Skip to main content

Robert Hayden's "Monet's Waterlilies” and "Frederick Douglass"

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.

Portrait of Robert Hayden

Portrait of 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: Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form "rhyme" into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of "rhythmos." Thus, "rhyme" is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form "rime," 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"

Claude Monet's "Water Lilies"

Commentary on "Monet's Waterlilies"

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 the war in 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.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

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

Commemorative Stamp

Commemorative Stamp

Robert Hayden's "Frederick Douglass"

Robert Hayden is one of the most skillful poets of all time and clime. His poem, "Frederick Douglass," is a tribute to the former slave, who helped liberate black Americans, first through the abolishion of slavery, and then by offering a guiding attitude through his life example.

Note on Usage: In 1988, Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced Americans to adopt the usage of the phrase, "African American." The terms, "Negro," "colored," and "black" remained widely accepted in American English parlance at the time Robert Hayden was writing.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Introduction and Text of "Frederick Douglass"

Robert Hayden's American (innovative) sonnet, "Frederick Douglass," achieves its message with a sestet and an octave, in reverse order from the Italian sonnet.

The poem offers a well-deserved tribute to one of America's most important founding fathers. The road to freedom for black Americans has been built and maintained by men and women the stature of Frederick Douglass. Poet Robert Hayden understood well his debt to people like Douglass, as this marvelous sonnet reveals.

Even today as "the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians" would seek to pander over the historical plight of the black American in their pitiful identity politics, that true "beautiful, needful thing" called "this freedom, this liberty" remains the genuine goal of all Americans of all metaphorical color, concocted gender, or national origin.

Frederick Douglass

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.

Hayden reading "Frederick Douglass"

Commentary on "Frederick Douglass"

Robert Hayden is one of the most skillful of American poets. His poem, "Frederick Douglass," is a tribute one of the most important founding fathers of the USA for all races and classes of citizens.

Sestet: The Focus in on Freedom

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:

The sestet, first six lines, offers a series of five adverbial "when" clauses, all focusing on freedom: when it is ours, when it belongs to all, when it is instinct, when it is finally won, and when it is more than a political topic. With the first clause, the speaker portrays freedom, liberty, as "this beautiful / and terrible thing."

The speaker avers that liberty for the human being is as necessary as the air he breathes, and it is as much a tool for life as the earth itself. In the second clause, he suggests that eventually freedom will, in fact, belong to everyone.

Not just a privileged few will be able to use this useful tool and breathe the air of liberty, as they all need to do.

Freedom is not just a luxury for some, but also a requirement for every man, woman, and child of every race, creed, or class. In the third clause, the speaker proposes that freedom must become "truly instinct.”

It is not something worn on the sleeve or a badge on the chest; it is part of the "brain matter," and it is as close to the human being as the beating of the heart, "diastole, systole."

The fourth clause renders the literal fact, "when it is finally won," and the fifth clause offers the breathtaking, plain truth that even offers a humorous description: "when it is more / than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians."

What an irony and a tragedy that a need so vital to everyone could become the "gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians"!

Octave: Beneficiaries of the Struggle for Liberty

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.

The speaker then moves to the culmination of all those fundamentals framed in the five adverbial "when" clauses in the sestet. When all that has taken place and freedom is won, Frederick Douglass will "be remembered."

Frederick Douglass had experienced life as a slave, who escaped from his captivity. He became an educated man, learning to read. Later in his life, he put all of his effort into working for the abolition of slavery and seeking freedom for all people.

The speaker of Hayden's poem offers a clear portrait of Douglass: "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."

Douglass penned his autobiography, which became a bestseller and has never been out of print. And the speaker in Hayden's poem offers a tribute to the fearless leader.

The speaker claims that Douglass will not be remembered only in flowery rhetoric or in bronze statues, but more importantly the former slave's life will shine in the lives that "grow[ ] out of his life."

The lives that will be beneficiaries of his legacy of liberty will pay homage to the man as no rhetoric or statue could. The lives that Douglass' efforts will affect are the lives that will "flesh[ ] [out] [Douglass'] dream of the beautiful, needful thing."

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on December 15, 2017:

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.

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on December 15, 2017:

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

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 15, 2016:

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

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 15, 2016:

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

Related Articles