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.