The Ballad of Nat Turner

By Robert Hayden 1913–1980 Robert Hayden
Then fled, O brethren, the wicked juba
       and wandered wandered far
from curfew joys in the Dismal’s night.   
       Fool of St. Elmo’s fire

In scary night I wandered, praying,
       Lord God my harshener,   
speak to me now or let me die;
       speak, Lord, to this mourner.

And came at length to livid trees   
       where Ibo warriors
hung shadowless, turning in wind   
       that moaned like Africa,

Their belltongue bodies dead, their eyes   
       alive with the anger deep
in my own heart. Is this the sign,   
       the sign forepromised me?

The spirits vanished. Afraid and lonely   
       I wandered on in blackness.   
Speak to me now or let me die.
       Die, whispered the blackness.

And wild things gasped and scuffled in   
       the night; seething shapes
of evil frolicked upon the air.
       I reeled with fear, I prayed.

Sudden brightness clove the preying
       darkness, brightness that was   
itself a golden darkness, brightness
       so bright that it was darkness.

And there were angels, their faces hidden   
       from me, angels at war
with one another, angels in dazzling   
       combat. And oh the splendor,

The fearful splendor of that warring.
       Hide me, I cried to rock and bramble.   
Hide me, the rock, the bramble cried. . . .   
       How tell you of that holy battle?

The shock of wing on wing and sword   
       on sword was the tumult of   
a taken city burning. I cannot
       say how long they strove,

For the wheel in a turning wheel which is time   
       in eternity had ceased
its whirling, and owl and moccasin,
       panther and nameless beast

And I were held like creatures fixed   
       in flaming, in fiery amber.
But I saw I saw oh many of   
       those mighty beings waver,

Waver and fall, go streaking down
       into swamp water, and the water   
hissed and steamed and bubbled and locked   
       shuddering shuddering over

The fallen and soon was motionless.   
       Then that massive light
began a-folding slowly in
       upon itself, and I

Beheld the conqueror faces and, lo,   
       they were like mine, I saw
they were like mine and in joy and terror   
       wept, praising praising Jehovah.

Oh praised my honer, harshener
       till a sleep came over me,
a sleep heavy as death. And when
       I awoke at last free

And purified, I rose and prayed
       and returned after a time
to the blazing fields, to the humbleness.   
       And bided my time.

Robert Hayden, “The Ballad of Nat Turner” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1985 by Emma Hayden. Reprinted with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Source: Collected Poems (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1985)

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Poet Robert Hayden 1913–1980

Subjects War & Conflict, Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Crime & Punishment, Religion

Holidays Kwanzaa

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Common Measure, Ballad

 Robert  Hayden


Born Asa Bundy Sheffey into a poor family, Robert Hayden’s parents left him to be raised by foster parents. Due to extreme nearsightedness, Hayden turned to books rather than sports in his childhood. Some of his best-known poems can be found in his collection A Ballad of Remembrance. Hayden was the first African American to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Hayden's formal, elegant poems about the . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT War & Conflict, Race & Ethnicity, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Crime & Punishment, Religion

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Common Measure, Ballad

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