Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows and the Light of Faith

McKay was a singular figure in American literature whose greatness came early, his Catholicism late, and the two but narrowly overlap.

An undated photo of the poet, novelist and short story writer Claude McKay (Image: James L. Allen/Wikipedia)

I recently paid tribute to the poet Claude McKay, a singular figure in American literature. He was the first great poet of the Harlem Renaissance who inspired a generation. After a late-life conversion, in 1944, he also became one of the first important Catholic poets in America. It is the burden of this essay to explore an unfortunate truth: McKay’s greatness came early, his Catholicism late, and the two but narrowly overlap.

McKay was a sufficiently important literary talent that his poems are of interest at every stage of his career. During his lifetime, however, his readers and editors perceived a marked decline, such that his most ambitious poetic project, a later sequence of poems, mostly sonnets, called “The Cycle,” could not find a publisher.

McKay had suffered a stroke, just before beginning the sequence, in 1943. He wrote “The Cycle” as part of his recovery. The results were not well received by those who knew him. As the editor of McKay’s Complete Poems, William J. Maxwell, notes, the first readers found the sequence “too bitter and personal” and even to be “not poetry,” but doggerel. The publisher of his first poems in American English, Max Eastman, helped to edit the sequence but to no avail. McKay himself sensed that he had lost something of his “old style.”

The consequence of this decline in his talent is a division in his work. McKay’s most perfect poetic achievement is the book that launched the Harlem Renaissance, in 1922, that annus mirabilis of literary modernism: Harlem Shadows. The qualities that come together in that single volume require definition. They never disappear entirely in the later work, but the best of them fade and are overtaken by a rhetorical quality, already evident in Harlem Shadows’ most celebrated poems, “America” and “If We Must Die.” That rhetoric, so powerful when united to other qualities, lost much of its effect when stripped of them, in the later work. My intention is to define the achievement of Harlem Shadows, to describe the relative inferiority of the late Catholic poems, but then, finally, also to affirm their literary, historical, and spiritual achievement. All Americans should know McKay’s work, but Catholics in particular will find much to cherish in McKay’s religious journey and his late devotional poems.

Poetry and Rhetoric

A convenient way to begin such an inquiry is to consider a celebrated aphorism of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Yeats was a poet who, like McKay after him, sensed that his responsibilities as an artist comprehended faithfulness to an interior vision, the docile and earnest duties of the craftsman to make a good work, but also the extrinsic, political duties of the public man. McKay saw no intrinsic tension between these three responsibilities, though he certainly felt them pull against one another, as is suggested by his occasional reminders in his letters and other writings that he has not ceased to be a “rebel” serving a great political cause. Yeats felt this tension as well, although he seems to have delighted in the dialectical possibilities it occasioned to “multiply” his personalities. In one poem, he could concern himself only with magic and dream visions, in another he could play the aristocrat, and in still another, the fierce nationalist who excites young rebels to go out and get themselves shot.

Nonetheless, Yeats also sensed, from early on, that any merely political or public poetry would betray his first allegiance to the spirit of the imagination and the making of song. To solve this dilemma, Yeats composed his early poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times” and the essay, “What Is Popular Poetry?” In both, he deprecated an Irish national poetry that was merely public and political in content; this was attributable to a middle class, or bourgeois, portion of the Irish people who were not genuinely representative of the nation. Yeats praised, as the authentic and true tradition, an Irish nationalist literature that was born of the folk and stewarded by the aristocracy. It was at once popular and elite. This allegiance, which Yeats described as one of the peasant hut, the noble’s castle, and the monk’s cloister, was national and by implication political, but it was also fundamentally “religious,” as Yeats at least used that term. His poetry was first of all an expression of magic, myth, metamorphoses, and mystery.

Yeats seemed to have transcended the tensions of poetry, politics, and imagination by uniting them in a tradition that had passed all but unnoticed until then by everyone besides him. But he still recognized he was always in danger of betraying this true religious and political Irish tradition in poetry by descending to a mere politics. Thus, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1917), Yeats acknowledged, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

I do not wish to grant Yeats my complete ascent. The distinction between poetry and rhetoric is a romantic one that does not survive scrutiny. Much great poetry has been made of quarrels with others, that is to say, in response to public and political events. And great poetry need not have for theme the internalized ambivalence of, say, the Elizabethan sonnet, with its oxymorons giving representation to contradictory feelings, or the more complex interior dramas of the romantic poets. But Yeats’s phrase does help us better to understand the achievement of Harlem Shadows and the different, often inferior, achievement of McKay’s later poetry.

Arguing with Himself

Although there are few direct indications in McKay’s poems that he read Yeats, the ambivalence of the early “Lake Isle of Innis Free” clearly provided McKay an example of how a modern writer could recapture the classical quality of ambivalence and oxymoron ubiquitous in the Renaissance sonnet. Yeats’s poem of course dreams of a pastoral paradise in the West of Ireland, its romantic idealism savored until the very last moment of the poem, where the poet awakes as from a dream to find himself on the “pavement gray” of the modern city of London. He feels divided against himself, torn between the beauty of the Irish West and the present age in which he actually stands.

In Harlem Shadows, similar such emotional jolts from one place to another occur and account for many of the dramatic tension in the poems and most of their exhilarating turns. “The Easter Flower” studies the lily as a Christian symbol until, at the close, McKay declares himself “a pagan” who only worships its “perfumed power.” “The Tropics in New York” is one of several lyrics that contrast New York city life with the paradisal tranquility of Jamaica. “When Dawn Comes to the City,” one of McKay’s longest poems, alternates between stanzas on the “moaning, groaning cars” of the city and extended catalogs of the joyful noises of his “island of the sea.”

A most remarkable poem in this vein, “Subway Wind,” strikes me as a significant artistic improvement upon Allen Tate’s once well-known sonnet on the subway. Tate, we know, much enjoyed riding on the subway during his own years in New York City, but, when he sat down to write a poem on the subject, the underground train becomes a symbol of a teratological technological modern age, the madness of the machine. He can speak of the train in no other terms than as vehicle to the inferno and can express his sense in nothing but hyperbole:

Harshly articulate, musical steel shell
Of angry worship, hurled religiously
Upon your business of humility
Into the iron forestries of hell:

The Tate who enjoyed a nice train ride now and again is entirely eclipsed. McKay’s poem is superior in its realistic depiction of what occurs “down through the city’s great, gaunt gut.” The motion of the trains generates a “weary wind,” a “sick and heavy air.” Rather than exaggerate the unpleasant quality, he describes it precisely, and then juxtaposes it with the Trade winds of Jamaica and the tranquil, sleepy place over which they “float . . . fresh and free.” McKay conveys his wariness of the subway not by ginning it up to a nightmare, but by way of a concrete and literal contrast with his homeland.

The two sonnets on his mother’s death offer a more existential sort of reversal. The second one in particular, for thirteen lines, describes morning in Jamaica in all its pleasing details of climate and quotidian life. He presents to us, in other words, all that takes place “Over the earth where mortals sow and reap.” But then, the final line comes crashing down: “Beneath [the earth’s] breast my mother lies asleep.” At the more subtle frequency of rhythm, the poem “December, 1919” also contains a reversal. Another elegy for his mother, in this poem, the first line of each quatrain ends with the word “mother,” as in, “Last night I heard your voice, mother . . .” The word “voice” is stressed metrically, and so is the first syllable of “mother.” This creates that rarest of metrical variations, a final foot trochee, causing the rhythm of the line to arrest itself, caught between two stresses, and then fall.

The fallen condition of the modern black peoples of the world is also frequently expressed with a similar jolt of reversal. “Africa” recalls the greatness of the ancient civilizations of that continent before lamenting, “The darkness swallowed thee again,” turning the continent to a “harlot” whose “time is done.” “On the Road” recalls McKay’s days working in dining cars for the railroad. The “Exasperated” pace of work on the trains comes to a concluding collapse as

The waiters pass out weary, listless, glum,
To spend their tips on harlots, cards and rum.

“Alfonso, Dressing to Wait Table” presents its subject as a tableau of joyful, sexually charged spiritedness, but, in the final quatrain, McKay broadens the scene to comprehend the racism that confines Alfonso. “Alfonso” is complemented by the magnificently precise scene of the city street found in “The Harlem Dancer.” There, the debauched scene of a woman dancing for coins in the street as young men with prostitutes watch her, is appreciated in aesthetic isolation until the final line. At that moment, the poet realizes her isolation as an object admired, as a work of art, makes possible still another kind of isolation. He sees “her falsely-smiling face” and observes, “I knew her self was not in that strange place.” The dancer has stowed her “self” away from the place where she must make her living in order to preserve her dignity. “Rest in Peace” suggests that death may be the only escape from the “ugly corners of the Negro belt” and the “city’s hate, the city’s prejudice!” To die into the darkness is the sole act that will ensure “the dark is over.” And yet, McKay’s anguish at the racism and poverty that drive one to death in the America of his day always derives from his delight in and admiration of its metropolitan squalor and splendor. Hence, “La Paloma in London” shows him in Soho and hearing a familiar melody on the guitar. The music transports him back in time, so that London becomes, suddenly, “Harlem! All else shut out . . .” Amo et odio.

McKay’s “Winter in the Country” contrasts the joy McKay found in the New Hampshire countryside with the squalid conditions of city life. He celebrates the pastoral in stereotyped language, but when he turns with a cry to the thought of leaving “this paradise,” the language grows vivid and perceptive in its dismay:

But oh! to leave this paradise
For the city’s dirty basement room,
Where, beauty hidden from the eyes,
A table, bed, bureau and broom

In corner set, two crippled chairs
All covered up with dust and grim
With hideousness and scars of years
And gaslight burning weird and dim

The surprise of these lines becomes stronger when one contrasts it with the poems in the first and final pages of Harlem Shadows, where we find McKay’s lyrics of eros. For, McKay makes a point of that corner bed as the setting for a very different sort of drama of jolting ambivalence. Ambiguous in their details of the beloved, the love lyrics have excited speculation that one of the thrills McKay found in New York City was that of anonymous encounters. His frequent references to race suggest those encounters sometimes crossed the color line that other poems make seem impassible. The absence of reference to the lover outside of markers of race has also suggested to some critics that McKay’s desires were bisexual.

Among the love poems, only “The Snow Fairy,” a pair of sonnets similar in ambition to “My Mother,” stands out as superb. In the first sonnet, McKay describes himself watching the snow falling through the afternoon and night, and then awakening the following morning to the “heap” of snow now still. This he then contrasts, in the second, with the thought of one with “hair disheveled, eyes aglow with light,” appearing unexpected on a “winter’s night” and falling in his bed—only to disappear before dawn. His love poems follow the renaissance sonnet tradition in imagining a moment’s illicit coupling as so pitched with intensity as to seem a marriage, an absolute union, before it vanishes with the darkness as real life returns.

As this extended description indicates, the poems in Harlem Shadows generally turn on sudden, jolting reversals that create a contrast between the idyllic and less than ideal; the joy of life and the tragedy of history; the transcendence of desire and its bewildering brevity; and, most frequent of all, the gritty urban and the tranquil tropical. McKay’s appreciation, affection, and anxiety are all pulled in different, competing directions with these movements. With very few exceptions, importantly, McKay builds these contrasts with concrete, realistic detail, that is, he mediates the emotions of the lyric by way of substantive details outside of those emotions. His best poems are poems of vivid scenes and suggestive, realized images, all of which serve to represent an inner drama and ambivalence without merely stating it. The result is that the book seems as if it were a careful, objective record of a place or places—which it often is—even as the fine observations in that record are made dramatic by McKay’s own interior drama, his argument with himself. It would be hard to offer a poet higher praise than to say that he has imagined the world in which he lives with lively precision while he has also turned that world into a symbolic expression of his own interior, spiritual conflicts. But such is the case in Harlem Shadows.

Arguing with the World

Many of McKay’s poems after Harlem Shadows sometimes repeat the themes, dramatics, and vivid depictions of that volume. Some indeed show his growth as a poet. But, by the 1940s a paradoxical transformation had occurred in his poetic voice. The early poems are largely concerned with his own interior argument with himself, his ambivalences of love and hate, but their means of expression is carefully objective. In the language of T.S. Eliot, McKay’s poetry depicts interior feeling only by means of the “objective correlative.” The poems may in some sense be about an interior argument with the self, but it is Harlem that we actually see.

The later poetry loses some of this. A sequence of poems from the mid-1930s, about “Cities,” largely fails because McKay’s eye has turned from the expressive minutia of the concrete scene to the summary description that will give us a gloss of an entire city in the space of a sonnet. A decade later, The Cycle pushes into the center the first-person of the poet, and pushes to the side the concrete detail. McKay’s raw subjectivity comes to the rhetorical fore; the concrete details comes to appear only as a figures of speech. The second poem in the sequence, for instance, begins:

Now, really I have never cared a damn
For being on the wrong side of the fence,
Even though I was as naked as a lamb,
And thought by many to be just as dense.

This can be dismissed as doggerel with the cliches of “cared a damn,” and “naked as a lamb,” but what indicates the decline of McKay’s talent is not this so much as the “naked” “I” covered only by the lame ornamental images of “fence” and “lamb.”

The loss of powers was ill timed. McKay’s poetry achieved greatness in his depictions of Harlem and beyond. But, after his conversion to Catholicism, in 1944, his poetry’s long suggestion of religious longing now had occasion to explore more fully those high themes of devotion, faith, and the divine. The nineteen poems he completed after his conversion are on subjects as ambitious as any he addressed. They are often well imagined, frequently beautiful, and sometimes profound, but the balance of McKay’s attention remains on a level of abstraction and concern with the “naked” subjectivity rather than entering into, as it were, the concrete life of things in the world. This has the curious effect of making McKay’s poems seem more an “argument with others.” They are more thesis-driven, public poems, spoken with the direct rhetoric of the first-person orator than with the novelist’s eye for fully imagined scenes displayed by the author of Harlem Shadows.

The other parties in the argument are clear. In ways that parallel Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism (published in 1945, just before McKay wrote most of his Catholic poems) and the former communist Whitaker Chambers’ Witness (1952), McKay sees the great argument of the age as that over the truth, between the “Revolution” and the “Holy Church.” The modern ideologies, or “Isms,” are “like a dazzling thief” who would steal the allegiance to the truth of McKay and other black people in the name of revolutionary justice. McKay has spent “most of” his live consecrated to these “isms.” He is now convinced that “they have bamboozled simple men / To think that all life lies within their ken.” That is, the revolution has a secular vision whose limit is that of the world. The ideologies would seek to gain power over history to reform it: an appealing project for one like McKay, who saw the great injustices of the present. But it is also a foolhardy one, McKay suggests, for there is indeed more to life than what politics can touch or control. The horizon of the human transcends the human; the history of justice goes beyond history and enters into eternity.

The Church transcends the “Pagan Isms” in four ways. First and fundamentally, it proclaims truth rather than plays upon the needs of the weak with ideology and falsehood. In his sonnet to “The Catholic Church,” he proclaims, “Thou has the only key, / The knowledge that can bring men back to God.” That knowledge of the “Truth,” he says in a sonnet of that name, contrasts with the revolution. For, by going down on “bended knees,” we bypass the prideful disingenuousness of Pilate’s question, “what is Truth,” to arrive in the presence of “the Eternal and Incarnate Word.” Humility opens and reveals what the “isms” close off and obscure.

McKay’s celebration of the Church’s truth as creative and incarnational offer the finest moments in his late poetry. His voice’s rapt enthusiasm and playful intricacy sometimes reminds one of Hopkins, as in the opening lines of this previously unpublished sonnet, where things of the world that might give rise to mere terror instead lead us to stand in awe of the God who made them.

The world was called forth by the word of God,
The thunder and the blackness and the rain
The universe, the heat, volcanoes, sod
And swimming, creeping things and man and pain.

“The New Day” recalls the birth of Christ and the renewal of a golden age it will bring in language that alludes to Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue: “Because a golden Child to us is born, / Whose light upon the earth shall never cease.” “The Word” appropriately attributes even the poet’s language to the creative gift of the Incarnate Word: “Lord of my word, inventor of all words, / Supreme creator of the Word, Oh God . . .” McKay’s late religious poems first and foremost enter into the spirit of Christianity and the Incarnation as revelation and truth in itself, over which one lingers in devotion and contemplation, prior to considering the consequences it may have for our life, including our political life, in the world.

Consequences there are, however. The truth at which McKay has arrived answers the most prolonged and gnawing anguish of his life. For, second, it reveals that the God of Jesus Christ is “no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) and so the Church admits into communion black and white together. “The Wise Men of the East” and “The Middle Ages” celebrate the Nativity and the high ages of Christendom for having all the races of the earth included equally within them. In “The whites admit the Negroes have religion,” he looks at the present day of racially segregated religious practice and hints at the internal contradiction and failure to be seen there. Further, “Negro religion” is richer and more fully suffuses daily life than the whited sepulchers of white churches. One untitled and unpublished sonnet insists in rather homely rhetoric,

Well, Jesus’ color, black or brown or white
Pales into naught before the grand religion

Another sonnet announces that McKay “could not hate the German or the Jews,” or love his own race more than “another race.” Despite his hatred of the “greed” of white men, he recognizes that “all of us are sinners” and so, all of us are called to the same forgiveness and the same redemption.

A truth that can accomplish what the lies of secular ideologies cannot transcends them in still a third way: it promises to transform those who believe it. God in “His everlasting truth” will give to McKay and other revolutionaries a “greater strength to fight” than the programs of the ideologues. McKay celebrates the wisdom given by Christian truth as a true source and contrasts it with the atheist humanisms promulgated by the various “Pagan Isms” he has come to reject. The age is weak because, “The scientist informs us—not the sage, / And men imagine they are ever more ‘free.”

In fact, the discipline and responsibility of the Church alone lead to genuine freedom. They make “the body subject to the spirit” (“I do not go to church in search of God”). In contrast, the isms lead to the “Atomic Bomb.” Christianity is a truth that suffuses one’s life with the supernatural gift of faith, such that we journey toward it even as we also possess it. It will transform us, but has also already transformed us. His sonnet “Faith” captures this well, indicating that the truth that faith infuses in the soul is a living presence rather than a dry doctrine to be ascertained:

For faith is Knowledge, Truth is just ahead,
And also right behind and present now!
A life like flowers on the springtime bough.

The journey on which faith accompanies us is, in a profound sense, a solitary one. This is the fourth and final way Christianity transcends the modern ideologies. The soul moves toward God and, in doing so, leaves behind the disputations of politics. As he writes in “The Pagan Isms,” in going “To God,” he goes “Where black nor white can follow to betray.” The Church allows all races equally into the Kingdom, as we saw above, but in doing so, it refuses entry to all temporal antagonisms. The sonnet quoted above, “Faith,” expresses this solitude in terms of McKay needing “only the voice / Of Thy truth Faith . . . no other things will count.” He continues, “I know that I must face my God alone.” What might seem a fearful, naked, and austere tribunal to some readers, to McKay sounded more like confirmation that the conflicts of worldly life would not pursue him into eternity. Not only were black and white both welcome in the Church, but they were welcome because the soul slips free of those “burning bodies” to meet God alone.

McKay’s religious poems are indeed arguments not with himself but with others. Many of them are poems of definition, wherein the drama of his own journey in the faith has already ceased and all that is left is to deliver a final statement of the truth. Many of them are pitched for battle against the ideologues, whose notions once fully possessed him, but who now seem alien and grotesque. The battle most certainly no longer takes place within him, and the loss of poetic power may follow from that. McKay’s figures of speech are often fine, sometimes glorious, but his soul is settled and objective correlatives no longer mediate in concrete terms the interior conflicts once churning within him.

The late poems lose, in brief, much of what makes Harlem Shadows a classic. And yet, these are important poems too, and in two senses. They are important because of the intelligence and clarity of devotion to which they give form. Very few modern devotional poems succeed also as works of art; McKay’s sometimes do, especially when they grapple with the mystery of the Eternal Word. The late poems are also important, because they testify that the anguish and ambivalence of McKay’s early poetry, with its constant jolting between life and death, urban excitement and tropical peace, found resolution in no earthly city but in the kingdom of God. They are a fitting conclusion to the early poems, even if generally inferior in quality to them. In God’s kingdom alone could all interior arguments cease.


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About James Matthew Wilson 15 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is Poet-in-Residence of the Benedict XVI Institute, editor of Colosseum Books, and Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine. He has published ten books, including The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico, 2020) and The River of the Immaculate Conception (Wiseblood, 2019).

4 Comments

    • As the article explains, in detail, he was a committed Communist who converted to the Catholic Faith. You are welcome to read the essay at any time.

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