Updated date:

Robert Hayden's "The Whipping"

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, circa 1958

Robert Hayden, circa 1958

Introduction and Text of "The Whipping"

Robert Hayden's "The Whipping" consists of six unrimed stanzas that dramatize the violent whipping of a boy by an enraged woman. The speaker's wise commentary at the conclusion changes the reader's perspective from the one first encountered at the beginning of the poem.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Whipping

The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

Reading of "The Whipping"

Commentary

In Robert Hayden's, "The Whipping," the speaker reports his observations of a woman brutally beating a child but adds a redeeming conclusion that may be unexpected.

First Stanza: A Disturbing Event

The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.

The speaker plunges in immediately describing the disturbing event that seems to occur routinely: "The old woman across the way / is whipping the boy again." And as the neighbor lady is corporally punishing the boy, she loudly condemns him testifying so that her neighbors can hear about "her goodness and his wrongs."

Second Stanza: Sad Relationship

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.

The next installment of the narration reveals that the woman who habitually "whips" this boy is morbidly obese; the speaker dubs it "crippling fat." But even so, she is able to chase the boy through her flower garden as he "[w[ildly [ ] crashes through elephant ears" and "pleads in dusty zinnias."

The poem never makes it clear that the woman and boy are, if in fact, mother and son, but the nature of their relationship is more important than the specifics. The speaker refers to the woman as "the old woman," which might imply that she is his grandmother, since she clearly serves as a guardian-parent, but the speaker is focusing on the implications of that relationship.

Third Stanza: Out of Control

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:

The speaker then reveals that the woman is repeatedly thwacking the boy with a stick "till the stick breaks / in her hand." She is trailing him as he shrieks and moves around trying to avoid the whacks.

The speaker then announces that the boy's tears remind him of his own back when he used to take beatings from a parent. Hayden's masterful lines, "His tears are rainy weather / to woundlike memories," serves as segue to his speaker's flashback that is portrayed in the fourth stanza.

Fourth, Fifth Stanzas: An Anguishing Memory

My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,

The speaker then becomes the boy receiving the punishing violence against him from someone he had loved. But the speaker remembers his "head gripped in a bony vise / of knees." He thrashed about violently trying to free himself from that vise-grip, but unable to do so, he continued to endure the wallops. The speaker divulges that those blows brought to him a fear "worse than blows that hateful // Words could bring."

And he found that he no longer "knew or loved" that person delivering his beating. Then suddenly, "Well, it is over now, it is over"—this masterfully crafted line signals that the speaker's own beating is over, and the boy, whom he has been currently observing, is no longer being whipped. The boy is now in his own room crying.

Sixth Stanza: Victims Victimizing

And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.

The woman of the "crippling fat" has used up all her energy in this whipping, so she "leans muttering against / a tree, exhausted, purged." The speaker then offers a remarkable commentary in his brief remark that the woman is "avenged in part for lifelong hidings / she has had to bear." He implies that beating children is done by those who have been victims of beatings themselves.

Sympathy for All

While experiencing the poem, the reader will first sympathize with the boy, then additionally with the speaker who was also beaten as a boy. But then after the completion of the scene and sociological commentary of the speaker, the reader now feels sympathy for all concerned in this drama, even the woman administering the brutal "whipping."

Robert Hayden Commemorative Stamp

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles