The Whipping by Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden, the first African American poet laureate, writes about childhood, anger, and abuse in ‘The Whipping’. The poem is, in part, a reflection of the violent environment that he grew up in. His abusive childhood can be seen through the young boy’s terrifying ordeal depicted in the bulk of the poem as well as in the older speaker’s memories of his own abuse. 


Summary of The Whipping 

‘The Whipping’ by Robert Hayden is a dark and image-rich poem that depicts a cycle of abuse and the memories of one traumatized speaker. 

The speaker describes a scene in which a woman beats a young boy mercilessly. His fear reminds the speaker that he to once experience something similar. This memory phases in and out of the palm until the speaker concludes by suggesting that the woman, who is so violently abusing the boy, also experienced abuse.


Structure of The Whipping 

The Whipping’ by Robert Hayden is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, meaning that it is written in free verse. This allows the poet to experiment with any end sounds, patterns of rhythm, and word choices/arrangements, that they want to. But, that doesn’t mean that the poem is entirely without rhyme or rhythm. There are several examples of meter in the poem, for instance, line twenty which contains two iambics and an anapaest. 


Literary Devices in The Whipping 

Hayden makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Whipping’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and half-rhyme. The latter is also known as slant or partial rhyme. It is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. 

For instance, “neighborhood” and “goodness” in lines three and four of the first stanza and reception of the “l” constant sound in “shrilly circling boy still” in stanza three. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “writhing” and “wrench” in stanza four and “strikes” and “strikes” in stanza three. 

Enjambment occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines one and two of stanza one as well as lines three and four of stanza three. 


Analysis of The Whipping 

Stanzas One and Two 

The old woman across the way

is whipping the boy again


pursues and corners him.

In the first lines of ‘The Whipping,’ the speaker begins by describing the sight of an old woman hitting a boy “again”. This is an occurrence that the speaker has observed more than once and it is accompanied by her “shouting”. She yells out his “wrongs” to the neighborhood and proclaims all the “good” that she does. 

As the woman pursues the boy and he tries desperately to get away from her, he crashes through plants. These include “elephant ears” and “zinnias”. This is surely one more mark against him in the woman’s book. The woman is “crippling fat” but she continues to pursue him. The woman hunts him through the surroundings while the boy fleas from her. This mysterious dynamic has yet to be elucidated, but there are a few stanzas left to go. 

A reader should also take note of the use of enjambment in the stanzas. It can be seen through the transition between lines. A reader moves quickly from one line to the next, with the various elements of the story building upon one another


Stanzas Three and Four 

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling

boy till the stick breaks


worse than blows that hateful

The poet uses repetition to depict the woman’s repeated striking at the boy in this stanza of ‘The Whipping’. She “strikes and strikes” until the “stick brakes”. It breaks off in her hand while the boy cries and continues to run. The poet uses a metaphor to compare the boy’s tears to “rainy weather /to woundlike memories”. This line is followed by a colon, informing a reader that the memory is to come.

In the fourth stanza the poem transitions into first person. Now, the speaker is describing something that he experienced. His “head“ was “gripped in a bony vise”, it was being gripped between someone’s knees. Most certainly very uncomfortable and even quite painful position. He was struggling to get free, just as a young boy was struggling to get free from the woman. The man was being hit by “blows” and was filled with a fear that was even worse than the pain he was experiencing.

There are several different possibilities for what this memory is related to. It could, very likely, be from the speaker’s own childhood. Or, it could be something from his adulthood where he got into an altercation of some sort.


Stanzas Five and Six 

Words could bring, the face that I


a tree, exhausted, purged–

avenged in part for lifelong hidings

she has had to bear.

As the fourth stanza of ‘The Whipping’ transitions to the fifth stanza it becomes clear that these “blows” were more metaphorical than physical. Someone’s words were quite hurtful to him. They belonged to someone that he used to know and love but does no longer due to their violent behavior. 

In the second line of this stanza of ‘The Whipping,’ the memory trails off and brings the reader back into the present. The speaker tries to push this memory away declaring that it is “over now”. He repeats the word “over,” as if trying to make it true, and then describes the boy sobbing in his room. This is very clearly something that he can relate to.

While the boy is crying, the woman is “muttering”. She is “exhausted” and “purged” of her rage. The rage that she was expressing comes from a lifelong fear of her own. She too experienced pain at the hand of someone who was in control of her. Now, her age has taken on a new form as she punishes the boy. This cycle of anger, fear, and pain is continuing on. The poem ends without a clear resolution alluding to the fact that the cycle will continue on for years to come. 

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