Robert Hayden is one of the best-known American poets of his time. However, he is also one of the most underrated poets of all time, arguably not as much accolades as other poets of the same era. His poems exude admirable sincerity and tremendous grasp of poetic devices. His beautiful poem “The Whipping” is regarded as one of his finest work. A biographical approach to the poem would reveal to us that Hayden transforms his bitter memories to a sumptuous work of art.
The poem is basically about a woman whipping a boy, for some reason that is not explicitly stated in the poem.
The second line “is whipping the boy again” tells us that violent act is being carried on regularly. The reader immediately would assume that the woman is the mother of the boy, regardless if the woman is the boy’s biological or foster parent. The picture that Hayden had painted is vividly painful. The lines “she strikes and strikes the shrilly circling / boy till the stick breaks” suggests the level of anger of the woman and the fear and pain of the boy.
The woman stopped whipping the boy only when the stick was already broken.
Halfway through the poem, the author shifts from third to first person “words could bring the face that I / no longer knew or loved…” Those first person lines suggest to the readers that the speaking persona could have undergone the same kind of treatment. The line “well, it is over now, it is over” is a potent hint that the narrator is recalling his past.
He is able to forgive the one that whipped him. However, he is unable to shake off the memories of being whipped as a boy. A peek to Hayden’s biography is likely to lead us to clues that had led him to conceive this poem.
Hayden was born and grew up in a Detroit ghetto which the people there called Paradise Valley. During that time, violence, in the form of corporal punishment, was not uncommon. Hayden also had an irregular family life as a child. His biological parents were separated even before his birth. A couple who also exhibited a volatile relationship took him in. As a child, Hayden had witnessed domestic violence from both his biological and foster parents (Greasely 251-252).
Hayden had shown us admirable honesty through his poem “The Whipping. Corporal punishment is not much talked about by adults, probably because they are now currently the ones guilty of whipping their children. Hayden had shared his memories to us to convey a message that would be vital for any community. He is suggesting to us that corporal punishment is more likely to generate childhood trauma than discipline. Moreover, he is also arguing that violence to a child is injustice. Parents blaming their child for their “lifelong hidings” are the primary reason why this vicious cycle of violence is still ongoing.