One of Robert Hayden's most successful historical poems, “Runagate Runagate” (first published in 1962), employs a montage of voices to portray the tumultuous world of escaped slaves, and ultimately the fundamental human impulse toward freedom. “Runagate,” a term for a runaway slave, refers specifically to Harriet Tubman and by extension to a series of symbols suggesting freedom and emancipation. Divided into two sections, the poem's opening stanza strikes a particularly high level of dramatic tension, impressing upon the reader the visceral immediacy of escape. Entirely free of punctuation, the first stanza both describes and effects flight, rendering a sense of perpetual motion, tumult, and omnipresent threat. The ensuing stanzas reconfigure this sense of motion and confusion through the juxtaposition of voices. Employing multiple voices (and their implicit sense of contrast) in a manner reminiscent of T. S. Eliot and very similar to Hayden's “Middle Passage,” Hayden echoes hymns, spirituals, protest songs, wanted posters, slave voices, and ultimately Harriet Tubman. Though these voices appear in sequential fashion, the compression, typography, and absence of transitions suggest a simultaneity, a montage of personae and perspectives. Thus as multiple voices vie for visibility and ultimate control over the reader's attention, Hayden creates a complex signifying text whose multiple possibilities discourage unitary or rigid interpretations.
In order to hold these highly discursive voices in check, the poem relies upon the progression of its central symbols signifying freedom and possibility. In the first section the refrain “Runagate Runagate,” strategically placed between disparate voices, reasserts the symbolic and thematic focus of the poem. The second section reconfigures the relatively abstract runagate as the historically concrete Harriet Tubman. Her voice dominates the first half of the second section, anticipating and effectively neutralizing oppositional voices that call for her incarceration or destruction. Tubman's final call to ride her train presents trains as the poem's final symbol. Sustaining her sense of defiance and affirmation, trains, here, reassert perpetual agitation through the historical specificity of the Underground Railroad, and more broadly suggest the pan-historical struggle for freedom. The final line of the poem condenses and transforms the competing voices into a singular voice and impulse ultimately transcendent of its own immediate circumstances. One of Hayden's best uses of history and montage, “Runagate Runagate” aptly illustrates one of his chief tenets expressed in his manifesto “Counterpoise,” the unity of humanity and the crucial role the arts play in the struggle toward lasting peace. As the poem affirms physical, political, and psychic freedom, it suggests peace and resolution in the very act of resistance.
Hayden's focus on slavery and on the literal and symbolic act of escape revisits a theme important to a number of African American writers, particularly Octavia E. Butler. Her novel Kindred (1979), perhaps her best-known work, also explores the physical and psychic perils of slavery, and the irrepressible impulse toward freedom.
Wilburn Williams, Jr., “The Covenant of Timelessness and Time: Symbolism and History in Robert Hayden's Angle of Ascent,” Massachusetts Review 18 (Winter 1977): 731–749.Howard Faulkner, “‘Transformed by Steeps of Flight’: The Poetry of Robert Hayden,” CLA Journal 21 (June 1978): 96–111.