“Too green the springing April grass,
Too blue the silver-speckled sky,
For me to linger here, alas,
While happy winds go laughing by,
Wasting the golden hours indoors,
Washing windows and scrubbing floors.”— Poet-novelist Claude McKay (1889-1948), “Spring in New Hampshire” (1920)
Claude McKay, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance that brought a cultural flowering to the neighborhood in the 1920s, died 70 years ago this past Tuesday. I thought of writing about him when I came across the 150th anniversary special issue of The Nation—one of those mega-issues that I can’t resist picking up on the newsstand but which take me forever to get around to reading.
The McKay poem I stumbled across in that issue was “Home Song,” the only one of his that ever appeared in the venerable progressive publication. I liked it well enough, but, in researching his work online, I found that I enjoyed this particular one even more.
As I indicated in a prior post about McKay, this Jamaican immigrant was deeply critical of racial and class inequities in America in the first half of this century. That criticism is introduced, gradually but unmistakably, by the last couple of lines in today’s quote. Due to the need to perform menial labor, “Washing windows and scrubbing floors,” the narrator can’t enjoy a spell of weather that seems especially dazzling (even the winds, which are normally harsh and fierce in other poems, are described here in almost human terms—“happy…laughing.”
In her cultural history of Manhattan in the 1920s, Terrible Honesty, Columbia University professor Ann Douglas remarks that, while much of McKay’s prose uses African-American dialect, his poems after his first collection are “impeccably Anglo-European in their regular meter and standard English diction.” “Spring in New Hampshire” is a good example. It’s easy to imagine it coming from the pen of a Romantic poet—Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, maybe even John Clare.
Over the course of his nearly three remaining decades, McKay probably spent more hours than he wished in urban environments, “wasting the golden hours.” Anger over the plight of African-Americans led him to embrace Communism, until the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 resulted in his break with the Party.
Through the 1940s, McKay’s literary output, reputation and health withered. By the time he died in Chicago, he was largely forgotten. More recently, as interest in the Harlem Renaissance has revived, so has fascination with this poet of passionate protest and intense lyrical feeling.
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