Friday, January 06, 2006

Subversion of the Sonnet Form to Dramatize Content in Hayden's "Frederick Douglass"

A sonnet, Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” memorializes the former slave-turned-abolitionist of the same name. The poem opens stately with the loaded clause: “When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty…” The phrase “when it is finally ours,” in modifying “this freedom…” indicates that “this freedom” 1) has not yet been obtained, 2) has been long awaited, and 3) is a collective, not an individual, freedom. Announcing content of a “freedom deferred, one might expect the poet to assert freedom from shackles by employing free verse. So, it is rather ironic that the Hayden chooses to compose “Frederick Douglass within the restrictions of the sonnet form.

But in the 1884 report, “Southern Slavery and Northern Religion” collected in the The Frederick Douglass Papers (New Haven; Yale University Press, 1979), abolitionist Nathaniel P. Rogers wrote of Frederick Douglass, “He said he was not a fugitive from slavery—but a fugitive slave. He said he was not a fugitive from slavery—but in slavery.” Likewise, the poet Hayden works in the sonnet form to create a sort of poetic liberation in the same way the subject, Frederick Douglass, worked within the American political system to obtain political liberation.

Let us examine Hayden’s particular formal choices to this effect:

With fourteen lines, Hayden retains the line requirement of the sonnet, which is perhaps the only sonnetic element he keeps. Hayden’s stanzaic construction adheres neither to the Petrarchan nor the Shakespearean archetypes. Rather in an outright defiance of the form, Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” is not broken into stanzas at all.

Also, Hayden’s end rhyme scheme deviates from classical sonnet models. Allowing for very liberal approximate rhymes (particularly, equating beautiful, all, and systole; and alien, man, alone, and thing) yields the scheme: abaa cdec ffgf hf.

Scanning the lines themselves, which we would expect to be iambic pentameter in a sonnet, we find that not a single line scans as such. In fact, the lines’ syllabic counts vary from eleven to eighteen.

But this is not rebellion without a cause. While the number of syllables per line varies widely, the number of stressed syllables per line is more consistent, varying from five to seven. While on one hand Hayden is breaking a particular social order—having only one stanza, deviating from a classical rhyme scheme, and abandoning the iambic pentameter—on the other hand he is building a new social order through rhetorical devices – particularly anaphora.

Opening the sonnet, the anaphoric “When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful and terrible thing” creates a momentum which will sustain this sentence for eleven lines. The next clause in this sentence switches the anaphora from “this” to “when it” with: “when it belongs at last…, “when it is truly instinct…, “when it is finally won…,” and “when it is more…” Expanding and expanding “this freedom,” these temporal clauses amplify the inevitability and the weight of it, thus deepening the pathos of the poem.

The subsequent clause – line 7 of the poem – switches the anaphora back to “this” with the introduction of Frederick Douglass, the man, whose life purpose was “this freedom”:

this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien...

The anaphora sustains the momentum. Eleven lines: one sentence. There is a unity, a oneness here which demands one stanza – an order which trumps the schism of octet and sextet, a new American order which supersedes antebellum ideas of what order should be.

And having exalted “freedom” over the first six anaphora-heavy lines, Hayden now gives Frederick Douglass, the man, the same elevation with five anaphora-heavy lines of his own. Here, the poet says, This is how great the virtue is; this is how great the man concluding the dramatic first sentence with: “this man/ shall be remembered.”

Using just two sentences, the poet suggests that he is following the binary dynamic of classical sonnets. In fact, while Hayden provides no stanza break to indicate such, the composed and measured rhetorical diction – “diastole,” “systole,” “needful,” “logic”—erupts in an ecstatic interjection in the middle of line 11, “Oh.”

This is a volta, if there ever were one. And the content of “Frederick Douglas” does turn at this point. After expressing the magnitude of the man’s cause, and the magnitude of the man, Hayden resolves this sonnet of Frederick Douglass with a couplet which recalls the Shakespearean model but, in spanning four lines, is clearly its own:

…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.

As Frederick Douglass, the man, required a new America to comprehend his manhood, Hayden institutes a new sonnet to memorialize Douglass’ legacy. And it is not a legacy to die frozen in the statues of the status quo, but to live actively in the flesh, in “the lives grown out of [Douglass’] life,” in the ideas of the African-American poet, Robert Hayden.

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