Robert Hayden's "Monet's Waterlilies"

Updated on January 17, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Robert Hayden


Introduction and Text of "Monet's Waterlilies"

The speaker in Robert Hayden's American sonnet, "Monet's Waterlilies," is seeking to transcend the depression brought on by listening to the news reports of the day, finding upliftment in the paintings of Claude Monet, the French Impressionist.

The poem features a marvelous example of an American (or Innovative) sonnet that combines the English quatrain with the Italian sestet. The fascinating innovation places the sestet between the two quatrains in an unrimed, varied-line-length poem.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Monet's Waterlilies

Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.

Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.

Reading of Hayden's "Monet's Waterlilies"

Claude Monet's Water Lilies



The speaker in Hayden's "Monet's Waterlilies" finds solace while viewing the artistry of the French Impressionist, Claude Monet.

Quatrain: Depression by News

Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.

The speaker has experienced a mood of depression fostered by "the news from Selma and Saigon." The references to Selma and Saigon alert the reader that the time frame for the poem's drama is the turbulent American 1960s: Selma, the struggle for African-American civil rights and Saigon, the war in Vietnam.

The news of these events "poisons the air like fallout." Every individual who was aware of those conflicts during that time period will experience a moment of recognition, remembering the constant clashes over civil rights and the daily death counts from Vietnam.

To escape, at least, temporarily the effects of the poisoned news, the poem's speaker returns to contemplate "the serene, great picture that [he loves]." The title of the poem identifies that great picture, the water lilies studies of French Impressionist, Claude Monet.

Sestet: Art's Way of Knowing

Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

Unlike the uncertainty of the supposedly objective reality posed by the poisonous news reports, "Here space and time exist in light / the eye like the eye of faith believes." The way of knowing and feeling offered by this impressionist painting inspires the heart and mind in thrilling, mysterious undulations of light.

Guided by mere flecks of paint, the eye accepts the representations as it accepts God through faith. What a human being is capable of seeing and knowing, for example, the water lilies, seems to dissolve in iridescence.

The melting images then become the very essence of light itself even as it remains an "illusive flesh of light." And this is light that did not exist at one point in time, then came into being and now "forever is." The light differs from the uncreated light of God because it has a beginning with the human artist, but once created is takes its place along with God's eternal uncreated creations.

Quatrain: Transcending the Physical World

O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.

The speaker then describes the light "as beheld as through refracting tears." This portrayal reflects the speaker's mood that has been poisoned by the world's bad news. The skillful artistry of placing this description in direct exclamatory address to light renders this poem one of Hayden's masterpieces.

The final three lines summarize the refreshed attitude for which the speaker has come: "Here is the aura of that world / each of us has lost. / Here is the shadow of its joy." The spiritual realm of joy and bliss that each human being loses after too close identification with the physical world is restored by the contemplation of beauty as fashioned by the skillful, inspired artist.

Robert Hayden


Life Sketch of Robert Hayden

Born Asa Bundy Sheffey on August 4, 1913, in Detroit, Michigan, to Ruth and Asa Sheffey, Robert Hayden spent his tumultuous childhood with a foster family headed by Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden, in the lower class neighborhood called ironically, Paradise Valley. Hayden's parents had separated before his birth.

Hayden was physically small and had poor vision; thus being precluded from sports, he spent his time reading and pursuing literary studies. His social isolation thus led to his career as a poet and professor. He attended Detroit City College (later renamed Wayne State University), and after spending two years with the Federal Writers' Project, he returned to higher education at the University of Michigan to finish his Masters Degree. At Michigan, he studied with W. H. Auden, whose influence can be seen in Hayden's use of poetic form and technique.

After graduation with the M.A. degree, Hayden began teaching at the University of Michigan, later taking a teaching position at Fist University in Nashville, where he stayed for twenty-three years. He returned to the University of Michigan and taught for the last eleven years of his life. He once quipped that he considered himself, "a poet who teaches in order to earn a living so that he can write a poem or two now and then."

In 1940, Hayden published his first book of poems. The same year he married Erma Inez Morris. He converted from his Baptist religion to her Baha’i faith. His new faith influenced his writing, and his publications helped publicize the Baha'i faith.

A Career in Poetry

For the remainder of his life, Hayden continued to write and publish poetry and essays. He disdained the political correctness that isolated "black poets" to give them a special critical treatment. Instead Hayden wanted to be considered just a poet, an American poet, and criticized only for the merits of his works.

According to James Mann in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Hayden "stands out among poets of his race for his staunch avowal that the work of black writers must be judged wholly in the context of the literary tradition in English, rather than within the confines of the ethnocentrism that is common in contemporary literature written by blacks." And Lewis Turco has explained, "Hayden has always wished to be judged as a poet among poets, not one to whom special rules of criticism ought to be applied in order to make his work acceptable in more than a sociological sense."

Other blacks who had bought into the false comfort of a segregated criticism for them harshly criticized Hayden's perfectly logical stance. According to William Meredith, "In the 1960s, Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity."

While serving as professor, Hayden continued to write. His published collections include the following:

  • Heart-Shape in the Dust: Poems (Falcon Press 1940)
  • The Lion and the Archer (Hemphill Press 1948) Figures of Time: Poems (Hemphill Press 1955)
  • A Ballad of Remembrance (P. Breman 1962) Selected Poems (October House 1966)
  • Words in the Mourning Time (October House 1970) Night-Blooming Cereus (P. Breman 1972)
  • Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (Liveright 1975)
  • American Journal (Liveright 1982)
  • Collected Poems (Liveright 1985).
  • Collected Prose (University of Michigan Press 1984).

Robert Hayden was awarded the Hopwood Award for poetry on two separate occasions. He also earned the Grand Prize for Poetry at the World Festival of Negro Arts for A Ballad of Remembrance. The National Institute of Arts and Letters bestowed on him the Russell Loines Award.

Hayden's reputation became well established in the poetry world, and in 1976, he was nominated to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the position later designated Poet Laureate of the United States of America. He held that position for two years.

Robert Hayden died at age 66 on February 25, 1980, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is buried in Fairview Cemetery.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


    Submit a Comment
    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      2 years ago from U.S.A.

      Yes, poems that focus on paintings are always fascinating, enlightening, and entertaining, when both the poet and the painter are masters of their crafts. Hayden's skill coupled with Monet's brilliance results in a magnificent piece of work.

    • RobinReenters profile image

      Robin Carretti 

      2 years ago from Hightstown

      I love Monet everything about the art since I went to France such beauty it put me in a trance-like way how beautiful art is its always something to speak about

    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      4 years ago from U.S.A.

      Thank you, John! I love those paintings too. And Hayden's poetry is some of the best ever written.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Linda, I love Momet's paintings so I enjoyed this review and explanation of Robert Hayden's poem. Thank you.


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