From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden

Robert Hayden was a dear friend when I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, from 1958-1963 as I worked on my BA and MA degrees in English literature at Vanderbilt University. He was a professor at Fisk University, and during that time, we would discuss poetry, literature in general, art, and theology, whether at the Bahá’í center, or at his home.

Years later, during a critical time in my academic career, this friendship inspired me to undertake writing a study of his life and his art during a critical time in my academic career. By the mid-1970s, it had become clear to me and to my department that I would not be able to complete the work I had been contracted to write for the University of Oklahoma Press—a four-volume anthology of Old and Middle English literature, with the Old English works translated by me from the original texts.

I had spent all my spare time working on this massive project, which, if completed, would have provided me with impressive credentials in the field of Medieval English literature—one of the principal areas I had chosen as my specialty. But teaching a full panoply of courses, I realized two things. First, completing this project would require at least five to ten years, during which time I would receive no credit from my department for a work-in-progress. Second, assuming that I did complete the project, the most I could hope for was to be celebrated among a small cadre of scholars who specialized in teaching in this somewhat esoteric area. I also began to notice that large anthologies were gradually being phased out by the major publishers of texts in English literature.  

It was at that point that I determined, regardless of the consequences, that I would write what gave me the most delight and what I hoped would provide the greatest service to others. Understandably, the writing of Ali’s Dream had garnered me no credit whatsoever in the English department—it was a book for young people that had nothing whatsoever to do with my field or with English literature in general. And the many individual poems I was publishing provided me with limited esteem because I had not been hired as a poet.

Clearly if I were to attain tenure—so my chairman informed me—and thus retain my job, as well achieve promotion—I needed to write a scholarly work that had something to do with English literature. Ironically, it was about that time (1980) that Robert Hayden died, and I determined that by doing a work about him, I could demonstrate how his poetry and his life could only be fully understood if one appreciated how the Bahá’í Faith and its teachings had influenced the themes in his art.

Because it was clear to me that the only way to complete this challenging work was to have sufficient time away from teaching, I accepted a year-long sabbatical at half-pay to do the required research, to write the work, and to refine it sufficiently for a publisher to find it acceptable.  

It would be needless to recount the adventure of that year, the trip to Ann Arbor to converse with his friends and with his widow Erma, and the further travels to the Bahá’í archives where his papers resided. Suffice it to say that the greatest adventure of all was studying his poetry and, bit by bit, discovering how virtually every piece he penned is infused with some relationship to his beliefs as a Bahá’í. And from reading the reviews of his poetry by others, it was equally apparent that virtually no one sensed this relationship, principally because none of the critics were Bahá’ís and none knew him well enough to sense how central the Bahá’í teachings were to Hayden’s world view.

In addition, because Hayden was a symbolist poet, recovering the allusions in his verse—some of which are sublimely nuanced and quite concealed without appreciating the underlying spiritual connection contained therein—could not be adequately accomplished without a thorough knowledge of the Bahá’í Faith and its central teachings.

During this same year, I managed to obtain a contract for the book with George Ronald Publishers in Oxford, and to be assisted significantly by the dear and wise Marion Hoffman, wife of David Hofman who had founded the press. The end result was a beautifully edited, hardbound volume of almost 350 pages that won the hearts and minds of my department and resulted in my being awarded Scholar of the Year for 1984-85 for the College of Arts and Letters. What was of equal importance for me was that from that point on, no one would question the relevance of what I wrote, whether it was the relationship of my studies of theology and philosophy to the Medieval period (something readily apparent to even a novice in the field) or the many semesters of release-time I was to be awarded over the years to complete my various writing projects.

To this day, as I glance through some of the works I have written, I consider From the Auroral Darkness as perhaps the best written and best scholarly work I have produced. It continues to be utilized and cited by the growing number of Hayden scholars, and is generally accepted as the standard, if not the definitive, study of his life and art.

2 thoughts on “From the Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden”

  1. Now, I have to get this! Wow! Great story, John. Thank you. Seems like you were spiritually guided from the the moment you started thinking about doing the 10 year project on Medieval literature!

    Ruth Wing

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