African American poetry began in the lyrics attached to field hollers, ring shouts, rudimentary work songs, and songs of familial entertainment in the early colonies of the Americasin the North, South, and the Caribbean. These musical verses were characterized by insistent call and and response patterns, complex African and neo-African polyrhythms, the adaptation of European rhyme as a means of complexifying rhythm, and the transformation and incorporation of European harmonies into distinctive chords, which were the forerunners of chords and lyrics that characterize the African American lyrical poetic genres of gospel, blues, jazz, the mast, the chanted sermon, rhythm and blues, soul, rap, and contemporary polyphonic poetry. The polyphonic poetry of such twentieth-century poets as Derek Walcott, E. Kamau Brathwaite, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Robert Hayden, Ishmael Reed, Countee Cullen, Lorna Goodison, Langston Hughes, Jay Wright, Rita Dove, Ai, and Etheridge Knight all reconstrue African rhythmic complexity with creative and personally distinctive transformations of Euro-American, African American, Caribbean, Latin American, and Asian styles and motifs. The designation African American, while an appropriate term for cultural identification, is yet another incomplete summary of a black people more accurately called the African-British-European-Native American-Asian peoples of the Americas.
Many early accounts of contact between Europeans and Africans in the Americas describe the facility with which Africans not only created their own musical instruments to accompany poetry but also mastered and transformed the uses of European instruments in the development of distinctively African American accompaniment to the oral poetry of black slaves. The begrudging and racist compliments paid to these artistic slaves by their European observers cannot mask the prevalence of high skill in the composition of rhythmic oral poetry by the slaves. In one Caribbean account from the early 1660s an Englishman expresses acute astonishment when an African slave, denied the use of a European stringed instrument, makes one of better quality himself, from which he develops music to accompany oral poetry, causing the Englishman to acknowledge that the black man is human, and a genius at that.
Such descriptions are scant, and it is often difficult to filter a few reliable events from the heavy layering of racism in the perceptions of the Europeans. Unfortunately, if contemporary descriptions of their lyric poetry by the Africans themselves existed in oral or written form they are now lost to us except in the continued presence of the rhythms themselves in African American culture. In addition, for several reasons the development of polyrhythmic African American poetry is difficult to trace from colonial times to the 1920s, when scholars and others began to keep more complete records of overfly musical poetry.
There was not only the problem of racial prejudice in encouraging observers to ignore poetic accomplishments in oral composition of Africans in the AmericasEuropean and American culture as a whole belittles the oral for the sake of the written, and today not even the knowledge that the Homeric epics were composed orally is enough to convince an audience determined to believe that written texts are more intelligent and artistic than oral ones. Oral texts are persistently characterized as “folk” texts, that is to say, unaccomplished, as if human beings cease to be folk and become people once they write rather than speak their poetry.
As a result of these narrow aesthetic principles it is more convenient to describe the development of African American poetry through those written poetic works that evoke more obvious comparison with European and American poetry through formal structure, theme, and diction. Such works are numerous, although they have received little attention throughout their history. In spite of the fact that many have been published and recognized as poetry they have often been ignored by white and black critics. Unlike the orally composed poems these written poems are usually not anonymous. In form these written, self-conscious poems rely upon Euro-American construction, although they often incorporate aspects of African-influenced oral poetry, as in Maurice N. Corbett’s The Harp of Ethiopia (1914), in which the poet sets aside the regular iambic tetrameter rhythm and uses an irregular jazz rhythm in the section entitled “The Harp Awaking.” In other instances African American diction and vocabulary is blended with Euro-American poetic forms, and one poem, De Cabin (1915), by Fenton Johnson, uses African American dialect in regular iambic pentameter blank verse.
Nineteenth-century African American formal poems thus are a continuum of poetic experiences with irregular relationships to the oral or folk poetry of the African American people. The poems are more likely to reveal the race of the author through theme rather than word choice. The late nineteenth century was a poetic battleground in which African American poets demanded equality with whites by demonstrating equality in artistic achievement. The cultural world view then prevalent insisted that all that was best in the white world was best for all. African Americans thus attempted to prove their facility in aesthetic forms valued by whites, and neither African Americans nor whites insisted that art forms that were only black (e.g., blues, gospel, jazz) could have as high an aesthetic merit. The African American writers Frances Harper and Charles Chesnutt, for example, condemned blues poetry in their novels, although both were stalwart workers for racial equality and freedom.
World War I cracked this ethnocentric world view, so that, starting in the 1920s, African American poets took full freedom in developing distinctive poetry with styles derived from Africa, African America, Europe, the Caribbean, North and South America, and even Asia.
The earliest known formal written poem by an African American is “Bars Flight” by Lucy Terry (17301821) in 1746. The twenty-eight-line poem recounts the fate of seven colonists attacked by Native Americans during a raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts. The poem is in irregular iambic tetrameter verse in which the author relates the particular circumstances of death or escape of her fellow villagersSamuel Allen, singled out as the most aggressive of the colonists, is kidnapped and carried away by the raiders, John Saddler escapes across the waterand the largest number of verses are devoted to the one woman under attack, Eunice Allen.
Eunice Allen see the Indians comeing [sic],
And hoped to save herself by running,
And had not her petticoats stopt her,
The awful creatures had not cotched her,
And tommyhawked her on the head,
And left her on the ground for dead;
Lucy Terry was a slave of Ebenezer Wells of Deerfield, Massachusetts until 1756, when she received her freedom and married the free black, Abijah Prince. Her only poem was first published in 1895 in George Sheldon’s A History of Deerfield, Massachusetts. She was a vigorous woman, and fought an unsuccessful court battle, going all the way to the Supreme Court, to have her son enrolled at Williams College.
Jupiter Hammon (1720?1806?), a slave to three generations of the New York Lloyd family, was the first African American poet whose work was published in what was to become the United States. His poems: “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries” (176061); “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly” (1778); “An Essay on Ten Virgins” (1779, no copy extant); ”A Poem for Children, with Thoughts on Death” (with a prose piece, “A Winter Place,” 1782); and “An Evening’s Improvement,” to which is appended “The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant” (n.d.). Hammon’s poetry reveals his strong attachment to the Wesleyan Christian revival, and, on his own behalf and that of other slaves, including Phillis Wheatley, he persistently gives thanks for having been brought into slavery for the higher purpose of becoming Christians. There is a subtle if unintentional irony in Hammon’s association of Christianity with freedom. In “An Evening Thought” he writes,
Dear Jesus, by the precious Blood
The World Redemption have:
Salvation now comes from the Lord,
He being they captive slave.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ho! every one that hunger hath,
Or pineth after me,
Salvation be thy leading Staff,
To set the Sinner free.
Here the concepts of captivity and freedom are ambiguous enough to refer to the sinner’s relationship with God as well as the dave’s relationship with his master. In “The Kind Master” Hammon explicitly derives the obedience of the slave as a response to the slave’s observing the master’s obedience to God.
Throughout the early history of slavery in the colonies and in the United States slave owners were divided as to whether Christians could enslave other Christians, and African slaves were often denied access to Christian doctrine for fear such doctrine would eliminate them as slaves. Phillis Wheatley (1753?1784) was certainly aware of the link between religious belief and freedom in the three versions of her poem dedicated to George Whitefield. In the earliest version (1770) of this poem, printed in broadside, Wheatley implies that Africans who become Christians must be set free.
Take HIM, ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his TITLE due;
If you will walk in Grace’s heavenly Road,
He’ll make you free, and Kings, and Priests to God.
The implication that Christianity could free African slaves evidently was highly unacceptable to Wheatley’s slaveowning audience, and in a broadside printed later that year the offensive statement was changed to read:
Take HIM, ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR is his title due;
If you will chuse to walk in grace’s road,
You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to GOD.
In the final version of the poem, published in Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral (1773), the freedom and grace to be accorded to African Christians is replaced, certainly through the insistence of her publisher, with suffering and blood.
“Take him, ye Africans, he longs for you,
“Impartial Saviour is his rifle due:
“Wash’d in the fountain of redeeming blood,
“You shall be sons, and kings, and priests to God.”
Wheatley’s collection was the first book of poetry to be published by an African American and the second book by a woman within what would become the United States. It was published as a result of her trip to England in 1773, a visit sponsored by the Wheatley family to improve the health of Phillis, who was treated with exceptional consideration and pride by the Wheatley family. After the publication of her book Wheatley lived as a free black, although her legal manumission papers have not been found. The existence of a poetic black was so unbelievable in the colonial period that many of the colonial elders affixed their names to the title page to authenticate Wheatley’s achievement in poetry.
Wheatley, greatly influenced by Alexander Pope, wrote primarily in heroic couplets, although she relied on blank verse for her poems on Harvard University, “To the University of Cambridge in New England” and “On Virtue,” both of which show Wheatley’s familiarity with the poetry of John Milton. Wheatley so valued the poetry of Milton that she could not be brought to sell her valuable edition of Paradise Lost, even when she was destitute and dying. The copy was given to Wheatley by the mayor of London during her visit there and is now in the Houghton collection of Harvard University.
Wheatley was an astonishing prodigy in the Boston Wheatley family, which had bought her as a seven year old. She mastered English and Latin, and as a teenager she translated the Niobe section of Ovid’s Metamorphoses into English poetry. She also expressed a great desire to create an African American epic, comparing herself unfavorably to Homer, Milton, and Sir Isaac Newton in the poem “Phillis’s Reply to the Answer.” Perhaps the most effective statement of her desires to accomplish greatness in poetry is taken from an early poem, “To Maecenas.”
Great Maro’s strain in heav’nly numbers flows,
The Nine inspire, and all the bosom glows.
O could I rival thine and Virgil’s page,
Or claim the Muses with the Mantuan Sage;
Soon the same beauties should my mind adorn,
And the same ardors in my soul should burn:
Then should my song in bolder notes arise,
And all my numbers pleasingly surprize;
Wheatley was to die at thirty-one, outliving all the members of the Wheatley family to which she had belonged. The Revolutionary War took its toll on slave and slaveowner alike.
George Moses Horton (17971880?) sought, begged, and wrote for his freedom from the North Carolinian Horton family for most of his life, but did not gain his freedom until 1865, when he followed Union troops to Philadelphia. Horton was outspoken on the wrongs of slavery, and several collections of his works were published during his lifetime. He spent his most creative period while attached to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a janitor. There he wrote many antislavery poems as well as love poems for the students for pay, and also had extensive contact with supporters interested in selling his book, The Hope of Liberty (1829), in order to buy his freedom. “The Art of a Poet,” from The Naked Genius (1865), written after Horton had achieved freedom, reveals a rigorous understanding of the demands of poetry and offers a rare moment of artistic self-reflection in early African American poetry.
True nature first inspires the man,
But he must after learn to scan,
And mark well every rule;
Gradual the climax then ascend,
And prove the contrast in the end,
Between the wit and fool.
A fool tho’ blind, may write a verse,
And seem from folly to emerge,
And rime well every line;
One lucky, void of light, may guess
And safely to the point may press,
But this does not refine.
Polish mirror, clear to shine,
And streams must run if they refine,
And widen as they flow;
The diamond water lies concealed,
Till polished it is ne’er revealed,
Its glory bright to show.
A bard must traverse o’er the world,
Where things concealed must rise unfurled,
And tread the feet of yore;
Tho’ he may sweetly harp and sing,
But strictly prune the mental wing,
Before the mind can soar.
It is not known the extent to which Horton’s location in the South and position as slave made it impolitic for him to speak out against his own slavery in violent terms. It is quite true that slavery in the nineteenth century was more brutal than that of the previous century, and poets such as Charles Lewis Reason (18181893) and James Monroe Whitfield (dates unknown, fl. 1853) were among many who blasted a United States consciousness, morality, and politics that permitted the continued outrage of slavery.
Whitfield wrote, in his poem, America (from America and Other Poems, 1853):
America it is thee,
Thou boasted land of liberty,
It is to thee I raise my song,
Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong.
Whitfield goes on to delineate the particular crimes of slavery, including the rape of slave women, and he accentuates the irony of African Americans who fought in the Revolutionary War “to forge fresh fetters, heavier chains for their own children.” He wrote a poem in honor of the black hero, Cinque, and honored the British abolition of slavery on August 1, 1838. Ann Plato (1820?-?) also commemorates the August 1 event, but much of her remaining works are pious Christian reflections on earthly life and heavenly reward. A notable exception is “The Natives of America,” a dialogic poem in which a father describes Native American life to his child. The cause and nobility of the Native Americans is lauded and the marauding, usurping Europeans are the villains. Plato lived in Hartford, Connecticut, and her collection of poetry, Essays, Including Biographies and Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose and Poetry (1841), was published through the help of her church.
Charles Lewis Reason (18181893) was a strongwilled and highly accomplished poet and teacher. Racism kept him from a high position in the Episcopal Church, and most of his working years were spent teaching in the New York public school system.
Reason wrote many stirring poems against slavery as evidenced by these lines from “The Spirit Voice” (1841), where he manipulates the stanza form to present perceptions both abstract and natural.
‘Tis thought alone, creative fervent thought!
Earnest in life, and in its purpose bent
To uphold truth and right, that rich is fraught
With songs unceasing, and with gleamings sent
Of sure things coming from a brighter world.
Reasons poem, “Freedom” (1846), narrates the progress of freedom from the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome until the present, and shows the influence of, if not a direct acquaintance with, Hegel’s concepts of the development of nations.
In the decade preceding the Civil War the poets Alfred Gibbs Campbell, John Sella Martin, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper were among those most vigorous in their condemnation of slavery and of the fugitive slave law that made it compulsory for all U.S. citizens to return fugitive slaves to their owners. Campbell (dates unknown, fl. c. 18531883) wrote many poems condemning the hypocrisy of Fourth of July celebrations, and was a strong supporter of women’s rights and prohibition. His poem, “To a Young Mother” (in Poems, 1883), is remarkable for its sensitivity and avoidance of sentimentality; his antislavery poems are stark and uncompromising” precious indeed / to Modern Moloch as the agony / of the fond mother when her child is snatched./ . . . / Or / The piercing shriek of the poor hunted slave / Torn piecemeal by his bloodhounds.” (“Warning”); and he reveals an admirable capacity for intellectual openness and religious tolerance in ”Cry ‘Infidel.’ ” Campbell has full control of language, style, and emotional power in his poems, and uses blank verse, rhymed tetrameter couplets, and irregular stanza forms with ease. Perhaps his most effective poems are those of reflection, “Ode to Death,” “On the Deep,” and “Questionings.” In the last poem he poses the supreme unanswerable question.
If thou (as some philosophers would say),
Art thus of God a part disintegrate,
Imprisoned for a time in worthless clay,
But destined still to a deltic state,
To reabsorption in the Infinite,
Why thus art fettered in the murky tomb
Of earth’s soul-dungeon, where no certain light
From Light’s Eternal Source dispels the gloom?
Is it for discipline? What need hath God
To learn, who is Himself the Primal Fount
Of Wisdom? To what end the weary road
Of life’s terrestrial, whence so hard to mount
To heaven’s serener clime? Is’t punishment?
Hath God then sinned? And doth God punish God?
If thou canst fathom the Divine intent,
Solve this dark problem, and cast light abroad?
Just prior to the Civil War John Sella Martin(1831-?) published the apocalyptic poem, “The Sentinel of Freedom,” which prophesied a second coming after the United States is swept clean from the corruption of slavery. The poem has obvious connections with Milton’s Paradise Lost, an epic that served as a model for political protest in England, the Caribbean, and the United States as early as 1705. Martin’s “The Hero and the Slave: Founded on Fact” (1862) is courageous in that it castigates New England racism even as it praises the northerners for fighting the Civil War against slavery. Not many African Americans had the fortitude to argue in print with their supporters.
Both before and after the Civil War Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (18241911) was a popular poet, abolitionist, prohibitionist, and advocate for women’s rights. Her poems on prohibition are often maudlin and sentimental, as in “The Ragged Stocking” from Idylls of the Bible (1900).
Then I knelt by this little stocking
And sobbed out an earnest prayer,
And arose with strength to wrestle
And break from the tempter’s snare.
Her antislavery poetry, and especially her long epic poem, Moses: A Story of the Nile, is more successful in style, power, and variation of tone. Moses, written in irregular blank verse, retells the biblical story by making Moses a mulatto who freely chooses to return to the aid of his enslaved people. Harper’s poems went through more than twenty editions in her lifetime, an astonishing testimony to her loyal audience.
After the Civil War more African American poetry focused on such unpolitical subjects as romantic love, dramatic heroes, and sentimental empassioned heroines. Eloise Bibb Thompson (18781927) wrote many poems in this genre, which were published in Poems, 1895. She spent much of her life in California, chose Italy as the setting for much of her work, and lived as a staunch Catholic throughout her life. In addition to romantic poems Thompson wrote several poems on Biblical themes, such as “Judith” and “The Expulsion of Hagar,” the second theme often having special significance for African American women since Hagar was the slave concubine of Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrews. Thompsons oeuvre also includes a tribute to Frederick
The lyric poetry of Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852?1916) focused on imaginary idyllic scenes of delight and pleasure. She uses new stanzaic forms to express her approbation of nature as the fit setting of love, but often her images have prettiness without substance, as in “rose-gleam” and “aisles of space” in “Idyll.”
Down in the dell,
A rose-gleam fell
From azure aisles of space;
There with a light tread
A maiden sped,
Sweet yearning in her face.
She wrote sonnets to her literary and political heroes, “Milton” and “Robert G. Shaw,” and it is perhaps in the sonnet form that she makes her greatest creative impact. Her two published works are Poems (1887) and Sonnets (1893).
Charlotte Forten Grimké (18371914), best known for her extensive journals on the nineteenth century, also wrote fourteen poems encouraging abolition, admiring political daring, and giving reverence to life in the context of task and freedom. She opens “A Parting Hymn” with the following lines, which reveal her awareness of the loveliness of nature and the precarious balance of human life.
When Winter’s royal robes of white
From hill and vale are gone
And the glad voices of the spring
Upon the air are borne,
Friends who have met with us before,
Within these walls shall meet no more.
The most important African American journalist of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Timothy Thomas Fortune (18561928), also wrote a volume of poetry, Dreams of Life, in which the poems focused on the emptiness of life, its ephemeral joys, its shortness of days. While a vigorous agitator for the right of African Americans in newspapers and journals, it seems that in his private life and reflections he brooded most over the insufficiency of life’s joy to compensate for its griefs. In “We Know No More” he wrote:
I sometimes feel that life contains
Nothing, in all its wealth, to pay
For half the sorrows and the pains
That haunt our day.
The most popular and significant African American poet of the nineteenth century was Paul Laurence Dunbar (18721906). His popularity was so great that it is difficult to number the reprints of his many collections, the first of which was “Lyrics of Lowly Life” (1895), and often his praise has been considered excessive by those who feel that other African American poets deserve comparable attention. Dunbar’s facility with all major forms of Anglo-American poetry, his gift in adapting African American dialect to these various forms, and his undeniable lyric virtuosity combine to give full justification to his high status. It is unfortunate that the American tendency to feel that “we have one already” (WHOA) has kept other poets from the attention of potential readers. However, this racist propensity of the American critical establishment should not detract from the absolute achievement of Dunbar in lyrics of both standard English and African American dialect. In his reflective poem, “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes,” meter, form, diction, and theme combine to amplify that human moment of selfquestioning and cosmic curiosity.
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
Which all the day with ceaseless care have sought
The magic gold which from the seeker flies;
Ere dreams put on the gown and cap of thought,
And make the waking world a world of lies,
Of lies most palpable, uncouth, forlorn,
That say life’s full of aches and tears and sighs,
Oh, how with more than dreams the soul is torn,
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.
Dunbar is equally effective in his dialect poems, as can be seen in “An Ante-Bellum Sermon.”
Now ole Pher’oh, down in Egypt,
Was de wuss man evah evah bo’n,
An’ he had de Hebrew chillun
Down dah wukin’ in his co’n;
‘T well de Lawd got tiahed o’ his foolin’,
An’ sez he: I’ll let him know
“Look Hyeah, Moses, go tell Pher’oh
Fu’ to let dem chillun go.”
Dunbar himself often complained that his audience, primarily white, only enjoyed his dialect poetry in what he called bad English, “a jingle in a broken tongue.” Although there was certainly some racist desire to hear blacks speak “bad” English in Dunbar’s audience, the power of Dunbar’s dialect poetry derives not from mistakes in English but from the masterful manipulation of African and African American offbeat polyrhythms, which were a highly creative artistic innovation in the English language.
The fiery, unconventional life of Menken Adele Isaac Barclay (18391868) left us with perhaps the most exclamatory poetry in American letters. Barclay worked as an actress, had several husbands, lovers, and even names. Her first husband was Jewish, and Barclay herself converted to Judaism and wrote several poems on Jewish themes, including “Hear, O Israel.” She lived a consciously Jewish life and received a Jewish burial at her death. Barclay saw herself as a misunderstood genius who never had the freedom to achieve her greatest artistic goals.
Her works are as brilliant and fiery in diction and form as was her life, and her poetry is given to dramatic stances of repudiation, sensuousness, despair, and love. The following excerpt is from “Hear, O Israel.” Hear, O Israel? and plead my cause against the ungodly nation!
‘Midst the terrible conflict of Love and Peace,
I departed from thee, my people, and spread my tent of many colors in the land of Egypt.
In their crimson and fine linen I girded my white form.
Sapphires gleamed their purple light from out the darkness of my hair.
The silver folds of their temple foot-cloth was spread beneath my sandaled feet.
Thus I slumbered through the daylight.
Slumbered ‘midst the vapor of sin,
Slumbered ‘midst the battle and din,
Wakened ‘midst the strangle of breath,
Wakened ‘midst the struggle of death!
Almost all of the poetry of Joseph Seaman Cotter, Sr. (18611949), focuses on themes of racial pride and advancement. Poems honoring Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Oliver Wendell Holmes express all that Cotter found best in these heroes with regard to racial equality and justice. Cotter had facility in many styles and dictions and used iambic tetrameter and the more highly respected iambic pentameter with equal ease.
In addition to the African American lyric poets of the nineteenth century, the aforementioned and other African American poets wrote epic poetry, an African American poetic genre that has been unidentified, unknown, unrecognized, and unanalyzed before.
For this discussion I take epic to mean a long narrative in poetry, describing the origin, nature, or destiny of a people, race, or group, depicting a hero or heroic ideal, and incorporating the cultural ideal. Frances Harper, in her poem, Moses: A Story of the Nile, is one of a fellowship of nineteenth-century African American epic poets that includes James Ephraim McGirt (18741930), Albert Allson Whitman (18511901), James Madison Bell (18261902), George Marion McClellan (18601934), George Hannibal Temple (b. unknown, fl. 1900), George Reginal Margetson (1877-?), Edward Smythe Jones (1888-?), Fenton Johnson (1888-?), and Maurice N. Corbett (b. unknown, fl. 1914).
Harper’s Moses (1889) honors the ideal of the gifted African American’s return to assist the remainder of the race in achieving freedom, education, and equality. It is written in Miltonic blank verse. Since the 1700s British, Caribbean, and American poets often used Miltonic blank verse as a vehicle for demanding political change.
The ealiest African American poem in this tradition is John Boyd’s The Vision, which was published in England in 1835. James Ephraim McGirt wrote three poems in the epic style, “Avenging the Maine,” “Siege of Manila,” and “Siege of Santiago.” These works are primarily military in scope, and have more in common with the sixteenth-century Italian epics of Tasso and Ariosto than they have with the more pastoral epics of Dante and Milton.
Albert Alison Whitman wrote three highly self-conscious epics, The Rape of Florida, Not a Man and Yet a Man, and An Idyl of the South: An Epic in Two Parts. The Rape of Florida is almost a political treatise; it defends the Seminole Native Americans against European incursions and praises the Seminoles for their help in assisting runaway slaves. An Idyl and Not a Man deal more specifically with African American slavery and racism, with the Idyl giving a view of the tragic mulatto, Not a Man an extended poetic discussion of African American manhood.
George Marion McClellan’s The Legend of Tannhauser, written in blank verse, is an impressive accomplishment, wedding style, diction, form, and sentiment. It is perhaps the most successful work of the genre.
In horror-stricken tones the nobles cried,
“Hear him! Hear him! So to the Venusburg
And in his blood bathe every sword.” With cries
The ladies hastened from the hall, save fair
Elizabeth, who stood there shuddering
Betwixt her horror and her mighty love.
In The Epic of Columbus’ Bell (1900) George Hannibal Temple relates the incidence by which the original bell from Columbus’s ship becomes the churchbell of an African American church in New Jersey. Here the African Americans, still caught up in the prevalent world view that admires the political symbols of the nation in spite of its oppressive and racist legal systems, finds honor in preserving this palpable symbol of the coming of the Europeans to the Americas.
The comic epic is represented by George Reginal Margetson’s The Fledgling Bard and the Poetry Society (1916), which mocks a thinly disguised Harvard University for its inability to identify true poets. Haryard University was also the subject for an epic by Edward Smythe Jones, who supposedly walked barefoot to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in order to find wisdom, knowledge, and higher education. His epic, Harvard Square, was written in jail, where he was placed for his efforts to achieve his goals. His production earned him a job as janitor at the university and he was allowed to listen in on classes.
In Fenton Johnson’s The Vision of Lazarus the character travels on a Dantean journey through heaven and hell, in which Homer is found resident in a Christian heaven. Johnson’s knowledge of Western literature is formidable, and although some of the scenes are a challenge to intellectual sobriety, the attributes of his other scenes are dramatic and compelling.
Maurice N. Corbett’s The Harp of Ethiopia (1914) is the most sustained epic of this African American nineteenth-century genre. Corbett traces black accomplishment from the ancient Near East and Africa to the present, with several passages detailing the self-defense of African Americans during the Civil War. He ends the poem with prophecies of high achievements in politics and art by African Americans, and the vigor of his closing lines are effectively inspiring.
Thus we come from Lucy Terry’s martial poem of communal self-defense, through the early desire to create great poetry by such writers as Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon, to arrive at the apex of nineteenth-century African American lyric and epic poetry in Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, James McClellan, Albert Alison Whitman, H. Cordelia Ray, and Maurice N. Corbett. The immediate political requirements of the Civil War gave African American poets the freedom to write on all human themes, racism and flowers, wars and love, lynchings and childhood.