Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
Near the end of a distinguished career, Langston Hughes prepared his Selected Poems of Langston Hughes for publication, arranging them topically rather than chronologically. “Feet of Jesus” is the second set of poems in that book, a cluster of a dozen short poems representing various voices and expressions from the African American church. Other thematic groups in the collection include “Shadow of the Blues,” “Sea and Land,” and “Lament Over Love.”
Most of the “Feet of Jesus” poems had been published early in Hughes’s career. In fact, all but four of the twelve had been grouped previously as “Glory! Halleluiah!” in Hughes’s second volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew. In another volume of poems specifically intended for children, The Dream Keeper, and Other Poems (1932), Hughes created a section, “Feet o’ Jesus,” which included several of these same poems.
In Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, the first poem in the “Feet of Jesus” section is called “Feet o’ Jesus,” an eight-line lyric that was later set to music. The second poem is a nine-line “Prayer” asking, “Which way to go?” and “Which sin to bear?” Its tone communicates more resignation than expectation of answers. The third poem is a three-line “Shout,” typical of a shout that might be heard in African American worship. The fourth poem is “Fire,” expressing the lament of one who feels that, as a consequence of much sinning, “Fire gonna burn ma soul!”
“Sunday Morning Prophecy,” the fifth and longest of the twelve, was first published in The New Yorker (June 20, 1942). This poem begins with an epigraph: “An old Negro minister concludes his sermon in his loudest voice, having previously pointed out the sins of this world.” The lines that follow capture the cadences of a preacher’s fervent rhetoric, projecting images of the end of time, the cries of the lost, “Save me, Lord!” and the Lord’s refusal, because: “In the days of your greatness/ I did not hear your voice!” The preacher ends with a joint plea to “be saved” and to “give freely/ In the collection basket.”
“Sinner,” the sixth poem, is a five-line prayer for mercy. “Litany,” the seventh poem, alternatively titled “Prayer” or “Big City Prayer” in other publications, is a twelve-line petition to “gather up” all the sick, the depraved, the desperate and tired, “in the arms of your pity” and “in the arms of your love.” Eighth is “Angels Wings,” with its arrangement of fourteen lines somewhat resembling the typography of George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” and illustrating a visual and verbal contrast: The lines about angels’ wings, “white as snow,” appear layered and airy on the page, in contrast to the blocked lines:
But I drug ma wingsIn the dirty mire.O, I drug my wingsAll through the fire.
The ninth poem, “Judgment Day,” jubilantly sings of being in heaven with Jesus. “Prayer Meeting,” the tenth poem, depicts an old woman crooning in the amen-corner: “Glory! Hallelujah!/ The dawn’s a-comin’!”
“Spirituals,” the eleventh poem, is clearly the most intricate of the twelve, for it fuses images from the natural world with a memory of a mother’s singing to show the inherent strength of spirituals. Rocks, roots, and mountains, images with which the poem begins, are things “strong to put my hands on.” So, too, the poet asserts, “Song is a strong thing”; and the song he recalls his mother singing was “Gonna ride in my chariot some day!” Placed centrally in the poem, this line from the spiritual acquires particular significance through the solid images surrounding it.
The branches riseFrom the firm roots of trees.The mountains riseFrom the solid lap of earth.The waves riseFrom the dead weight of sea.
So too, the structure of the poem implies, this singing, this spiritual yearning to “ride in my chariot someday,” rises from “something strong.” Through the sustained image of rising, one can see the loveliness and strength Hughes perceived in the singing of spirituals, even though he did not share the religious fervor that drove them.
“Tambourines,” the final poem, is a concluding “gospel shout”: “Life is short/ But God is long!” Hughes repeats the lines, “Tambourines/ To glory!” which was also the title of a musical play and subsequent novel Hughes composed, neither of which proved very successful. Nevertheless, this “shout” provides a sense of completion to a group of poems that begins in sorrow “at the feet o’ Jesus,” asking for mercy to “come driftin’ down,” and ends in a triumphant shout “To glory!”
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