Jon Woodson: On "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia"

[Woodson’s 1971 Brown PhD thesis represents the earliest substantial scholarly work on Tolson. In this excerpt from a 1986 essay, he builds a case for Tolson’s deep interest in the writings of G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky – philosopher-mystics who strongly influenced some of the writers in the Harlem Renaissance that Tolson studied and interviewed for his Columbia M.A. thesis in the early 1930s. In part, what is esoteric in Tolson rests, then, on data that is designed to signal its links to a particular mystical tradition and to release latent energies and to communicate primarily to those who were initiates.]

The structure of the Libretto – a section for each note in the musical scale – turns out to be a poetic use of one of Gurdjieff’s esoteric Great Laws, the cosmic law of seven-foldness, which is symbolized as a musical scale throughout the writings of Ouspensky. Tolson used this particular law, which explains how the world works, to analyze the past and future of Liberia. Tolson referred to this law in his poetry several times as "Do-to-Do" and was constantly finding ways to reveal the action of this law in his poetry. Tolson deepened the imagery of the law of seven-foldedness, or as Gurdjieff called it, "three octaves of radiation," by superimposing the first eight-trumps of the Tarot deck over the musical scale: each section of the Libretto describes the scene pictured on a Tarot card as the deck is described in Ouspensky’s A New Model of the Universe. So careful was Tolson to include esoteric material into his poems that he went so far as to provide a numerological element; the 770 lines of the Libretto can be interpreted as 770 + 7 x 10 x 11, which is easily read by a student of the Tarot by referring to the cards numbered 7, 10, and 11 – the numbers symbolize the theme of the poem on Liberia’s history. Tolson used the word "cabala" in Harlem Gallery, Libretto and "The Man from Halicarnassus." He intended his poetry to yield the secrets only when approached as a text that could reveal the great laws of hermetic occultism. The Curator asks in "Omega" (Harlem Gallery): "Do not scholars tear their beards – vex / their disciples over the Palestinian and Byzantine / punctuation of the Masoretic texts?"


Title Jon Woodson: 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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