Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Robert Hayden's "Frederick Douglass": 3 Versions

My senior capstone seminar this quarter is spending 10 weeks on Robert Hayden's sonnet "Frederick Douglass."  Among the pleasures of the course so far has been my students' sleuthing out of two earlier versions of the poem.  The final version was published in 1966, but Hayden published an early draft in 1945, and a revision--close to the final, but not identical with it--in 1947.  I thought it might be helpful to other teachers to have the three versions posted all together here.

Here is the familiar final version, as published in 1966 and thereafter, via the Poetry Foundation:
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.
The 1947 version was published in the February, 1947 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.  It looks like this:
As you can see, this is almost the same as the final version of the poem, with a few small but resonant differences.  In line three, the "it" of the poem is imagined as belonging "at last to our children," rather than "at last to all," as Hayden has it in the final version; this version gives the whole poem as a single sentence broken by a dash, rather than as two separate sentences, the first one ending with "shall be remembered"; finally, this version closes with an invocation of "the needful, beautiful thing" rather than "the beautiful, needful thing."

The differences are more striking--much more striking--when you compare the 1947 version to the first published version of "Frederick Douglass," from 1945.  It's quoted in full in Robert Chrisman's essay "Robert Hayden: the Transition Years, 1946-1948."  Evidently it was originally published as part of "Five Americans: a Sequence from The Black Spear," which appeared in "Lewis B. Martin's short-lived monthly, Headlines and Pictures, in May, 1945" (Chrisman, 133); the other four sonnets in the sequence were about William Lloyd Garrison, Abraham Lincoln, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  As you'll see, this "Frederick Douglass" bears almost no resemblance to the ones which followed:
III.  Frederick Douglass 
Such men are timeless, and their lives are levers
that lift the crushing dark away like boulders.
Death cannot silence them, nor history,
suborned or purchased like the harlot’s crass
endearments, expatriate them.  Like negatives
held to the light, their weaknesses reveal
our possible strength.  Their power proves us godly,
and by their stripes are we made whole in purpose. 
Douglass, O colossus of our wish
and allegory of us all, one thinks
of you as shipwrecked voyagers think of
an island.  Breasting waters mined with doubt
and error, we struggle toward your dream of man
unchained, of man permitted to be man.
I'll leave discussion of the poem's evolution to you and your students.  You might also want to fold in some of the available audio of the poem:  Hayden's reading on the Poetry Foundation website (linked above); the Poetry Out Loud performances on YouTube, etc.  It's a fine poem for a 10-week class.

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