Authors: Robert Hayden

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American poet

Identity: African American

Author Works


Heart-Shape in the Dust, 1940

The Lion and the Archer, 1948 (with Myron O’Higgins)

Figure of Time: Poems, 1955

A Ballad of Remembrance, 1962

Selected Poems, 1966

Words in the Mourning Time, 1970

The Night-Blooming Cereus, 1972

Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems, 1975

American Journal, 1978

The Legend of John Brown, 1978

Collected Poems, 1985, revised 1996


Collected Prose, 1984

Edited Texts:

Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets, 1967

Afro-American Literature: An Introduction, 1971 (with David J. Burrows and Frederick R. Lapides)


African American poet Robert Earl Hayden, named Asa Bundy Sheffey when he was born, grew up poor in Detroit, raised by foster parents (the Haydens) who wanted him to have a good education. In Hayden’s well-known poem “Those Winter Sundays,” he recalls his foster father getting up early to make “banked fires blaze” and to polish his shoes.{$I[AN]9810001788}{$I[A]Hayden, Robert}{$S[A]Sheffey, Asa Bundy;Hayden, Robert}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Hayden, Robert}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Hayden, Robert}{$I[tim]1913;Hayden, Robert}

Robert Hayden

(Library of Congress)

After high school and years of odd jobs and reading in libraries, Hayden managed to attend Detroit City College (now Wayne State University). He spent several years in the Federal Writers’ Project before beginning graduate work at the University of Michigan, where he studied with W. H. Auden and received two Hopwood Awards. He earned his master’s degree in 1944 and began his long teaching career, first at Fisk University and later at the University of Michigan.

Although he won the Grand Prize for Poetry at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Senegal, he was denounced by some militants during the 1960’s for his view that he was a poet rather than a “black poet.” However, some of his finest poems deal unforgettably with African American history, including “Middle Passage,” “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” “Runagate Runagate,” and the sonnet “Frederick Douglass.”

All four of those poems appear in his breakthrough 1962 volume, A Ballad of Remembrance. He wanted his earlier poems, which he called his “’prentice pieces,” omitted from his collected works. “Middle Passage,” a longer poem that runs just over six pages, is a masterpiece about the African slave trade told in different voices. It includes passages from a sailor’s log, testimony about a burning abandoned slave ship, talk from a trader, and a request for the extradition of Cinquez, “that surly brute who calls himself a prince.” Passages of third-person narration alternate with the monologues. The poem begins with a list of ships’ names and intersperses lines from spirituals, summing up with a split line of iambic pentameter: “Voyage through death/ to life upon these shores.”

“The Ballad of Nat Turner” transforms the traditional Scottish ballad into a vehicle for telling the story of how Nat Turner escaped to the swamp, had a vision of warrior angels whose black faces “were like mine,” and returned to bide his time until leading an uprising of slaves in Virginia. “Runagate Runagate” tells the story of runaway slaves. It begins in mid-stride: “Runs falls rises stumbles on from darkness to darkness.” As in “Middle Passage,” there are passages from pro-slavery whites, such as a notice seeking the return of “my Pompey, 30 yrs of age.” Part II deals with Harriet Tubman, “turned upon us, levelled pistol/ glinting in the moonlight.” Both “Runagate Runagate” and “Middle Passage” are vividly cinematic, cutting from voice to voice, scene to scene, linking together flashes, scraps, and snatches of songs into montages.

Many of Hayden’s other poems, such as “The Ballad of Sue Ellen Westerfield,” “Night, Death, Mississippi,” “A Ballad of Remembrance,” “Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves,” “Crispus Attucks,” “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley,” “Paul Laurence Dunbar,” and “Homage to Paul Robeson,” deal with black experience in the United States. In “The Snow Lamp” he writes about Matthew A. Henson, the black co-discoverer of the North Pole. Hayden’s imagination ventures widely. The first poem in his Collected Poems, for example, is “The Diver,” a short-lined poem about an undersea diver who explores a wreck and resists pulling away from that dreamlike immersion, but finally begins his “measured rise.”

Hayden converted from Baptist to Baha’i in 1942, and his faith in the essential unity of all religions underlies much of his poetry. He also wrote about the Holocaust (“Belsen, Day of Liberation”), Mexico (“‘An Inference of Mexico’”), art (“Monet’s ‘Waterlilies’” and “Two Egyptian Portrait Masks”), music (“Homage to the Empress of the Blues”), flowers (“The Night-Blooming Cereus” and “Zinnias”), animals (“Killing the Calves,” “Butterfly Piece,” and “A Plague of Starlings”), and window-washers (“The Performers”). His poems range from rhymed metrical poems to free verse, from the haiku of “Smelt Fishing” to the cadenced, unpunctuated prose of “[American Journal].”

One of Hayden’s central poems is “The Tattooed Man,” a dramatic monologue spoken by a man with “jungle arms,” birds of paradise tattooed on his thighs, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” on his chest: “all art is pain/ suffered and outlived.” The monologue is a plea for love, directed toward a person for whom he would “endure caustic acids” to avoid the “looks of pain.” It is a poem similar to Randall Jarrell’s monologue “The Woman at the Washington Zoo.” In Hayden’s poem, too, the speaker seeks to free himself from an internal cage and seeks a metamorphosis that can never happen. Hayden’s poem is perhaps also a kind of ars poetica, as the speaker wears a skin of images, suffering for his art, and must live within it until his death: “I am I,” he concludes. Hayden is an essential American poet, one who happened to be black and who wrote brilliantly of African American history and experience.

BibliographyConniff, Brian. “Robert Hayden and the Rise of the African American Poetic Sequence.” African American Review 33, no. 3 (Fall, 1999): 487-506. A discussion of Hayden’s development in the poem “Middle Passage” of an experimental poetics that could examine racism by telling an episode of its history in a number of contending voices.Davis, Arthur P. “Robert Hayden.” In From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900 to 1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1982. Emphasizes Hayden’s craftsmanship. Davis illustrates the variety of verse forms and techniques used in the later poems and discusses in detail a few poems. Although some of Hayden’s best poems deal with racial subject matter, his technical mastery raises them above the level of protest.Davis, Charles T. “Robert Hayden’s Use of History.” In Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald B. Gibson. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. This clear, well-illustrated study examines Hayden’s lifelong preoccupation with African American history. Davis traces in individual poems the changing emphasis from physical to spiritual liberation, in subjects ranging from Nat Turner to Malcolm X.Fetrow, Fred M. “Portraits and Personae: Characterization in the Poetry of Robert Hayden.” In Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986. Illuminating study approaches Hayden’s poetry through his portraits of real and imagined persons. Two groups of African American historical figures are fighters for freedom and artists and entertainers. Fictional characters are also studied for insights into Hayden’s personality.Fetrow, Fred M. Robert Hayden. Boston: Twayne, 1984. The first book-length study of Hayden, this volume is a good introduction to his work. After tracing his life, Fetrow studies the poems chronologically according to subject matter: confession, description of people and places, black heritage, and spiritual transcendence. Includes chronology, notes, select bibliography (including a list of secondary sources with brief annotations), and index.Gikandi, Simon. “Race and the Idea of the Aesthetic.” Michigan Quarterly Review 40, no. 2 (Spring, 2001): 318-350. Discusses Hayden’s lifelong struggle with the relationship between the question of race and the idea of the aesthetic and with questions concerning how the moral lines and social boundaries of modernity are drawn.Glaysher, Frederick, ed. Collected Prose: Robert Hayden. Foreword by William Meredith. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984. This excellent one-volume collection of Hayden’s prose includes previously unpublished or inaccessible pieces. Four interviews are especially helpful in clarifying Hayden’s intentions in specific poems.Nicholas, Xavier. “Robert Hayden: Some Introductory Notes.” Michigan Quarterly Review 31, no. 3 (Summer, 1992): 8.Su, Adrienne. “The Poetry of Robert Hayden.” Library Cavalcade 52, no. 2 (October, 1999): 8-11. A brief profile of Hayden and a critique of “Those Winter Sundays,” “The Prisoners,” and “Monet’s ‘Waterlilies.’”Williams, Pontheolla T. Robert Hayden: A Critical Analysis of His Poetry. Foreword by Blyden Jackson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. In one of the most thorough studies to date, Williams examines all aspects of Hayden’s poetry. Opening biographical summary clarifies poetic influences, and remaining chapters chronologically treat all published works. Includes comprehensive bibliography (including an unannotated list of secondary sources), copies of key poems discussed in the text, chronology, notes, and index.
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