American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

HAYDEN, ROBERT [EARL] (1913-1980). A long-neglected African American* poet, Robert Hayden (born Asa Bundy Sheffey) climaxed his career with two successive terms as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (1976-1978), the position now known as poet laureate. His ten volumes of poetry show a consistent interest in African American history and culture, as well as a transcendent concern for humane issues. While neither his biography nor his canon suggests a knowledge of, or an affinity with, the sea, his works do include significant metaphorical uses of sea imagery for thematic emphasis.

Perhaps most notable among these is his epic in miniature, “Middle Passage,” a montage of voices and historical swatches in description of the horrors of the slave trade era, with a central theme exalting the timeless human aspiration for personal freedom. First published in 1945, the poem directly invokes the sea as an irresistible, natural force in concert with, and in support of, the human quest for freedom. This modern epic quest includes a truncated version of the Amistad* rebellion of 1839, with its hero, Cinque, and his natural ally, the stormy sea. Hayden thus locates the sea on the side of moral justice, suggesting that the forces of nature take vengeance upon those who pervert nature by enslaving others. Hayden combines authenticity of historical research with almost archetypal symbolism of the sea setting to establish and confirm the role of nature in the timeless epic quest for human freedom.

Other poems are more personal, applying sea settings and symbolism in autobiographical allegories of the poet’s life experiences or psyche. A typical example is “The Diver” (1966), an introspective account of a personal emotional crisis presented as a descent to the ocean’s floor by a scuba diver. Other poems such as “Veracruz” (1962) and “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves” (1970) include the sea as both literal setting and symbolic extension of theme, but neither is dependent on either aspect for full disclosure. His poem in honor of Malcolm X, “El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz” (1970), compares the black leader to Ahab* as both being of the same “tribe” and borrows a line from Moby-Dick* (1851): “ ‘Strike through the mask!’ ” These and other poems by this “poet of perfect pitch” show his interest in the timeless potential of the sea for enhancing human expression and enlightenment. [See also HARPER, MICHAEL S.; SEA IMAGERY IN MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY POETRY; SLAVE NARRATIVES]

Fred M. Fetrow