The Poet as a Vehicle for Social Justice

Poets sometimes attempt to present a social issue through the voice of a speaker lamenting the shortcomings of humanity. Melvin B. Tolson, William Shakespeare, and George Moses Horton each speak of contemporary dilemmas concerning justice and vengeance. The reader obtains special insight into the individual as well as the collective public in regards to this issue.

Melvin B. Tolson’s “An Ex-Judge at the Bar,” presents an ex-judge who seems to have abandoned the principles of justice. In the poem’s first quatrain, the speaker addresses a bartender, saying “Now let us put our heads together: one/ Is half enough for malice, sense, or fun” (lines 3-4). The word “malice” seems to stand out from the words “sense” and “fun;” malice is a brutal emotion geared towards hatred, while “sense” denotes rationale and “fun” a certain playfulness. The reader wonders as to why this negative word belongs alongside words representing positive feelings. In the second quatrain, the speaker tells of how the law “rips with fang and claw (line 6). There is a sense that the standard of justice is ruthless and unforgiving. Lines 7-8 say “When Pilate washed his hands, that neat event/ Set for us judges a Caesarean precedent.” The word “precedent” is a term often used to refer as to how legal proceedings are executed in the court of law. “Pilate” refers to the Roman governor, who, under the rule of Emperor Julius Caesar, had Jesus Christ sent to His death on the cross. Believing the Jews to be the ultimate prosecutors of Christ (who was innocent), Pilate attempts to assuage his guilty conscience by washing his hands of the matter. Yet in reality, the governor remains guilty. The speaker apparently compares present day justices with this example of legal corruption. Justice transforms into a woman persona accusing the speaker: “To gain the judge’s seat, you twined the noose/ That swung the Negro higher than a goose” (lines 23-24). The speaker now reveals his own sense of guilt and the reason why he is no longer a judge; he is responsible for unlawfully accusing African Americans of crime and having them prosecuted. Justice is no longer served in the speaker’s life, and he contributes to the problem. Justice acts “like a maniac on a broken phonograph” (line 30). The poet wants the reader to see the injustices blacks suffer at the hands of society, from a system that no longer functions the way it should. Like Langston Hughes, Tolson demonstrates the ability to articulate racial issues and strivings for a true love of black people” (Alexander).  He wants to raise awareness that blacks are in need of social justice and that the playing field is not yet equal for them.

Like most Elizabethan poets, Shakespeare attempts to render the inner workings of the mind, exploring the psychology of perception (The Poetry Foundation). Shakespeare’s poem “Sonnet CXXXIII: Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan,” is a sonnet; the sonnet form consists of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter and two parts called a proposition and a resolution (Richardson 1). The speaker of the poem blames another for the torment that he and another suffer: “Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan/ For that deep wound it gives my friend and me” (lines 1-2). The speaker is cursing the control the addressee has over him and his friend by unjustly abusing them. But the poem’s resolution offers a stunning twist for the reader: the speaker and the addressee are one in the same. He is the one torturing him and his friend. The last two lines say: “for I, being pent in thee/ Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.” The word “heart” is repeated often in the poem as the internal seat of affections, so it may not be much of a surprise that Shakespeare gives the reader a close up of the inner workings of the individual. Instead of broadly condemning society at large for injustice, Shakespeare gives the reader a view of a person who abuses another and what affect that has on him. It could even be considered a type of confessional poem, one that tells of a speaker’s secrets. The speaker apparently suffers under his thirst for unlawful dominance since his heart is wounded by his own tortures.

George Moses Horton’s poem, “Weep,” tells of a man lamenting the shortcomings of society. As for form, it is an elegy, which is a poem dedicated to mourning the death of an individual or a group of people. The difference between an individual elegy and a public mourning is that they turn away from the memorialization of personhood to exhort the reader to do something besides reflect on the brevity and existential scandal of death (Hacker 1). In this case, the speaker mourns for a country that has not managed to do so; they have failed to correct injustice and now they suffer the consequences. The death of so many soldiers has left the speaker in a state of perpetual grief. They fell from “the hatchet of their pride/ Then like the serpent bit themselves and died” (lines 15-16). The “serpent” alludes to a symbol for Satan in the Garden of Eden (as told in the biblical book of Genesis). It is also a symbol of lies and deception, falsehoods that veer people away from truth and the way things should be. The last six lines explain the core reason behind the war: financial troubles. The speaker’s society attempts to use unlawful money to regulate the country, much to the country’s expense: “Their foundless notes replete with shame to all/ In quest of profit never to be won/ Then sadly fallen and forever down” (lines 23, 25 and 26). The bank notes are worthless in that they do not provide sound, actual money for the nation’s citizens. Because of this, people must deal with money that will fail them in their pursuit of false aims and goals. This instance illustrates how society must work together to achieve honest ends and social justice. Otherwise, the results will return to haunt its members.

Alexander, Elizabeth. “The Black Poet as Canon-Maker: Langston Hughes and the Road to the New Negro Poets. The Black Interior. Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. 2004.

Hacker, Marilyn. “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” The Poetry Foundation. Chicago, IL 12 Sept. 2006.

Richardson, Rachel. “Learning the Sonnet.” The Poetry Foundation. Chicago, IL. 29 Aug. 2013.

Unknown. “William Shakespeare.” The Poetry Foundation. Chicago, IL. 1 Nov. 2013.

Sonnet CXXXIII: Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan


Beshrew that heart that makes my heart to groan

For that deep wound it gives my friend and me:

Is’t not enough to torture me alone,

But slave to slavery my sweet’st friend must be?

Me from myself thy cruel eye hath taken,

And my next self thou harder hast engrossed;

Of him, myself, and thee I am forsaken,

A torment thrice threefold thus to be crossed.

Prison my heart in thy steel bosom’s ward,

But then my friend’s heart let my poor heart bail;

Whoe’er keeps me, let my heart be his guard:

Thou canst not then use rigour in my jail.

And yet thou wilt; for I, being pent in thee,

Perforce am thine, and all that is in me.

An Ex-Judge at the Bar


Bartender, make it straight and make it two—

One for the you in me and the me in you.

Now let us put our heads together: one

Is half enough for malice, sense, or fun.

I know, Bartender, yes, I know when the Law

Should wag its tail or rip with fang and claw.

When Pilate washed his hands, that neat event

Set for us judges a Caesarean precedent.

What I shall tell you now, as man is man,

You’ll find in neither Bible nor Koran.

It happened after my return from France

At the bar in Tony’s Lady of Romance.

We boys drank pros and cons, sang Dixie; and then,

The bar a Sahara, we pledged to meet again.

But lo, on the bar there stood in naked scorn

The Goddess Justice, like September Morn.

Who blindfolds Justice on the courthouse roof

While the lawyers weave the sleight-of-hand of proof?

I listened, Bartender, with my heart and head,

As the Goddess Justice unbandaged her eyes and said:

“To make the world safe for Democracy,

You lost a leg in Flanders fields—oui, oui?

To gain the judge’s seat, you twined the noose

That swung the Negro higher than a goose.”

Bartender, who has dotted every i?

Crossed every t? Put legs on every y?

Therefore, I challenged her: “Lay on, Macduff,

And damned be him who first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’”

The boys guffawed, and Justice began to laugh

Like a maniac on a broken phonograph.

Bartender, make it straight and make it three—

One for the Negro . . . one for you and me.



Weep for the country in its present state,

And of the gloom which still the future waits;

The proud confederate eagle heard the sound,

And with her flight fell prostrate to the ground!

Weep for the loss the country has sustained,

By which her now dependent is in jail;

The grief of him who now the war survived,

The conscript husbands and the weeping wives!

Weep for the seas of blood the battle cost,

And souls that ever hope forever lost!

The ravage of the field with no recruit,

Trees by the vengeance blasted to the root!

Weep for the downfall o’er your heads and chief,

Who sunk without a medium of relief;

Who fell beneath the hatchet of their pride,

Then like the serpent bit themselves and died!

Weep for the downfall of your president,

Who far too late his folly must repent;

Who like the dragon did all heaven assail,

And dragged his friends to limbo with his tail!

Weep o’er peculiar swelling coffers void,

Our treasures left, and all their banks destroyed;

Their foundless notes replete with shame to all,

Expecting every day their final fall,

In quest of profit never to be won,

Then sadly fallen and forever down!