On Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” – Michigan Quarterly Review

On Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage”


Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy:

       Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,
       sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;   
       horror the corposant and compass rose.

Middle Passage:
               voyage through death
                               to life upon these shores.

       “10 April 1800—
       Blacks rebellious.  Crew uneasy.  Our linguist says   
       their moaning is a prayer for death,
       ours and their own.  Some try to starve themselves.   
       Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter   
       to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.”

Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann:

       Standing to America, bringing home   
       black gold, black ivory, black seed.

               Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
               of his bones New England pews are made,   
               those are altar lights that were his eyes.

Jesus    Saviour    Pilot    Me
Over    Life’s    Tempestuous    Sea

We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,   
safe passage to our vessels bringing   
heathen souls unto Thy chastening.

Jesus    Saviour

       “8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick
       with fear, but writing eases fear a little
       since still my eyes can see these words take shape   
       upon the page & so I write, as one
       would turn to exorcism.  4 days scudding,
       but now the sea is calm again.  Misfortune
       follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning   
       tutelary gods).  Which one of us
       has killed an albatross?  A plague among
       our blacks—Ophthalmia: blindness—& we   
       have jettisoned the blind to no avail.
       It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads.
       Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.'s eyes   
       & there is blindness in the fo’c’sle
       & we must sail 3 weeks before we come
       to port.”

               What port awaits us, Davy Jones’
               or home?  I’ve heard of slavers drifting, drifting,   
               playthings of wind and storm and chance, their crews   
               gone blind, the jungle hatred
               crawling up on deck.

Thou    Who    Walked    On    Galilee

       “Deponent further sayeth The Bella J
       left the Guinea Coast
       with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd   
       for the barracoons of Florida:

       “That there was hardly room ’tween-decks for half   
       the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;   
       that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh   
       and sucked the blood:

       “That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest   
       of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins;   
       that there was one they called The Guinea Rose   
       and they cast lots and fought to lie with her:

       “That when the Bo’s’n piped all hands, the flames   
       spreading from starboard already were beyond   
       control, the negroes howling and their chains   
       entangled with the flames:

       “That the burning blacks could not be reached,   
       that the Crew abandoned ship,
       leaving their shrieking negresses behind,
       that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches:

       “Further Deponent sayeth not.”

Pilot    Oh    Pilot    Me


Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories,   
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar;
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps   
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons.   
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah,   
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us.

And there was one—King Anthracite we named him—
fetish face beneath French parasols
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies:

He’d honor us with drum and feast and conjo   
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love,   
and for tin crowns that shone with paste,   
red calico and German-silver trinkets

Would have the drums talk war and send   
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages   
and kill the sick and old and lead the young   
in coffles to our factories.

Twenty years a trader, twenty years,
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested   
from those black fields, and I’d be trading still   
but for the fevers melting down my bones.


Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,   
the dark ships move, the dark ships move,   
their bright ironical names
like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth;   
plough through thrashing glister toward   
fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,   
weave toward New World littorals that are   
mirage and myth and actual shore.

Voyage through death,
                               voyage whose chartings are unlove.

A charnel stench, effluvium of living death   
spreads outward from the hold,
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying,   
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement.

       Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,   
       the corpse of mercy rots with him,   
       rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes.

       But, oh, the living look at you
       with human eyes whose suffering accuses you,   
       whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark   
       to strike you like a leper’s claw.

       You cannot stare that hatred down
       or chain the fear that stalks the watches
       and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;   
       cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will.

               “But for the storm that flung up barriers   
               of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores,
               would have reached the port of Príncipe in two,   
               three days at most; but for the storm we should   
               have been prepared for what befell.   
               Swift as the puma’s leap it came.  There was   
               that interval of moonless calm filled only   
               with the water’s and the rigging’s usual sounds,   
               then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries   
               and they had fallen on us with machete   
               and marlinspike.  It was as though the very   
               air, the night itself were striking us.   
               Exhausted by the rigors of the storm,
               we were no match for them.  Our men went down   
               before the murderous Africans.  Our loyal   
               Celestino ran from below with gun   
               and lantern and I saw, before the cane-
               knife’s wounding flash, Cinquez,
               that surly brute who calls himself a prince,   
               directing, urging on the ghastly work.
               He hacked the poor mulatto down, and then   
               he turned on me.  The decks were slippery
               when daylight finally came.  It sickens me   
               to think of what I saw, of how these apes   
               threw overboard the butchered bodies of
               our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam.   
               Enough, enough.  The rest is quickly told:   
               Cinquez was forced to spare the two of us   
               you see to steer the ship to Africa,   
               and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea   
               voyaged east by day and west by night,   
               deceiving them, hoping for rescue,   
               prisoners on our own vessel, till   
               at length we drifted to the shores of this   
               your land, America, where we were freed   
               from our unspeakable misery.  Now we   
               demand, good sirs, the extradition of   
               Cinquez and his accomplices to La   
               Havana.  And it distresses us to know   
               there are so many here who seem inclined   
               to justify the mutiny of these blacks.   
               We find it paradoxical indeed
               that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty   
               are rooted in the labor of your slaves
               should suffer the august John Quincy Adams   
               to speak with so much passion of the right   
               of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters   
               and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s   
               garland for Cinquez.  I tell you that   
               we are determined to return to Cuba
               with our slaves and there see justice done. Cinquez—
               or let us say ‘the Prince’—Cinquez shall die.”

       The deep immortal human wish,   
       the timeless will:

               Cinquez its deathless primaveral image   
               life that transfigures many lives.

       Voyage through death
                        to life upon these shores.

Robert Hayden wrote this devastating historical poem about the slave trade, “Middle Passage,” in the early 1940s when there was virtually no interest in revisiting the dark truths of American history. It is a landmark for American poetry, a breakthrough in subject matter comparable to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Sunday Morning.” It stands as a barrier-breaking poem—lyric, narrative, dramatic—that coolly and forcefully leads us to confront one of the most fundamental horrors of the American past. 

As a young poet, Hayden was moved by Stephen Vincent Benét’s long poem John Brown’s Body (1928) to write his own poems about American history, most especially the struggle of Black people to overcome slavery during the Civil War and post–Civil War eras. His first unpublished collection, The Black Spear, was triggered by a passage in Benét: “O, black-skinned epic, epic with the long black spear, / I cannot sing you now, having too white a heart.” Hayden wanted to be the Black poet who sang of that black spear, who corrected the misconceptions and destroyed the stereotypes surrounding African American history. He just had to figure out the right means. 

Hayden put himself to school on the formal poetry of John Keats, W. B. Yeats, Elinor Wylie, Countee Cullen, and W. H. Auden, his role model at the University of Michigan, who taught him about the necessity of reshaping the canon for the present day. He had also been reading the free-verse poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. Going to the archives at the Schomburg Center in New York and researching an extended poem steeped in America’s slave-trading past, Hayden gradually realized that writing a poem with epic aspirations would demand a different arsenal. He read ships’ logs, notebooks, journals, memoirs by slave traders, historical accounts. It is as if the variety and intensity of the material itself pushed him into becoming a postmodernist, an innovator who adapted the collage method of Eliot’s The Waste Land, the documentary poetics of Pound’s Cantos, and the “mystical synthesis” and mythical history that drove Crane’s search for an American identity in The Bridge. He was not only influenced by these epically scaled poems but also responding to them, and, in so doing, he was repurposing the resources of modernism. In his own quiet but firm way Hayden emerged from the archives and turned modernism, which has strong undercurrents of racism, into an African American mode, a poetics of color. 

Hayden began “The Middle Passage” in 1941 and originally planned it as the opening gambit of The Black Spear. He worked on it during the war years—World War II and the Holocaust hover invisibly in the background—and published it in Phylon in 1945. He continued to revise and whittle it—he cut forty-three lines and shaped the second section from an irregular collage into six quatrains—and republished it as the centerpiece of A Ballad of Remembrance (1962). After that he made a few minor changes when he reprinted it in Selected Poems (1966) and Angle of Ascent (1975). It took Hayden a great deal of time and painstaking effort to create and revise a poem that incorporates a wide range of voices. Too short to be an epic, it nonetheless has an epic mission. Hayden told an interviewer that at times the voice of the poet “seems to merge with voices from the past, voices not intended to be clearly identified,” such as the voices of slave traders, hymn singers, unnamed diarists, “perhaps even of the dead.” He called the style or method “cinematic” because of the way that “one scene ends and another begins without any obvious transitional elements.” 

“Middle Passage” is a poem in three parts that tracks a journey out of Africa. It is “a poem including history,” to use Pound’s definition of epic. The first section treats the inhuman brutality on various slave ships. The second section cuts to the reminiscences of a greedy and corrupt retired slave trader. The third section introduces Joseph Cinquez (Sengbe Pieh), who is now often referred to by the mononym Cinqué, the insurrectionary hero, and recreates the mutiny aboard the Amistad. It also condenses the story of the winding, ultimately successful legal journey of the imprisoned Africans after the ship landed in America. The driving principle of the entire poem is the historical creation of a group of people, African Americans, and their abiding quest for liberty.

I immersed myself in Hayden’s work in the late 1970s when I moved to Detroit, his hometown, for my first teaching job. To me, he has been a touchstone, a great poet of freedom, a figure who had written our first magnificent lyric about the Middle Passage and its tortures. That’s why I was surprised to discover that he had been vilified in the 1960s by the Black Arts Movement, which demonized him for his white influences, his western forms, his prioritizing of literary values, and his poetic eloquence. I realize that I am an outsider, but this argument seems both callous and wrongheaded about a poet who had so meaningfully documented Black oppression. “The Middle Passage” is part of a long tradition of African American self-documentation, such as slave narratives and memoirs, field hollers, work songs, the blues, the insistent lyrics of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz songs like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, jazz compositions like Duke Ellington’s orchestral piece “Black, Brown and Beige,” and, more recently, Wynton Marsalis’s Blood in the Fields, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1997. Hayden was part of a long lineage of poetry and music in quest of freedom and justice. He considered the need for freedom a constant beyond history, something timeless, but he also understood that the struggle for freedom takes place inside of history. 

“The Middle Passage” was Hayden’s first experimental contribution, his epic bid. The poem begins in medias res (“in the middle of things”) by listing the English and Spanish names of the slave ships. This is an epic strategy, like the catalogue of ships in Book 2 of the Iliad. The first version of the poem began with a ten-line prologue, an elegy for precolonial Africa (“It was long, long after the burnished riding of those conquered kings”). However, Hayden chose to begin the revised version by launching in, thereby exploiting the cruel irony of the ships’ Christian names: JesúsEstrellaEsperanzaMercy. Later in the poem he describes these ships with “bright ironical names / like jests of kindness in a murderer’s mouth.” The names are confessions and calls, but they are also pleas from their captives: JesusStarHope,Mercy

Hayden follows the list of ships with a colon—think of a camera panning—and an indented tercet that reads like a lost stanza from Dante’s Inferno. We are tossed into the journey.

Sails flashing to the wind like weapons,
sharks following the moans the fever and the dying;  
horror the corposant and compass rose.

His next move is to sound the name “Middle Passage” and equate it with an image and statement that is both literally and metaphorically true: “voyage through death / to life upon these shores.” Hayden does not pause to explain that the First Passage was the trip that a European ship made to the west coast of Africa to trade goods for people. The Middle Passage was the second leg of the journey crossing the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas with a cargo of enslaved Africans, human beings kidnapped or captured in war. Instead, he thrusts us directly into the harsh reality. He does this by crosscutting the lyrical passages with documentary ones, such as the next dispassionate, matter-of-factly horrifying diary entry of a captain:

“10 April 1800—
Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says
their moaning is a prayer for death,
ours and their own. Some try to starve themselves.
Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter
to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under.”

Thus, indirectly, we glimpse a vision of people so desperate to escape the bonds of slavery (does it really take a linguist to interpret their moaning?) that they try to starve themselves to death or even—madly, triumphantly—sacrifice themselves to the sea. Against this backdrop of suffering: the rolling on of ships (DesireAdventure) driven by economic greed, turning people into “black gold, black ivory, black seed.”

Immediately after this the poem refers to Ariel’s famous song in The Tempest. Here is the Shakespearean text:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made; 
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (1.2.395–400)

Hayden twice recasts and refashions Shakespeare’s lines, giving them a sea change. First:

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,  
of his bones New England pews are made,  
those are altar lights that were his eyes.

And then later:

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,  
the corpse of mercy rots with him,  
rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes.

Derik Smith, Aldon L. Nielsen, and other critics have pointed out how in these reworkings Hayden “mutinies” against Shakespeare’s figure of Prospero—he takes Ariel’s lie and turns it into a shattering truth—and simultaneously upends Eliot’s previous use of Ariel’s speech in The Waste Land. Hayden adapts Eliot’s theme, which he characterized as the “spiritual emptiness of an industrialized civilization,” and shows that it has a much older and deeper root causality. In his revisionary text, it is the Black father who lies suffering “Deep in the festering hold.” The bones of an enslaved person are undergirding the pews—so says Hayden, rewriting the Puritan origins of New England churches. That the eyes of a slave have been transmogrified into altar lights casts an intense moral light on the blindness of white Christians. The horrific images keep festering in Hayden’s imagination as he talks back to two of his main poetic precursors by laying bare what is missing in their work—the human exploitation of slave traders, those white European fathers.  

Hayden’s revisionary tactic also becomes evident in the way that he exposes Christian hypocrisy by quoting a Protestant hymn that Edward Hopper wrote especially for seafaring men (“Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”), which the poet spaces out, capitalizing and emphasizing each individual word in Hopper’s first two lines:

Jesus   Saviour   Pilot   Me
Over   Life’s   Tempestuous   Sea

Hayden intercuts these allegorical lines with a prayer from one of the slavers, a pillar of the church: “We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord, / safe passage in our vessels bringing / heathen sous unto Thy chastening.” Two beats later he employs a diary entry (“Which one of us / has killed an albatross?”) to expose an unlucky omen and nod to Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where everyone but the mariner dies on the fated ship. 

It took iron discipline for Hayden to chronicle the fears and stay within the viewpoint of the cruel slavers, to cite dispassionate ships’ logs and legal briefs (“Deponent further sayeth”) in order to narrate the story of people stolen and stored at the bottom of ships like “sweltering cattle,” to chronicle the misdeeds of rapists (“That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest / of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins”), and to document a fire that killed countless numbers of people (“That the burning blacks could not be reached”). He also shows, as if from inside, how enslaving people drove the slavers themselves crazy.  

Part II of the poem changes to a dramatic monologue. Written in regular quatrains, the entire twenty-four-line section consists of a single aged speaker explaining to some unseen younger listener (“Aye, lad”) just what he had experienced during twenty years as a slave trader in Africa. Hayden composed the story from various sources, such as Théodore Canot’s Adventures of an African Slaver (1854), Richard Drake’s Revelations of a Slave Smuggler (1860), and George Francis Dow’s Slave Ships and Slaving (1927). What matters is how so much of “Middle Passage” is described through the slaver’s voice, which creates both a feeling of poignancy and one of exclusion. It reminds us how history itself always seems to speak through its arbiters, its victors and not its victims. The composite speaker recalls nostalgically the places and countries on Africa’s western coast—Gambia, the Pongo River, Calabar in Nigeria—that served as the centers of the slave trade. The catalogue of African tribes—Fellatah, Mandingo, Ibo, Kru—recalls the genealogical lists in oral and written poetry, such as Genesis 10. The speaker brings home the collusion of African leaders, such as the ruthless Ashanti king who sent “his warriors to burn the sleeping villages / and kill the sick and old and lead the young / in coffles to our factories.” The speaker has not gained a deeper understanding of his own complicity; he is simply dying, and so he can no longer participate in trading human beings. 

The camera suddenly pulls back, and Part III begins with an overview of ships sailing across the rocky Atlantic: “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, / the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” The ships weaving across the sea are also weaving slavery into the fabric of history. It is loomed and threaded with cotton. Hayden describes how the dark ships “plough through thrashing glister toward / fata morgana’s lucent melting shore,” thereby alluding to Morgan le Fay, the enchantress of Arthurian legend, and characterizes them weaving “toward New World littorals that are / mirage and myth and actual shore.” The image and sound chamber here seem close to Hart Crane, especially the “Ave Maria” section of The Bridge. 

Hayden returns to his collage method to interweave the narrative with an allegorical refrain (“Voyage through death, / voyage whose chartings are unlove”) and the worried voice of a slaver, whose speech is italicized: “But, oh, the living look at you / with human eyes whose suffering accuses you.” The anonymous white speaker recognizes or at least voices that one “cannot kill the deep immortal human wish, / the timeless will.” These lyrical lines will recur near the poem’s conclusion, but this time they will be forcefully reclaimed by the voice of the poet-narrator.

All this prepares us for the longest single stretch of the poem, the narrative account in blank verse of the uprising aboard the Amistad, whose name ironically means “Friendship,” a Spanish ship carrying fifty-three enslaved people from Havana to Principé, Cuba. Hayden gathered most of the details of the uprising from the second chapter of Muriel Rukeyser’s biography of the nineteenth-century scientist Josiah Willard Gibbs, whose abolitionist father had helped the imprisoned Africans communicate once they had been arrested in the New World. Rukeyser lifted much of her account from John W. Barber’s book A History of the Amistad Captives (1840), and some of the details find their way into Hayden’s text.

Hayden tells the story of the mutiny, which took place on July 2, 1839, through the stilted lens of Montez, one of the two white slaveowners whose lives were spared in order to navigate the ship. This tactic forces the reader to glean what is happening—a heroic, bloody insurrection—through hostile eyes. Part of what’s so striking about this passage is how the reader feels the inevitable righteousness of the rebellion, as if nature itself were moving through the Africans (“It was as though the very / air, the night itself were striking us”). This is how Hayden introduces the leader of the mutiny Joseph Cinquez, whom Rukeyser characterizes as “a powerful young rice planter, a powerful leader.” This figure, “that surly brute who calls himself a prince,” is close to an epic hero. In the first version of the poem, Hayden designated him “its superb Homeric image.” 

The rest of the section telescopes a formidable amount of information. It begins with the wayward movement of the ship over a two-month period—instead of steering the ship back to Africa, Montez and Ruiz managed to misdirect and reroute it so that it eventually washed ashore in Montauk, Long Island. The Africans were straight away arrested and imprisoned in New Haven. This began a long legal journey that ended with the successful intervention of John Quincy Adams, the former president of the United States, whose “Roman rhetoric” won the case before the Supreme Court in 1841. Hayden lifted the phrase “timeless will” from Adams’s eight-and-a-half-hour speech, which relied on a notion of justice gleaned from the Institutes of Justinian (“The constant and perpetual will to secure to every one HIS OWN right”). The thirty-seven Black defendants were then released to return to Africa. Here America suddenly lives up to an ideal. Hayden closes the section with the white trader’s helpless vow that “Cinquez— / or let us say ‘the Prince’—Cinquez shall die.”

Robert Hayden once said that he viewed history “as a long, torturous, often bloody process of becoming, of psychic evolution,” and that idea is enacted at the conclusion of “Middle Passage.” First, he juxtaposes the empty threat against Cinquez with the reclamation of the lines “The deep immortal human wish / the timeless will,” which he claims in his own name, and then equates with Cinquez’s “deathless primaveral image, / life that transfigures many lives.” Hayden takes three words that break the chain of temporality—immortaltimeless, and deathless—and links them to the figure of Cinquez, who now stands as a “primaveral” or springtime image, a figure of new blossoming, new birth, “life that transfigures many lives.” Hayden closes with a further breakthrough into hopefulness by closing with the refrain line: “Voyage through death / to life upon these shores.” This statement, a fragment, now takes on fresh meaning since we know so much more of what had to be suffered and endured, especially the primordial crime, the abomination of slavery, for a new resilient group of people, no longer Africans, not yet Americans, to be born. 

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