“Heritage: For Harold Jackman” by Countee Cullen

Table of Contents

Paraphrase the poem

The poem entitled “Heritage” was written by Countee Cullen. The poet contemplates his origins and his present state. Cullen concludes that though he is civilized, he will still remember about his roots, and he will never forget the beauty and greatness of Africa, his motherland.

Interestingly, it is possible to trace very suggestive parallels between religious beliefs and parts of the world. Thus, Africa bears the symbol of nature, freedom, beauty, and paganism, while America is characterized by such notions as civilization, rules, and conventions.

Hutchinson reveals the major idea of the poem claiming that it is “seen in terms of various oppositions of paganism versus Christianity, nature versus civilization, Africa versus Europe, passion versus reason” (118). Thus, the major idea of the poem is the heritage of African people who have to find their way in the world which is governed by different rules.

Identify the speaker and the intended audience

As far as the speaker’s characteristics are concerned, it is possible to infer from the poem that the poet is male. Though, it is not revealed explicitly (with the help of precise words), such notion as “pride” suggests that the poet is male. Admittedly, pride is still a characteristic feature of males.

It is a bit easier to infer the poet’s age. He must be in his thirties as he has a specific experience to share. Admittedly, young people cannot reveal such mature ideas as for religion and heritage. However, the author is not an old man as he still lives his life to the fullest:

Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheeks and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed. (Cullen 160)

Old men are usually more reserved. As for the audience, the poet addresses a diverse audience. Notably, the poem cannot be regarded as racist (Ramey 114). It is more about the heritage of Africans who learned to be “civilized.” Thus, the poet addresses Africans to share his feelings as to his heritage.

Admittedly, Africans share the same ideas as the poet is precise and generic at the same time. Apart from this, the poet addresses whites as well. He wants to make them understand the peculiarities of the African soul. It is necessary to note that Cullen succeeds as he draws a very expressive picture that reveals some of the deepest emotions of Africans.

Identify the specific setting of time and place

It is necessary to note that the poem is “timeless.” It is difficult to define the precise setting. The poem can date back to the eighteenth century as well as it could be written in the twenty-first century. The poem ‘fits’ several centuries. This is why it can be called universal as it is not limited by time or space. Admittedly, it is also unclear whether the poet is in Africa, or it is his soul that rests in the wild terrains of the continent.

Consider the poem’s title

The setting is not that important as the poet focuses on his heritage. The title of the poem reveals this idea and makes the reader prepared. Thus, the title emphasizes the major idea of the poem. The single word sums up the entire literary work. The poet leaves no doubt that he tells the story of his people.

Consider the poem’s diction

As far as the poem’s diction is concerned, it is necessary to point out that the poem is very metaphorical. The poet chooses bright metaphors to reveal his ideas. There is no much verbal wit in the poem, apart from one instance. The poet claims:

Through my body, crying, “Strip!
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover’s Dance!” (Cullen 159-160)

At first sight, it may seem that the author is speaking about clothes. However, it is clear that the poet also speaks of certain religious issues. Thus, he says that sometimes he wants to forget about all those conventions (to “off” everything) to become as free as children of Africa.

Therefore, the lines have a double meaning. At that, the second meaning is more important than the direct one. It is not about doffing clothes and dancing the Lover’s Dance. It is about another kind of freedom when a person can feel what is real and important for him/her.

Identify any figures of speech

As has been mentioned above, the poem is rather metaphorical, and many figures of speech are used. For instance, the very first lines contain the allusion “Eden” (Cullen 157). The author also mentions “Jesus Christ,” Holy Trinity “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” “Lamb of God” (Cullen 160).

Another allusion used is “Jesus of the twice-turned cheek” (Cullen 160). This figure of speech alludes to Jesus’s sermon concerning foes: Jesus said that if someone hit you, you should not hit this person back, but you should turn the other cheek. The use of these allusions is justified by the major idea of the poem. Thus, the poet is trying to make his heritage fit the new order.

Admittedly, when analyzing figures of speech used in the poem, it is important to touch upon the use of metaphors. Thus, such metaphors as “copper sun,” “scarlet sea,” “mute wonder” make the poem very expressive and even illustrative. The reader inevitably pictures the beautiful landscapes of Africa.

One metaphor can be of precise interest. Thus, the poet notes: “Silver snakes that once a year / Doff the lovely coats you wear” (Cullen 158). The two lines can be seen as a metaphor. At that, there can be no metaphor which is more trivial than snakes’ skin which is somehow associated with women’s coats.

However, the author creates a really special metaphor as he makes the reader picture a wonderful Cinderella-like scene: snakes’ skins are magically converted into beautiful women’s coats. Another descriptive metaphor is the one where the poet compares himself with the wax melting or flax burning:

Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax
Lest the grave restores its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized. (Cullen 161)

The poet claims that his entire nature was reshaped (melted and burnt) to make him “civilized.” The poet reveals the unjust and wrongful nature of the process of making Africans “civilized.” More so, these lines also suggest that the poet still cherishes his people’s heritage even though he was changed.

Identify any instances of irony

These very lines can also be seen as an instance of irony. The poet claims that he cannot fully realize that he has been changed by conventions of the other world. More so, it is possible to note that the poet’s irony reveals his grief and his commitment at the same time.

Consider the tone of the poem

However, it is necessary to note that the instance of irony does not change the overall tone of the poem. The poem is solemn and expressive. The bitter irony expressed at the end of the poem only enhances the grand tone of the literary work.

Works Cited

Cullen, Countee. “Heritage: For Harold Jackman.” The Vintage Book of African American Poetry. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2000. 157-161. Print.

Hutchinson, George. The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.

Ramey, Lauri. The Heritage Series of Black Poetry, 1965- 1975: A Research compendium. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2008. Print.

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