‘Middle Passage‘ is a narrative poem by Robert Hayden about the Atlantic Slave Trade. From the whites’ perspective, this historical poem details the traumatic experiences Africans endured en route to America. “Middle Passage” literally means the route these slave ships traveled from Africa to North America.
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‘Middle Passage‘ by Robert Hayden is a poem narrating the experiences of both whites and blacks involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade.
With the voices of several white men, the poet narrates to readers the goings-on on the referenced slave ships. A crewman gives a short but gruesome account of the suffering Africans endured en route to America. Unlike other narrators, he isn’t a staunch supporter of the slave trade. He only wishes to return home—to America—and escape the horrors of the ship.
Through a second speaker—a sailor—Robert details the savage behaviors of the white crew towards Africans. The speaker tells us of diseases, sexual harassment, and deaths. The less than healthy living conditions on the ship frighten the sailor.
Another crewman renders an ironic prayer for the crew’s safe journey back to America; the fourth speaker ponders on the slaves’ plight and the benefit the whites reap from it.
Through a former slaver, we glimpse the history behind the slave trade, which the greed of certain African rulers facilitated. This speaker sees the practice as a profitable business.
Lastly, another sailor narrates the conquering of their ship, thanks to an African prince. As a staunch supporter of the slave trade, he expresses his discontent with people like John Quincy, who fight against the practice. Nonetheless, the poem ends on a hopeful note, stemming from these fights against the slave trade.
There are six notable voices or personas in ‘Middle Passage‘. As they’re hardly restricted to a particular stanza, Robert Hayden manipulates the poetic structure to note who is speaking at any point in time. All personas are whites addressing different aspects of the slave trade and its impact on them, their country, and the blacks. Nonetheless, their voices merge into one, even as they come in seemingly random parts of the poem.
Structure and Form
In an effort to distinguish every voice in ‘Middle Passage‘, Robert Hayden uses a unique form and structure. The poem is a free verse of three stanzas, but each stanza is so peculiarly written that they are often referred to as “sections”. Sections he numbers with Roman numerals.
Each stanza comprises one or two personas echoing their different but syncing thoughts. Adding to the peculiarity of the stanzas, Robert uses italics, double spacings, hanging indents, and quotes to recognize each speaker.
In her YouTube video, Katie calls this an experimental structure.
- Allusion: The title of the poem is an allusion to the route slave ships traveled between Africa and America. From the infamous Atlantic Slave Trade, this route is known as the ‘Middle Passage’. Other instances of allusion show up with the referencing of slave ships (Mercy, Tartar, Ann, etc.), African rulers (Prince Cinquez and King Anthracite), Celestino, a cook on the Amistad, and John Quincy Adams, a US president who fought against the slave trade. In addition, the Davy Jones’ appears in stanza one, a legendary grave for drowned ships and sailors. Using this device, the poet provides readers with a historical context to view his narrative.
- Metaphor: There are several instances of metaphor in ‘Middle Passage‘. Although half of them are degrading, courtesy of our narrators. They see Africans as products—not beings—where they call them, “black gold, black ivory, black seed,” and “sweltering cattle” in stanza one. In stanza two, the slaver refers to African countries as “black fields”, emphasizing the merchant-like view through which the whites saw blacks.
- Foreshadowing: Robert Hayden employs this technique twice in stanza one and once in stanza three. Where the first sailor says, “their moaning is a prayer for death,/ ours and their own”, he alludes to the deaths of crew members in the last stanza. The narrator who says, “…the jungle hatred/crawling up on deck,” continuously hints at the same event. Through him, readers anticipate the uprising of blacks, which occurs in stanza three.
- Irony: Irony surfaces in the names of the referenced ships in ‘Middle Passage‘. In the poem, names like “Jesús” and “Mercy” speak of freedom, mercy, and all things good. But the happenings on the ships suggest otherwise. The prayer a crewman renders is also ironic; though it shows this narrator’s a Christian, the acts of slave trade contrast the goodness associated with his faith.
- Symbolism: The albatross mentioned in stanza one is a symbol, stemming from a sailor’s myth. Killing an albatross is believed to bring bad luck, so when the sailor asks which one of them killed one, he believes the “plague” spreading on the ship is the misfortune brought upon them according to the myth.
- Metonymy: In ‘Middle Passage‘, Robert Hayden applies several instances of metonymy. For one, the narrators refer to enslaved Africans using their varying conditions on the ships: “the sick”, “the horribly dying”, “the fever”, etc. Also, the crew calls a woman they regularly abuse “The Guinea Rose”. Most likely, she was an uncommon beauty from Guinea.
- Simile: ‘Middle Passage‘ uses a lot of similes to set the dreary atmosphere around the poem. From the beginning, the reader’s mood plummets with the expression: “Sails flashing…like weapons”. This gloomy aura doesn’t disappear throughout the poem, thanks to the consistent use of similar dark comparisons.
- Personification: This literary device surfaces in all three stanzas of the poem. Like simile, the inanimate objects and ideas take on dark horrid human characteristics. In stanza one, the sailor tells us “sickness” has “claws” which “have scratched sight from the Capt.’s eyes”. One narrator in the same stanza speaks of “jungle hatred/crawling up on deck.” “…drums talk…” in stanza two. Moreover, stanza three mentions “the corpse of mercy rots…”.
- Syncope: The first sailor’s manner of speaking generates this literary device. With the words “between” shortened to “‘tween” and “Captain’s” to “Capt.’s”, we note the use of syncope in Robert Hayden’s poem.
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.
“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
Robert Hayden’s ‘Middle Passage‘ starts on a rather sour note. Four personas feature in this stanza: a pensive voice, a frightened sailor, a prayerful crew member, and a homesick crewman.
A Pensive Voice
Roberts distinguishes this voice using italics. In this fashion, one can say it’s a voice in someone’s head. Most likely an unknown person on the ship, or an omniscient presence. Through this narrator, readers get to know the purpose of slavery. Europeans and Americans wanted able-bodied men to toil their land; so, in need of manpower, they sailed to Africa. This voice tells us it’s the work of African slaves building the “New World”, where their ship is bound. He wonders, however, if they are ever going to arrive. With him foreseeing the spread of diseases and the uprising of slaves.
A Frightened Sailor
Robert Hayden notes the sailor’s voice using quotes. And of course, his peculiar manner of speaking. “Sick with fear”, the man turns to pen down his thoughts; thus, providing readers with a journalistic feel to events occurring on the boat. Apparently, writing relieves him in the sense that he can still see to write. Whereas, a blinding disease spreads on the ship, from Africans all the way to the Captain.
Through this narrator, Robert gives us a historical context in which we can better relate to his poem. He reveals facts regarding the slaves and the whites’ behavior towards them in the Atlantic Slave Trade. While the whites threw sick blacks into the sea, some gladly threw themselves down to escape the torture on the ship. By committing suicide, they believed their souls would return to their land. Those who didn’t kill themselves took to praying for death.
The sailor calls him a “deponent”—a witness to these atrocities. He blames these unfortunate happenings on the death of an albatross, according to a popular sailor’s myth.
A Prayerful Crew Member
The prayer uttered by this crew member denotes him—and the crew’s—belief in Christianity. In his prayer, the man calls blacks “heathen souls”, showing he genuinely sees them as inferior. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon among Christian whites. By landing on African soil with the Gospel, one white man after another twisted the African mind to believe they were an inferior race, meant to serve the whites. White biologists supported this belief with theories, successfully capturing a good number of slaves and keeping them. Unfortunately, those who resisted such manipulation were still captured.
Nonetheless, the practice of the slave trade poses an irony to the goodness associated with the crew’s faith.
A Homesick Crewman
The homesick crewman first appears in the second line of stanza one. His voice drifts mournfully; he calls their journey a “voyage through death”. By doing so, he summarises the account of other narrators. The living conditions on the ships can indeed be likened to death itself. He sees America, the end of this journey, as “life”. This underscores his need to be home.
This narrator represents a group of white men who weren’t staunch supporters of the slave trade. Although they never voiced their opinions, they neither liked the voyage experience nor the actions of their white brothers.
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
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.
The entirety of stanza two is told from the perspective of a new narrator: a former slaver. Having been in the slave trade business for twenty years, he tells us of his experience living in Africa. With his story, Robert Hayden shows how the greed of certain African rulers facilitated the slave trade. It is recorded that rulers like “King Anthracite” instigated wars with neighboring villages, so they could capture their youths and sell them to the whites for jewels and other precious items. In this stanza, “vanity” on the side of both whites and blacks comes to play. The effect is a never-ending supply of slaves.
Throughout the stanza, the former slaver refers to Africans, using derogatory names. By his calling African countries “black fields”, ‘Middle Passage‘ reveals the viewpoint of slavers in those days. They saw the slave trade as a profitable business and Africans as mere harvest.
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;
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.
In the last stanza of ‘Middle Passage‘, Robert Hayden tells of a full-scale rebellion from the perspective of another narrator: a second sailor. As the omniscient narrator foresaw, Africans on this ship overthrow crew members after a storm. Another African ruler, Prince Cinquez, orchestrates this attack. He spares the sailor and a few others, so they can steer them back to Africa.
This is another historical event Robert Hayden reveals in his poem, to usher in a glimpse of hope. On this hopeful trail, he references US President John Quincy Adams, who fought against the slave trade. Biased people—like this embittered sailor—fight back to seek revenge against the slaves who rose against them. To no avail, though.
This stanza emphasizes the undying will of the slaves. Though in captivity, maltreated. The omniscient narrator mentions their desire for freedom, right before the blacks stage an attack on the crew. It’s a lesson to many, what a “timeless will” is capable of.
The poem eventually ends with the homesick crewman reaching America. He acknowledges the fight of Prince Cinquez. This implies a handful of whites involved in the slave trade recognized their wrongdoing. Even though they didn’t admit to it.
‘Middle Passage‘ explores slavery as its central theme. After this, we meet the theme of bondage, where African men sandwiched below deck live with their feces. There’s also the theme of sexual harassment; the crew abuse women kept above deck. Furthermore, themes of suffering, disease, cannibalism, and death feature in Robert’s poem. Bias on the crew’s side is a theme we cannot overlook as well. Ultimately, we encounter hope, where people like Prince Cinquez and John Quincy rise against the slave trade.
Robert Hayden published ‘Middle Passage‘ in 1945. The poem falls within the context of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which began in the 15th century and ended in the 19th century. During this period, European nations and America enslaved over ten million Africans. These Africans unwillingly boarded ships that sailed through a route known as the Middle Passage; thus, bringing them to America. The journey usually took about two to three months; within these months, the enslaved suffered many forms of torture.
Men were packed like a sardine in a room with so low a ceiling, they couldn’t stand. They lived with their filth, each other’s diseases, and their brothers’ corpses. The women, though kept above deck, were constantly molested by the crew. Often, the slavers threw the sick and the dead into the sea. Rebelling, some of the enslaved broke free of their shackles and join their brothers in the water. Where sharks ate them.
Even though the slave trade was abolished sometime later, Robert Hayden wrote this poem to remind both races—and the world—of this period, the practice, and its effect. Something we still experience in today’s society.
The inspiration for Middle Passage came to Robert in the 1930s. He then researched the historical event, came up with a unique poetic structure and finally wrote his poem between 1941-1945. Robert mentioned it took him a while to construct a form suitable for Middle Passage.
It was first published in Phylon, a journal dedicated to describing life in the US from an African-American point of view. Robert Hayden later revised his poem and republished it in his famous collection, A Ballad of Remembrance.
Middle Passage underwent its first and major revision in 1962. Robert Hayden revised the poem because the original version had typos and typesetting mistakes. In the end, Robert cut out forty-three lines of the original version to produce the second.
Robert also drew inspiration from The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. The 434-line poem greatly influenced Middle Passage‘s structure, which some refer to as a mosaic style pattern.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Middle Passage‘ should consider reading poems exploring similar topics:
- ‘Abolition of Slavery in the District of Columbia, 1862‘ by John Greenleaf Whittier: a poem describing how God will do justice to the slaves by freeing them.
- ‘Poems on the Slave Trade — Sonnet V‘ by Robert Southey: a poem revealing the mind of a slave consumed by vengeful thoughts.
- ‘The Little Black Boy‘ by William Blake: a poem about a little black boy striving to be accepted in a predominantly white society.
You can also check out 15 Moving Poems About Slavery.