Rita Dove presents a clear picture of cultural constructions of sexuality, gender, and racism in her poems. Her The House Slave, Daystar, and Thomas and Beulah demonstrate the political complication of both gender and ethnicity. Dove uses many stylistic devices, including classical allusions, symbolism, diction, visceral metaphors, and puissant imagery to present the themes of her poems, The House Slave, Daystar, and Thomas and Beulah. Dove introduces the theme of solitude in The House Slave, which shows that she was lonely, apart from living with guilt (Kelly 91). In Daystar, the poet demonstrates that personal responsibilities have detached her from the world. Dove also presents the struggles that working-class minorities faced before revolutionists formed the civil rights movement that took place during the lives of Beulah and Thomas. This paper presents a critical analysis of Dove’s The House Slave, Daystar, and Thomas and Beulah.
Thomas and Beulah is the poem that shows Dove’s special honor to her grandparents and the issues that affected most working-class blacks in the United States. These events occurred before the civil rights revolution that was initiated during the lives of Thomas and Beulah (Wright 11). Their generation was spectacular, forming the group of the last minority groups who lived before the civil rights movement. The poet conveys her thoughts on the shortcomings she experienced in her mother-daughter relationships. In The House Slave, Dove presents the theme of solitude. She expresses her story at dawn because this period made her more lonely and detached from her people and culture. Dove lived as a house slave and she had a lot of freedom that a slave in the field did not enjoy. She says, “I watch them driven into the vague before morning” (Kelly 91). This statement shows that she feels isolated by in-house slavery and if she could have joined the field if there were no limitations.
Similarly, Dove’s Daystar presents the story of a homemaker taking care of a husband and children. The poet shows that these duties have denied the homemaker the life she desires to live on her own. Her real-life has been limited by house chores which do not give her time off. Dove says, “She needed a little room for thinking,” showing that the housewife was stressed with motherhood responsibilities (Kelly 92). This emotional torture is similar to that of Dove in The House Slave because the subjects have been alienated from their real-life desires.
Dove also shows that she lives with guilty feelings in slavery. The second line states, “there is a rustling in the slave quarters” (Poetry International Archives, “The House Slave”). She does not wake up early as a house slave because she is not in the quarters. Her sentiments demonstrate that field salves should wake up before sunrise to avoid getting late in the garden. It is ironic that Dove feels bad for her colleagues getting up earlier than she does. She should be happier for such a privilege of not going to toil on the farm before dawn. Her statement, “I cannot fall asleep again,” implies that she does not enjoy having unfair privileges when other people face malice treatment (Poetry International Archives, “The House Slave”). She, therefore, feels misplaced emotionally and physically because should rather join her colleagues.
In Thomas and Beulah, Dove is concerned with her grandparents’ experiences, among them being limited education and lack of voting rights. She depicts their true lives being unpleasant and they are worse than the environments in which she grew up (Wright 11). The grandparents’ struggles at work are evident and they are likely to cause childhood trauma. The first section of the poem is titled ‘Mandolin,’ and it is presented from Thomas’s point of view, while the second part is entitled ‘Canary in Bloom,’ and it describes Beulah’s growth experiences (Upadhyay and Dash 103). Thomas has a childhood friend called Lem, and he once challenged him to jump overboard and swim toward an Island. Lem responded and he eventually drowned, leaving Thomas to inherit his mandolin and live enjoying music. This depiction of Thomas through Dove’s work is personal and earnest. The poet does not care about civil rights matters but she is concerned with her grandfather’s grief and alienation from Lem. Therefore, Dove presents people’s lifelong struggles through Dayster, Thomas and Beulah, as well as The House Slave.
Part two of the play is presented from Beulah’s point of view. The poet reveals to her grandmother an exceptionally active thought. Although she grew up with an alcoholic father, her grandmother rises to a responsible and charming mother. Wright (12) states, “The experience of maternal ambivalence … provides a woman with a sense of her independent identity.” Beulah ends up being detached from her husband and her sentiments toward Thomas before he died revealed that they had amazing lives. Such a life portrays the experiences of the last generations of blacks before the enforcement of civil rights.
Furthermore, slavery also hurts Dove when field workers face physical torture from their masters. Her position did not subject her to the experiences that her counterparts lived with. The speaker says, “The whip curls across the backs of the laggards.” This comment implies that field slaves were caned whenever they were late in the garden. The workers had to scream as Dove states, “Sometimes my sister’s voice was mistaken among them” (Poetry International Archives). Dove was living in solitude because field enslavement detached her from her sister, whom the masters treated in an unpleasant manner. It was estranging to see them suffer because she thought they were at the same level and they deserved fair treatment.
Dove developed the theme of solitude and slavery through various stylistic devices. Imagery manifests itself from her statement that the field workers had whip curls across their backs. This device portrays the degree of violence and torture that faced gardeners. The reader also finds symbolism and similes that demonstrate Dove’s detachment from her real world. For example, “they spill like bees among the fat flowers” (Poetry International Archives, “The House Slave”). This note relates the struggles that slaves faced with the hard work that bees exert making honey. Moreover, it depicts a large number of bondservants in the field. The two stylistic devices show how Dove is separated from her people and how she is not toiling in the house as they do outside.
Similarly, people should participate in interesting and unexhausting activities but the woman in Daystar undertakes cumbersome responsibilities, separating her from her calling. Imagery has been used to portray this feeling as Dove writes, “She lugged a chair behind” (Poetry International Archives on Daystar). This sentiment means that the woman lacks the energy to lift her seat after working with exhausting tasks. It denies her the freedom of engaging in stimulating and exciting roles that she cannot access due to her mother. Dove also shows that this woman feels detached from her loved ones.
When the woman was in bed, Dove writes she “thought of the place that was hers.” As a homemaker, the woman should delight in the presence of her husband, and children but this one faces absolute emotional torture for missing her real lovers. Imagery is evident in this work when Dove states, “a doll slumped behind the door” (Poetry International Archives on Daystar). It portrays the homemaker’s present situation in comparison to a doll’s status. Dove writes, that she could “just be nothing,” implying that the woman wished she could rest in silence and observe the environment (Kelly 92). Essentially, she feels lifeless and less energetic that she would rather sit and not engage in exhausting duties.
Further, the stylistic device is evident in the picture the reader sees in the woman’s lost hope. Dove states that diapers were streaming in line. The stream of diapers represents the recurring tasks that the homemaker had to complete daily. Her motherhood seems a voluntary activity that isolates her from worldly desires. Her experiences are distinct from Beulah who finds comfort in the house. Wright (15) states, “Beulah’s domestic space becomes a refuge for her to exist outside.” Similarly, Dove writes, “As the field unfolds to whiteness, and they spill like bees among the fat flowers, I weep” (Poetry International Archives, “The House Slave”). It means Dove is emotionally tortured to see her loved ones undergoing painful experiences. The image is a ‘white field’ reveals the crops that blacks planted and they were denied equal rights with whites. Moreover, the reader can conclude that the beauty of a morning was only good for a White man, “unfolding to whiteness.” Using an “ivory toothpick” represents something complicated and expensive, demanding that people toil to get it (Kelly 91). Elephants suffer when the ivory is removed, and so do slaves who suffer to please their masters. Dove is concerned with the cruelty and she feels that it should end.
In summary, Dove developed her poems in a sequence of narratives that depict people’s experiences, feelings, and attitudes in a conservative manner. In Thomas and Beulah, she presents unique and gendered perspectives that reveal a static feeling. The stylistic devices such as rhyme used in the poem are captivating and they emphasize the experiences of her grandparents as they lived during the African-American history. From the discussion, it was evident that Dove portrayed gendered experiences in every facet of the poems from organization to thematic presentations. For instance, Dove insinuates in Daystar that mothers might not be feeling like the woman in Daystar due to inner turmoil but because of their experiences with husbands. Marriages might instill complicated thoughts and remind women of unachieved passions. The poem illustrates all tired and overworked women who feel unloved, disrespected, and unappreciated. Moreover, The House Slave shows that blacks are suffering from mistreatment related to White dominance. The narrator feels guilty for not being among the gardeners because she cherishes equality. The main stylistic devices used in the poems include imagery, symbolism, and irony.
Kelly, Joseph. The Seagull Book of Poems (4th ed.). W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Poetry International Archives. Daystar, 2016, Web.
Poetry International Archives. The house slave, 2016, Web.
Upadhyay, Kumar, P. and Dash, Ananya. Representation of the autobiographical self: Recritiquing Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, International Journal of Innovative Research and Advanced Studies (IJIRAS), vol. 4, no. 12, 2017, pp. 101-104.
Wright, LaVonna D. Breaking black boundaries: The poetry of Rita Dove. 2020. Georgia Southern University, Honors thesis.