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Robert Hayden's "Frederick Douglass"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Robert Hayden

Introduction and Text of "Frederick Douglass"

Robert Hayden's American (innovative) sonnet, "Frederick Douglass," achieves its message with a sestet and an octave, in reverse order from the Italian sonnet. The poem offers a well-deserved tribute to one of America's most important founding fathers. The road to freedom for black Americans has been built and maintained by men and women the stature of Frederick Douglass. Poet Robert Hayden understood well his debt to people like Douglass, as this marvelous sonnet reveals.

Even today as "the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians" would seek to pander over the historical plight of the black American in their pitiful identity politics, that true "beautiful, needful thing" called "this freedom, this liberty" remains the genuine goal of all Americans of all metaphorical color, concocted gender, or national origin.

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty,
this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

Robert Hayden reading his poem, "Frederick Douglass"

Frederick Douglass

Commentary

Robert Hayden is one of the most skillful of American poets. His poem, "Frederick Douglass," is a tribute to the former slave, who helped liberate black Americans.

Sestet: The Focus in on Freedom

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty,
this beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:

The sestet, first six lines, offers a series of five adverbial "when" clauses, all focusing on freedom: when it is ours, when it belongs to all, when it is instinct, when it is finally won, and when it is more than a political topic. With the first clause, the speaker portrays freedom, liberty, as "this beautiful / and terrible thing."

The speaker avers that liberty for the human being is as necessary as the air he breathes, and it is as much a tool for life as the earth itself. In the second clause, he suggests that eventually freedom will, in fact, belong to everyone. Not just a privileged few will be able to use this useful tool and breathe the air of liberty, as they all need to do.

Freedom is not just a luxury for some, but also a requirement for every man, woman, and child of every race, creed, or class. In the third clause, the speaker proposes that freedom must become "truly instinct." It is not something worn on the sleeve or a badge on the chest; it is part of the "brain matter," and it is as close to the human being as the beating of the heart, "diastole, systole."

The fourth clause renders the literal fact, "when it is finally won," and the fifth clause offers a breathtaking, plain truth that even offers a humorous description: "when it is more / than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians." What an irony that a need so vital to everyone could become the "gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians"!

Octave: Beneficiaries of the Struggle for Liberty

this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

The speaker then moves to the culmination of all those fundamentals framed in the five adverbial "when" clauses in the sestet. When all that has taken place and freedom is won, Frederick Douglass will "be remembered."

Frederick Douglass had experienced life as a slave, who escaped from his captivity. He became an educated man, learning to read. Later in his life, he put all of his effort into working for the abolition of slavery and seeking freedom for all people.

The speaker of Hayden's poem offers a clear portrait of Douglass: "this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro / beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world / where none is lonely, none hunted, alien, / this man, superb in love and logic."

Douglass penned his autobiography, which became a bestseller and has never been out of print. And the speaker in Hayden's poem offers a tribute to the fearless leader.

The speaker claims that Douglass will not be remembered only in flowery rhetoric or in bronze statues, but more importantly the former slave's life will shine in the lives that "grow[ ] out of his life."

The lives that will be beneficiaries of his legacy of liberty will pay homage to the man as no rhetoric or statue could. The lives that Douglass' efforts will affect are the lives that will "flesh[ ] [out] [Douglass'] dream of the beautiful, needful thing."

Robert Hayden Commemorative Stamp - USA

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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