Rhetoric That Is Not Rhetoric: Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”

Douglass image

Poetry is not the same as mere eloquence or high language. That’s a truism. The stock modernist examples demonstrating it include William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say.” In a related way, Marianne Moore clearly enjoys saying, in the first line of her “Poetry,” “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.” Her double “are” in that sentence is a kind of exaggerated flatness, plainness to the point of parody.

Pre-modernist examples of plainness might include Ben Jonson’s “To Heaven,” which proceeds not by vivid images or resounding phrases but by an exquisitely boiled-down moral acuity, as in the opening questions:

Good and great God, can I not think of Thee
But it must, straight my melancholy be?
Is it interpreted in me disease,
That, weary of my sins, I wish for ease?

Jonson defines this considerable complexity in just two couplets: thirty-two words.

A post-modern example—I think written before the term “post-modern” emerged—might be John Ashbery’s “The Instruction Manual,” which follows its title with a deadpan beginning;

As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.

In another poem, his “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” Ashbery comically borrows the language of an earnest academic description: “This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.” The amused limpness of “on a very plain level” reminds me of Moore smiling as she borrows the language of a philistine impatient with “all this fiddle.”

These examples, to me, all suggest that the matter of being plain or fancy, direct or rhetorical, is complicated. It has a lot to do with expectation. For example, the unforgettable conclusion of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” (I once took part in a television segment—revived for my MOOC—on this poem, in various voices):

What did I know, what did I know
Of love’s austere and lonely offices?

The word “offices” is cold, but is it plain? Is the repeated “What did I know” rhetorical, like a phrase in a speech, or direct, like a phrase one might mutter to oneself? I think it is a matter of degree, as irony in these phrases I’ve quoted from Moore and Ashbery is (in quite different ways for each poet) a matter of degree and of expectation.

Here is another poem by Hayden, his tribute to Frederick Douglass. Here, Hayden quite explicitly presents the terms “rhetoric” and “gaudy mumbo jumbo.” At the same time, he takes a kind of almost-conventional approach to his subject, with a kind of paradoxical daring. (Another poem that has this kind of audacious directness, in my view, is Czeslaw Milosz’s “Incantation,” in which different readers hear different degrees and kinds of ironic reservation . . . . depending maybe, upon what they expect.) As Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass” is almost a formal sonnet, it is also almost a speech or sermon, a quality that makes it all the more thrilling as a poem:


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.


68 thoughts on “Rhetoric That Is Not Rhetoric: Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass”

  1. Nicole Burdick, you make a useful distinction here between “plain” (which I take to be term of, pardon the expression, rhetoric) and your “something more base even than plain: Instinct” (which if I understand you is is a term of emotion, the object or aim of rhetoric). And “the suchness defends against highfalutin lest the subject be diminished to soon” is relevant to Milosz’s “Incantation” in the way that makes sense to me. The poem’s achievment, in these examples, seems to bring something vital and struggling to what you call “the commons” while not becoming “statuary.”

    I appreciate your confirmation regarding these poems (and, on a much lower frequency, regarding our discussing them here, in this medium.)

    • Yes, Robert Pinsky, I keep seeing what you mean about plain but didn’t land at that vantage point enough for my own language to use it as source. (thus, my instincts not changed.) When you said direct versus rhetorical, I saw that too. The word offices, alone, is too germane for contemplation, and then he ups the ante.

      Instinct comes before emotion. I think we put out the fire before we are scared, often. But emotion can trigger instinct. It’s a place of discovery, even for animal science, and I think, especially for human poetry. But either way, instinct most certainly isn’t reasoning or deifying. But, emotion being the aim of rhetoric? Well put. Yes, that has changed instinct. (and maybe it will change torture)

  2. My reading and response would likely fit in multiple earlier threads, but I’m late and still inspired so will just relate from this block. Through the elevation of this man as the thing being full of need and historically needed, the suchness defends against highfalutin lest the subject be diminished too soon. With “this Negro”; “this former slave”; “this freedom”; “this liberty” – abstracted bodies are to Milosz’s “enemy of despair and a friend of hope”. But the best way I can describe – Hayden starts by gulping at them. The preponderance of these very utterances, the more so for their being brought to the commons, may, like the “beautiful and invincible” reason, free the rights of man from binding to statuesque only. Ability to stay legitimate requires plainness.

    Then plainness is a force, laboring with the idea of rhetoric as truth, not as a vehicle. That behaviors reap language. I see a nod to numbness, toward equating all “this” “when” to what can become beholden. A timeless expectation, reverse engineered? Or hope for one. So the charge of the poem for me comes from something more base even than plain: Instinct. Then, the poem’s rhetorical device, its prophesy, is in the implied question of how long we’ll still have the capacity to be aroused (toward any “beautiful, needful thing.”).

    • You know, Nicole, I enjoyed your comments–esp. Hayden’s gulping. I went back and took a look, but couldn’t exactly see it. Where do you see Hayden gulp? I want to see that too! I also like “the suchness defends against the highfalutin.” One German philosopher I rarely read now couldn’t have said it better. I enjoy the “nod to numbness” but especially what follows: ” equating all ‘this’ ‘when’ to what can become beholden.” Nicole, that’s as nice to say as it is to contemplate. I enjoy your rhetoric and the argument you set forth very much. I take it you’re a poet; indeed I see it, hear it in your singing words. Many smiles, Jess

      • Enjoyed all of your commentary, Jess. I think you and Prof Pinsky can be saying the same thing — there doesn’t have to be a dichotomy between argument and instinct (in Nicole’s view)/ or conviction (in Robin’s view). After all, love and logic can meld together, but only in a poetic landscape. I thought it interesting that Hayden omits the word “then” as he turns to “this man”. He sets up a syllogism, yet dances around the key word that would seal the deal. He dances again at the word “alien” where I read the word “none” in front of it for my first ten readings. Then I realized the word “none” was omitted and that alien is an adjective that solely describes “this Douglas”. In other words, to be “superb in love and logic” made him an outcast in his time. Which brings me to Nicole’s “implied question”, which I see differently. To me the “needful thing” (which equates to freedom), now has an all-consuming identity all its own. It is a force greater than human nature ie, all our other other instincts combined. Finally, what I also sense in Hayden is a whiff of benevolent paternalism. This poem is addressed to posterity and, by default, to the young people leading the civil rights rebellion at the time of the poem’s writing. It’s an older generation’s way of saying, I hear you, I’m with you, let me offer you this view of the bigger picture as my contribution. In reading his poems on Nat Turner and Harriett Tubman, you can sense his immersion into their worlds. But then not so much the case with Malcolm X.
        If I don’t get to post again, Happy New Year to everyone on the forum. Greatly enjoyed this year.

      • Jesse, gosh. Lucky me, enjoyed likewise! There is, just to be clear, no singular gulp. Just gulping. For the first five lines with all the “this” and “when”. The entire intangibility of it is the gulping. At each “this” or “when” the chin raises, forehead up as if by string to the third eye’s projection, counting off either the too-many, or the too-few, yet imagined, on the list of not yet, leaving the throat open to swallow during the reach. Gulping down the sustenance of list only, perhaps. But true ounces of what? The hand may stretch out too and clutch at these well known freedoms which we all feel nearly defined enough for holding or at least grasping at. So much gulping of air and because, despite the motion, they are abstracted/ideals, still not quenching enough unless he is willing to define them himself and prove something by them, which, he actually doesn’t quite, and does not need to, since the poem has prophetic qualities and not just journalistic ones.

        In Douglass’ speech, I’m actually a little torn by his lack of gulping. Or am I impressed with his strength? Seems to me he mingles with humility and bombast at equal levels of disassociation. Though I’m only halfway through, I see how much farther he stepped back from his address; his “you” determinedly does not include himself. But perhaps the distance of time allowed Hayden more wiggle room to “try on” the address.

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