, the tension of opposites plays throughout the ode. It leads from the initial poem of definition through those which describe the nation’s founding ("Mi," "Sol," "La") to the relationship to France, Britain and the United States ("Fa," "Ti"). Finally, it widens to classic African civilization ("Re") and the masses everywhere ("Ti" and passim). Tolson resolves the tension in "Africa-To-Be" (second "Do" and passim).

In the long last section ("Do"), Tolson crafts language and symbols into a vision of Africa’s bright future. Through the metaphors of the automobile, train, and ships, as well as the airplane, he aesthetically transports Liberia, Africa, and the world to an apocalyptic Pluralism. Africa saves itself as well as Europe, America, and Australia. Africa achieves the cosmopolis, Hohere, through the United African Nations’ cooperation in "polygenetic metropolises polychromatic." The Parliament of African Peoples [footnote 6] redeems both the elite and the masses.

The final "Do" sums up the significance of the Liberian experience. It evokes the future in verse that changes from sestet through staggered unrhymed couplets, to centered patterns (lines 555-557) and finally to prose poetry (lines 575-770). The final "Do" thickens with fragments in different languages, references to African as well as European and American thought. Why does the ode, despite the chillingly simple poem, "Fa" (ominous in its simplicity), end in prose paragraphs? Possibly, oratory and Tolson’s notion of climax coincide here [footnote 7].

The entire ode moves to a climax as each of the eight sections achieves a minor affirmation. While the first "Do" climaxes in the symbolic dimension ("A Moment of the conscience of mankind"), the final "Do" declares a new beginning ("the Rish Hashana of the Africa calends"). And it silences doubts: "Honi soit qui mal y pense!" Yet Tolson does not deny the corruption in society and the individual. While "profit" and "avarice" continue, the masses are on a merry-go-round of the "unparadised" who have nowhere to go. The gorged snake, the bird of prey, and the tiger wait in a false peace to strike again. And African nations still wear "Nessus shirts from Europe on their backs."



1. Tolson remarked about his "The Man Inside": "It was not written for you, like ‘Caviar and Cabbage’ [his newspaper columns]. It was written about you. It speaks to those super-intellectuals who whoop it up for democracy," [in Caviar and Cabbages, edited by Robert Farnsworth, p. 229]. This illustrates his conscious preparation of form to accommodate different audiences.

2. Tolson in his Notebooks states: "Start horizontally from fact to metaphor: then the idea moves vertically from metaphor to symbol at the apex of the language."

3. Since the Libretto jacket blurb calls the poem an "African odyssey" and "this epic masterpiece" there is some indication of Tolson’s intention.

4. See Joy Flasch, Melvin B. Tolson (New York: Twayne, 1972): The Libretto is a long ode consisting of eight sections …" See also Jon Woodson, "A Critical Analysis of the Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson," doctoral diss., Brown University, 1978: "the poem, consisting of eight Pindaric odes …," p. 110. This same difference of opinion occurs about [Tolson’s] Harlem Gallery, called an ode by Flasch. "Harlem Gallery is structured so that there is an ode for each letter of the ancient Greek alphabet…." Woodson, p, 195.

5. Woodson points out the existence of the protagonist: "Note 367 contains, beside note 554, the only direct assertion that the poem, consisting of eight Pindaric odes – thus presumably spoken by someone – contains a protagonist. Tolson’s protagonost, in contrast to Eliot’s identification of the seer Tiresias as ‘a mere spectator and not indeed a "character" …’ is not anywhere named. … The reader of the Libretto is provided no key as to whom the protagonist might be" (pp. 110-111). See entire discussion, pp. 110-113.

6. "The poet Tennyson dreamed of a Parliament of Man, a Federation of the World. I cast my vote for that." (Cabbages and Caviar, p. 127.) See also Tennyson, "Locksley Hall."

7. See discussion of "climax," Flasch, p. 76, and Allen Tate, "Introduction" in Libretto, p. 10.


Title Mariann Russell: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author R. Baxter Miller Criticism Target Melvin B. Tolson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960
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