On Georgia Douglas Johnson's Poetry
Eugenia W. Collier
In 1918, she published The Heart of a Woman, poems exploring themes especially meaningful to women. With this volume, Johnson became the first widely recognized African-American woman poet since Frances E. W. Harper. The Heart of a Woman is about love, longing, disillusionment, and loneliness. The poems reflect frustration with the strictures of women's prescribed roles. In 1922, she published a second volume, Bronze, which concerned racial themes.
In 1928, she published a volume of poems, An Autumn Love Cycle, which returned to her earlier explorations of feminine themes. This volume is considered her best because of its mature treatment of the theme of romantic love and because of its skillful use of form. Her much-anthologized "I Want to Die While You Love Me" is in this volume.
Johnson continued to write, but publication became increasingly difficult. In 1962, she published Share My World, poems containing the wisdom culled from a lifetime of experience. She remained active into her eighties, until she died suddenly of a stroke in 1966. Because her papers were not saved, much of her work was lost.
Georgia Douglas Johnson's poems are skillfully crafted lyrics cast in traditional forms. They are, for the most part, gentle and delicate, using soft consonants and long, low vowels. Their realm is emotion, often sadness and disappointment, but sometimes fulfillment, strength, and spiritual triumph. Yet Johnson herself was never otherworldly. She remained in the forefront of political and social events of her time. Her plays were moving portrayals of the tragic impact of racism upon African Americans. Frequent themes in both her poetry and drama are the alienation and dilemmas of the person of mixed blood and the goal of integration into the American mainstream.
From The Oxford Companion to Womens Writing in the United States. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Oxford University Press.
["The Heart of a Woman], the title poem of the volume is also the first poem in it, suggesting that it was intended to set a particular tone for the collection. Johnson depicts "the heart of a woman" as a roaming figure, alien to its environment, which finds its place about the "turrets and vales" of life; disappointed with exploration, it returns to a reclusive existence ("enters some alien cage") and "breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars." The heart of a woman, therefore, is presented as a pathetic creature unable to secure for itself a place in the world; it is attracted to withdrawing from that harsh, unnurturing environment.
"The Heart of a Woman" does coincide with the flights of imagination characteristic of the poems Johnson has composed. They abound with dreams; nature (its beauty and its changes); love or pain too acute for expression; wordless kisses; loneliness, seclusion, and isolation; the transitoriness of existence; lack of fulfillment; and brief moments of bliss.
From The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 51: Afro-American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Trudier Harris. Copyright © 1987 by the Gale Group.
Gloria T. Hull
The Heart of a Woman . . . does "lift the veil" from some of "woman's" less smiling faces. Clearly, she is aware of the oppressiveness and pain of the traditional female lot. Her title poem, which opens the volume, begins the revelations with its metaphor of a woman's heart as a bird that wings "forth with the dawn" over "life's turrets and vales," then
... falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
The use of "alien cage" and "sheltering bars" is especially notable here. She makes a similar point in "Smothered Fires," where "a woman with a burning flame" keeps it covered through the years, suppressing the baleful light that would perforce arise, and in "When I Am Dead," whose speaker, having "longed for light and fragrance" and yet dwelt "beneath willows," eschews a hypocritical "blooming legacy" on her funeral bier.
She explicitly crystallizes these moods in an iambic tetrameter quatrain entitled "Foredoom":
Her life was dwarfed, and wed to blight,
Her very days were shades of night,
Her every dream was born entombed,
Her soul, a bud,--that never bloomed.
Here, and in similar poems, one might play it safe and read "objectively." However, the import and poignancy of the works are intensified if they are viewed as masked autobiographical utterances of the author herself. Often--in fact, too often for chance--there are references to dead hopes and dreams and a living, coupled aloneness ("Omega," "Despair," "Illusions," "My Little Dreams," etc.). Confronted thus, it is difficult not to recall her childhood ambitions and to wonder what other visionary yearnings she may have been forced to renounce, especially when she uses musical imagery, as in this first half of "Dead Leaves":
The breaking dead leaves 'neath my feet
A plaintive melody repeat,
Recalling shattered hopes that lie
As relics of a bygone sky.
Many of these poems are quietly seditious. What is missing from them, however, is a spirit of something other than articulate helplessness.
Equally as striking are the glimpses GDJ gives of her mystical, cosmic spirituality--the limitlessness of the soul ("Elevation"), reincarnation ("Impelled"), and the total connectedness and unity of all ("Modulations").
[. . . .]
[A] second volume entitled Bronze: A Book of Verse, rolled off the presses of the B. J. Brimmer Company, Boston, in 1922. The key to critiquing Bronze is a biographical statement that GDJ herself made in 1941 to Arna Bontemps:
My first book was the Heart of A Woman. It was not at all race conscious. Then some one said--she has no feeling for the race. So I wrote Bronze--it is entirely racial and one section deals entirely with motherhood--that motherhood that has as its basic note--black children born to the world's displeasure.
Consequently, much of Bronze--which is her weakest book--reads like obligatory race poetry.
In Bronze, GDJ assumes the role of spokesperson for a downtrodden but rising black people. She even prefaces her writing with an "Author's Note": "This book is the child of a bitter earth-wound. I sit on the earth and sing--sing out, and of, my sorrow. Yet, fully conscious of the potent agencies that silently work in their healing ministries, I know that God's sun shall one day shine upon a perfected and unhampered people." In a manner that this note presages, the ensuing poems tend toward a precious self-consciousness and poetic obliquity. In fact, the dominant image for the entire volume is that of the "mantle," meaning the cloak of "darkness" surrounding the black race: "Sonnet to the Mantled," "The mother soothes her mantled child," and "Cheering the mantled on the thorn-set way"--for example. However, despite its indirectness and conciliatory tone, Bronze belongs to the early spate of 1920s black literature that spoke more vociferously of black determination to overturn racial prejudice. Considering GDJ's makeup and the prevailing notion of appropriate womanly behavior, it is difficult to imagine her handling the theme in any other way. Grimké wrote more directly of racial concerns, while Dunbar-Nelson was also reticent in her poetry and short stories but bold in her other work.
CDJ apportions the sixty-five poems of Bronze into nine separate sections--"Exhortation," "Supplication," "Shadow," "Motherhood," "Prescience," "Exaltation," "Martial," "Random," and "Appreciations." This establishes a general movement from despair and entreaty to confident determination. The final division consists of poems and sonnets of praise to martyrs in general and to specific individuals such as John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, W. E. B. DuBois, Emilie Bigelow Hapgood (philanthropist), Mary Church Terrell, May Howard Jackson (sculptor), and so on. When not fulsome, they are stately tributes, with some of the concluding couplets being particularly graceful:
O Alleghanies, fold him to your breast
Until the judgment! Sentinel his rest!
It is also interesting that here GDJ treats motherhood. (Only two of her poems in Heart touched on children.) In "The Mother," there occurs what is possibly the most dramatic image in the book: "Her heart is sandaling his feet."
Throughout, GDJ works in a variety of forms (many more than before)--sonnets both Shakespearean and Italian, iambic heptameter lines, her usual quatrains, and even a few free-verse poems. One work, "Hegira," manifests a notable attempt at technical innovation. The initial stanza questions black people about their northern migration; the remainder answer the query in detailed and passionate language:
I have toiled in your cornfields, and parched in the sun,
I have bowed 'neath your load of care,
I have patiently garnered your bright golden grain, in
season of storm and fair,
My sons, deftly sapped of the brawn-hood of man, self-
rejected and impotent stand,
My daughters, unhaloed, unhonored, undone, feed the
lust of a dominant land.
Using these techniques, she is able to write a number of effective, sometimes strong, verses--"Calling Dreams," "Prejudice," "Laocoon," "Little Son," "Hope."
Focusing in on other poems also turns up points of interest. There is "Aliens," a neo-treatment of the tragic mulatto, who is called in the poem "the fretted fabric of a dual dynasty."
Excerpted from a much longer chapter in Color, Sex, & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by Gloria T. Hull.
The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems has been label by anthologists and scholars alike as "a book of tidy lyrics" that voices "the love-longing of a feminine sensibility" (Hull, 157). However, beneath Johnson's ostensible concern with the "intensely feminine" "secrets of a woman's nature" (Braithwaite, vii and ix) is her persistent depiction of a soaring human imagination, her own. Despite disappointment and an unrelenting awareness of mortality, despite the confinement of convention, Johnson records moments of intense introspection and sensuality in lyrics characterized by their evanescence. As Gloria Hull has also noted, the dreams, dead hopes, sympathy, and pain depicted in this and the other collections of Johnson's verse are not simply lyrical monuments dedicated to universal feelings but "masked autobiographical utterances of the author herself" about unfulfilled desire (158).
Heart begins with Johnson's most anthologized poem"The Heart of a Woman": . . . If one fails to heed the figuration of this woman's heart, as did the male critics of the Renaissance, this heart is presumed to be defined by feminine pathos. A close reading of this poem, however, reveals that Johnson portrays this female heart not as pulsating corporeality, seeking physical love, but as the classic incarnation of the unfettered imaginationthe soaring birdfound in Romantic poems like Wordsworth's "To a Skylark." Hence, by identifying this heart with a bird, "soft winging, so restlessly on," Johnson associates a woman's heart with the traditional image of the poetic imagination, probably with the hope that feminine heart and poetic imagination would appear not simply as complements but as synecdoches for one another.
By caging this bird in the last stanza, Johnson clearly invokes the caged bird of Paul Laurence Dunbar's "Sympathy." While Dunbar's birdlike poetic spirit "beats his bars and would be free," Johnson's spirit, burdened with sentiment and obligation, "tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars" and surrenders to "the sheltering bars." Dunbar's influence on her writing is evident, but no one seems to have noticed the allusion, no doubt because Dunbar was depicting the limitations of race, while Johnson addressed gender confinement. And yet both of them would agree that "the world was an affair of masks."
Johnson's public persona would only allow the feminist in her to peek out from behind the veil of the lady. She seems only to have nurtured her feminist critique in her unpublished works and in her pseudonymously and posthumously published stories. What becomes immediately apparent on examining Johnson's life is that she did not make her complicated social and sexual attitudes the explicit focus of her writing. Neither did she allow her extensive circle of gay, lesbian, and bisexual black artists to inform her writing. She seems to have possessed what late-twentieth-century scholarship defines as a feminist sensibility and sensuality. She refused to subscribe to a patriarchal sexuality that designated women as male property and that condemned homoeroticism as immoral, although she reined in these transgressive attitudes in her writing within a Victorian ethos.
Johnson's preoccupation with the emotional tenor of the female domain suggests that she used The Heart of a Woman and her projection of feminine comportment to solicit the appellation and role of "the lady poet" for herself in the unfolding drama of the New Negro Renaissance. Because she laid claim to the feminine domain of poetic expression from the vantage point of the lyrical wife and mother, and because she wrote more poetry than her black female contemporariesAnne Spencer, Jessie Fauset, Helene Johnson, and Alice Dunbar-NelsonJohnson gained recognition as the premier woman poet of the New Negro Renaissance. Unfortunately, this self-selected domain offered her, little opportunity to develop her verse outside its parameters. Johnson's emphatically self-determined feminine voice, subject matter, and demeanor also invited early anthologists to regard her work as feminine effusion and to segregate the work of other women writers similarly. By appropriating "the heart of a woman" as the domain of female poetic expression, Johnson handed anthologists a gendered category that reified the segregation of male and female writers in anthologies as distinctive gendered voices throughout most of the twentieth century.
from The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson. G. K. Hall & Co., 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Claudia Tate
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