It seems to me that a poem which effectively expresses the spirit of Harlem Renaissance poetry is "From the Dark Tower," by Countee Cullen. It is a restrained, dignified, poignant work, influenced in form by Keats and Shelley rather than by the moderns. Incidentally, The Dark Tower was actually a place on 136th Street in Harlem, where a number of the poets used to gather. Perhaps Cullen knew he was speaking for the others, too, when he wrote:
We shall not always plant while others reap The golden increment of bursting fruit, Not always countenance, abject and mute That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap; Not everlastingly while others sleep Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute, Not always bend to some more subtle brute; We were not made eternally to weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark White stars is no less lovely being dark, And there are buds that cannot bloom at all In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall; So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds, And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.
Let us examine the symbolism contained in the poem. Here we have the often-used symbol of planting seeds and reaping fruit. This symbol invariably refers to the natural sequence of things—the hope eventually realized, or the "just deserts" finally obtained. The sowing-reaping symbol here effectively expresses the frustration that inevitably falls to the individual or group of people caught in an unjust system. The image of a person planting the seeds of his labor, knowing even as he plants that "others" will pluck the fruit, is a picture of the frustration which is so often the Negro's lot. The image necessarily (and perhaps unconsciously) implies certain questions: What must be the feelings of the one who plants? How long will he continue to plant without reward? Will he not eventually stop planting, or perhaps begin seizing the fruit which is rightfully his? In what light does he see himself? How does he regard the "others" who "reap the golden increment of bursting fruit"? What physical and emotional damage results to the laborer from this arrangement to which obviously he never consented?
In his basic symbol then, Cullen expresses the crux of the protest poem which so flourished in the Harlem Renaissance. In poem after poem, articulate young Negroes answered these questions or asked them again, these questions and many more. And in the asking, and in the answering, they were speaking of the old, well-worn (though never quite realized) American ideals.
In the octave of the poem, Cullen answers some of these questions. The grim promise "not always" tolls ominously like an iron bell through the first eight lines. "We shall not always plant while others reap," he promises. By degrees he probes deeper and deeper into the actual meaning of the image. In the next two lines he points out one of many strange paradoxes of social injustice: that the "abject and mute" victim must permit himself to be considered inferior by "lesser men"—that is, men who have lost a measure of their humanity because they have degraded their brothers. This image is a statement of a loss of human values—the "abject and mute" victim of an unjust social system, bereft of spirit, silently serving another who has himself suffered a different kind of loss in robbing his fellow man of his potential—that is, the fruit of his seed. Perhaps this destruction of the human spirit is the "more subtle brute" of which the poet speaks. The last line of the octave promises eventual change in the words, "We were not made eternally to weep." Yet it implies that relief is still a long way off. It is in the sestet that the poem itself blossoms into full-blown dark beauty. With the skill of an impressionistic painter, the poet juxtaposes black and white into a canvas of brilliant contrasts. The night is pictured as being beautiful because it is dark—a welcome relief from the stark whiteness of the stars. The image suggests the pride in Negritude which became important in the Harlem Renaissance—the pride in the physical beauty of black people, the Negro folk culture which has enriched America, the strength which the Negro has earned through suffering. Cullen describes the night as being not only a lovely thing, but also a sheltering thing. The image of the buds that cannot bloom in light suggests that the Negro's experience has created a unique place for him in American culture: there are songs that he alone can sing.
The final couplet combines the beautiful and sheltering concept of darkness with the basic symbol of futile planting. The poet now splashes a shocking red onto his black and white canvas. The dark becomes not only a shelter for developing buds, but also a place to conceal gaping wounds. These two lines are quiet but extremely disturbing: "So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds, / And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds." And the reader cannot help wondering, what sort of will grow from these "agonizing seeds"?