A Formalist Critical Approach to “Heritage” by Countee Cullen
The speaker in “Heritage” expresses profound emotions regarding an African-American perspective of the motherland. Countee Cullen writes in an irregular meter throughout the piece, consistently using seven syllables in each line. The speaker is effectually declaring the pains of the slave trade to be innocuous to an African American with the poem’s perspective, which is why the speaker is attempting to adopt that perspective.
The poem has a nontraditional structure, but the speaker uses recurrences as an even more important part of the work’s form. The first line is a recurring question throughout the work, and as the context of the poem is more thoroughly elaborated, this question accrues different meanings. In this way, the question is used to drive the poem, each occurrence serving as a sort of checkpoint toward the ultimate goal of understanding the question in depth. In addition to the recurring question, the speaker uses two recurring lines, “From the scenes his fathers loved / Spicy grove, cinnamon tree” (lines 8-9) The speaker also starts several statements with a recurring phrase, “So I lie,” which is first used in the eleventh line. It always precedes an account of the speaker’s state of mind with regard to the recurring question, consistently serving as a marker that a thought process is to follow. The second appearance of the recurring question is juxtaposed with the first use of the recurring phrase to exemplify that the latter is and will consistently be the means by which the speaker attempts to answer the former, and between these two lines is the first break of the poem. The nontraditional poetics at work in “Heritage” break into seven verses of varying lines, which will later take on greater significance to the form of the poem.
In the first line, the recurring question, “What is Africa to me?” is as broad as it sounds. The speaker could mean this any of several different ways; however, its second occurrence (line 10) comes after eight lines of substance, and the images explored in those eight lines are all sharp contrasts. A “copper sun” is a rising sun, which denotes a morning hour, and a “scarlet sea” is an oceanic horizon on which the light of a setting sun is cast, denoting an evening hour; similarly, “jungle star” and “jungle track” are word pairs whose latter elements hold equal contrast in that a star rests incalculably far from earth while a track (in the sense of a traveled path) is a trail carved into the earth itself. “Strong bronzed men” are contrasted with “regal black women” as well, and the purpose of these sharp contrasts, given that they are in response to the question in the first line (as evidenced by the colon at the end of line 1), is to suggest that the speaker’s relationship to Africa could be anything, the possibilities ranging as far apart as morning and evening or male and female. The recurring question’s second appearance follows these contrasts to ask of what significance with greater specificity Africa is to the speaker, suggesting that the poem will delve deeper into the answer than just the speaker’s initial, surface thoughts.
In the second verse, the speaker begins with the words, “So I lie, who all day long / want no sound except the song / sung by wild barbaric birds / goading massive jungle herds.” The significance of these four lines is that it tells the reader that the recurring question has moved the speaker to ponder its answer all day; it even suggests the speaker is warning the reader that the thought process—the poem itself—has only just begun, which is true at the start of the second verse. The speaker describes a reverie of exotic wildlife, a typical imagination of Africa, but within the description is also “young forest lovers” who get engaged. The common ground each of these images share is a carefree life, whether it be for birds of for man. The speaker considers Africa a place of freedom.
Midway through the second verse, the recurring phrase, “So I lie,” returns to signify transition to a new image, but the next image is not actually visual; rather, it stimulates the auditory sense. The speaker claims to hear drums inexplicably. This image actually foreshadows the rhythm that the speaker possesses in his body, as referenced in lines 63-69 from verse four, “So I lie, who find no peace / Night or day, no slight release / from the unremittent beat / made by cruel padded feet / walking through my body’s street. / Up and down they go, and back, / treading out a jungle track.” In this, the speaker creates ambiguity with the word “beat” because its primary denotation in this context is that of rhythm, yet a secondary denotation follows as the speaker describes this rhythm to be the result of frequent footsteps along a “street,” which is the aforementioned “jungle track.” This conjoins the concepts of rhythm and the proverbial beaten path. The speaker wants the reader to receive both denotations simultaneously so as to evoke the common idea of Africans being rhythmic people. The contextual significance of this ambiguity is that it occurs in the speaker’s blood, which suggests it is part of who the speaker is.
The third verse starts with the idea that the reason the recurring question keeps plaguing him is particularly that the answer is not just elusive but, rather, an answer once possessed and since forgotten. The speaker also implies that the search for this answer has, perhaps, always been an ongoing search that the speaker is only just now taking the time to pursue with vim. “Africa? A book one thumbs / listlessly, till slumber comes. / Unremembered are her bats / circling through the night, her cats, / crouching in the river reeds” (lines 31-35). In these lines, the speaker suggests this is the first time he or she dedicated so much time to answering the recurring question.
The speaker proceeds to say, “[…] no more / does the bugle-throated roar / cry that monarch claws have leapt / from the scabbards where they slept. / Silver snakes that once a year / doff the lovely coats you wear” (lines 37-42). The speaker is saying that the slave trade has ended, that the rulers of Europe no longer send soldiers armed with swords to Africa. The speaker, then, says, “What’s your nakedness to me?” (line 45), which is the clear marker for a change of perspective. The speaker is saying that the swords are not intimidating, and the succeeding lines explain why this is so. “Here no leprous flowers rear / fierce corollas in the air; / here no bodies sleek and wet / dripping mingled rain and sweat” (lines 46-49). The speaker’s perspective is shifting toward an answer to the recurring question. The word “leprous” and “fierce” connote that these flowers are representative of white people whom the speaker considers a threat. The slave trade is over, and so is slavery itself, as evidenced by the fact that the speaker uses lines 46-49 to explain that the Whites are not in Africa and that Blacks are not toiling and suffering in Africa either.
“What is last year’s snow to me, / last year’s anything? The tree / budding yearly must forget / how its past arose and set / bough and blossom, flower, fruit” (lines 52-56). The speaker uses these lines to conjure imagery that explain what was foreshadowed in lines 9 and 10, and the foreshadowing is confirmed in the end of verse three. “One three centuries removed / from the scenes his fathers loved, / spicy grove, cinnamon tree, what is Africa to me?” (lines 60-63). These four lines end both verses one and three, another recurrence that helps drive the poem. The speaker is describing himself with these lines; he is the cinnamon tree. It is from the first occurrence of these lines that we know the speaker is male, and the first-person pronoun in the recurring question is the only word that can identify the pronoun “his,” which is how the speaker is identified as the tree.
As important as this is to understanding the speaker, it is that much more significant in the third verse because, in combination with lines 52-56, it describes the answer the speaker is reaching. Snow is known for killing the plantlife that survives into winter, and “last year” references the speaker’s past. As a tree, the snow killed his growths, but he avers that it is necessary to put the past in the past and sally forth to simply continue growing. In spring, the tree buds again, and this signifies the speaker’s will to not allow his personal growth to be stunted by what the snow did; furthermore, the speaker uses specifically snow because it is white, so the snow on the branches of last year is symbolic of the white oppression of the past. The speaker proceeds to describe rain as something that channels his African heritage because he must dance in it to the rhythm within his veins. He ends the verse with the words, “In an old remembered way / rain works on me night and day” (lines 82-83). This furthers the concept of growth because rain contributes to the growth of trees.
The speaker is conflicted now because the white man has evangelized him. He is a Christian, but he has been told that Jesus could not have been black. He says, “Quaint, outlandish heathen gods / black men fashion out of rods / […] my conversion came high-priced; / I belong to Jesus Christ, / […] although I speak / with my mouth thus, in my heart / do I play a double part. / Ever at Thy glowing altar / must my heart grow sick and falter, / wishing He I served were black” (lines 84-100). To call the gods of African nations “heathen” is of a Christian perspective, and it has a very negative connotation; however, the speaker creates a paradox at the end of the fifth verse by saying that the heathen gods are nothing to him because, though this is true in the sense that he does not observe them, it is equally true that they are something to him inasmuch as they are his heritage.
The recurrences drive the poem, which makes them an exceptionally important part of the work’s form. The recurring question in particular plagues the speaker in the same way it plagues the reader because the speaker wants the reader to encounter the question frequently as he has. Also a potent, formal device employed is the use of seven syllables per line with seven verses in total. The speaker describes Jesus Christ as “Jesus of the twice-turned cheek” (line 94), which is about how forgiving Jesus was. Jesus’ forgiveness is equally known for instructing His disciples to forgive as many as seventy times seven times. The speaker is not only adhering to the senses of completion and perfection connoted by the seven syllables and verses but also evoking thoughts of forgiveness. He does this to show the reader that the only way to put the past behind him—the task with which he is struggling, the answer to the recurring question that plagues him—is to forgive the white man’s transgression against him.
The speaker has also used numerous other devices to prove that, though he is conflicted about it, there is an answer he has reached should he choose to accept it. In fact, it could be argued that he wants to accept the answer. Ideally, he can blend his heritage with who he is and simply continue to grow.
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