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“The Whipping” is a poem written by Robert Hayden. Robert Hayden is an African American technically gifted poet, essayist and educator. He was born in Detroit, Michigan on 1913. His natural parents were Asa and Ruth Sheffey, who parted before his birth. He was then taken in by a foster family, Sue Ellen Westerfield and William Hayden. Because of Hayden’s unstable childhood and the frequent moving between his real and foster parents, “Those Winter Sundays” and “The Whipping” poems came out of these relationships. Robert Hayden used to spend most of his time reading, and unable to participate in sports as his peers because of his severe vision problems. He graduated from school in 1932 and attended Detroit City College through a scholarship. In 1940, Hayden married Erma Morris, a music teacher and concert pianist, and in the same year he published Heart-Shape in the Dust, his first book of poems. He joined the University of Michigan in 1941 and earned his master’s degree in 1942. He taught at Michigan University for several years, then moved to Fisk University and remained there for twenty three years. In 1969, he returned to Michigan to complete his teaching career and he stayed in Ann Arbor, Michigan till he died in 1980, at the age of 67.
“The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.”
The first two verses introduce the characters who are the old woman and the boy. The word “again” shows that this whipping is a usual and regular thing that happened before. The speaker is not surprised by this action because he/she has already witnessed a whipping of the boy before. In the last two verses of the stanza, the woman is shouting loudly to make everyone in the neighborhood hear her as if she is trying to give excuses for whipping the boy. She is showing that she is a good woman and the reason she is beating the boy is that he is bad and do mistakes.
“Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.”
The first two verses show in more details the place where the whipping is happening. The place is a garden in front of the house that is planted and has flowers and greenery. A sound is added to the image when the boy has been running in fear and he wildly crashes the elephant ears plant and zinnias flowers. The following two verses show the physical appearance of the old woman. She is a fat and huge woman; however, she can chase the little weak boy and corner him as a beast.
“She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:”
“She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling / boy till the stick breaks in her hand” (9-10). The woman hits the child until the stick breaks in her hand. The boy is screaming and running in circles while the woman is hitting him repeatedly. Then the speaker connects the whipped boy to himself. The crying boy and his tears bring back memories from the speaker’s past and remind him when he used to be whipped by a parent. At the end of this stanza, the poet uses the colon marks to show that the following text will be the speaker’s woundlike memories.
“My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful
Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved . . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,”
In the fourth and fifth stanzas, the speaker is remembering an incident happened to him in the past when he was whipped. He remembers his head held between someone’s knees and how he struggled trying to free himself from that bony vise of knees but was unable to do so.
“the fear / worse than blows that hateful / words could bring” (15-17) . In these verses, the speaker reveals that his fear of this person is worse than the pain that hateful words could bring. “the face that I / no longer knew or loved” (17-18). The speaker used to love that person but he found that he no longer knew and loved him/her. That person he had once loved had destroyed love with his/her violence and inhumanity. “Well, it is over now, it is over,/and the boy sobs in his room”(19-20). Hayden transitions from his past experience into the present time in this verse. The speaker’s repeated hitting is over and come to an end. In the present, also the boy’s beating is over and he is crying in his room now.
“And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged–
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.”
The woman finally has no more energy for whipping. She leans against a tree physically tired. “avenged in part for lifelong hidings / she has had to bear” (23-24). The reason why the woman is abusive to the little boy is that she was abused in her life and a victim of beatings also.
“The Whipping” is a poem that consists of six unrhymed stanzas about a young boy being whipped by an old woman. When the speaker witnessed the whipping, he/she recalled a similar painful memory from his/her childhood. The speaker of this poem may be the neighbor across the street of the young boy’s house or may be the poet, Robert Hayden himself who witnessed the whipping and recalled a similar memory from his childhood. The setting of the poem differs throughout the whole poem. The poem started in a neighborhood in a planted garden in front of a house, and then moves into the boy’s room where he is crying, and then back outside under a tree. It is not clear in the poem the relationship of the old woman and the boy. It may be a mother and son relationship but I found it more proper that it is a grandmother and grandson relationship because the speaker refers to the woman as an “old woman”. The theme of the poem is about child abuse cycle which the narrator and the old woman are affected by and victims of it. When I first read the poem, I felt sympathy with the boy’s character and felt a lot of anger and hate to the old woman’s character. But after the completion of reading the poem, I felt sympathy for all the characters in the poem, even the old woman. I recognized that not only the young boy and the speaker were victims of abuse, but also the old woman was a victim. Child abuse is a cycle that is handed down from generation to generation. Many parents who abuse their children were victims of child abuse themselves. In my opinion, the cycle of child abuse can be ended just by counseling and parenting education for victims of child abuse.
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