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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1482

First published: As “Glory! Halleluiah!” (eight of twelve poems) in Fine Clothes to the Jew, 1927

Edition(s) used: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Books, 1959

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry

Core issue(s): African Americans; church; Jesus Christ; racism; suffering

Overview

Near the end of a...

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First published: As “Glory! Halleluiah!” (eight of twelve poems) in Fine Clothes to the Jew, 1927

Edition(s) used: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Books, 1959

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry

Core issue(s): African Americans; church; Jesus Christ; racism; suffering

Overview

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!”

Christian Themes

In 1940, the Christian fundamentalist Aimee Semple McPherson mounted a protest in California against Langston Hughes, distributing copies of Hughes’s 1932 poem, “Goodbye, Christ.” That poem had offended many Christian readers because it seemed to dismiss Christ as being no longer relevant, displaced by Marxism, “a new guy with no religion at all.” In a letter of response, Hughes explained that many had misread “Goodbye, Christ”:

Then, as now, they failed to see the poem in connection with my other work, including many verses most sympathetic to the true Christian spirit for which I have always had great respect—such as that section of poems, “Feet of Jesus” in my book, The Dream Keeper.

While the “Feet of Jesus” poems are indeed sympathetic to the spirit of Christianity, they also must be read, like the controversial “Goodbye, Christ,” within the larger context of Hughes’s other work. Hughes celebrated African American expression in all its cultural diversity and ambiguity, and he was drawn as much to the rhythms of the streets and the clubs as he was to the songs and prayers of the church.

Hughes did not identify himself as a Christian. In a chapter called “Salvation” from his autobiography, The Big Sea: An Autobiography (1940), Hughes recalled a revival meeting where, as a youth, he had gone forward to be “saved”; instead, he later found himself crying because Jesus had not come to him and so he did not believe there was a Jesus.

There is a human cry for Jesus running throughout the “Feet of Jesus” poems—an aching for the mercy, pity, and deliverance that Jesus represents. Hughes honors the human expression of need in these poems, but there is no expectation of an answer; these are largely the cries of “Those who expect/ No love from above.” Even the preacher of “Sunday Morning Prophecy” who urges his listeners toward salvation, also begs them to give money, “That I who am thy shepherd/ Might live.” In the various voices throughout the poems, one hears the soulful yearning for transcendence—of being gathered and lifted, “clean an’ bright,” into a heavenly realm, of meeting the coming dawn and “the glory of God.”

Many of Hughes’s other poems refer to the Christ, whether disparagingly as in “A Christian Country,” or sympathetically as in “Ma Lord,” the daring “Christ in Alabama,” or “The Ballad of Mary’s Son.” One of Hughes’s best poems, “Song for a Dark Girl,” associates a “black young lover,” lynched on “a cross roads tree,” with Christ and concludes richly: “Love is a naked shadow/ On a gnarled and naked tree.”

Sources for Further Study

  • Culp, Mary Beth. “Religion in the Poetry of Langston Hughes.” Phylon 48 (1987): 240-245. Accessible through JSTOR, this article surveys Hughes’s religious themes with an emphasis on Hughes as African American folklorist in his use of Christ images, crucifixion imagery, and Christian themes.
  • De Santis, Christopher C., ed. Langston Hughes: A Documentary Volume. Vol. 315 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Columbia, S.C.: Thomson Gale, 2005. An extraordinarily rich reference work, filled with illustrations, photos, letters, facsimiles, and other archival treasures relating to the life and times of Langston Hughes, beautifully presented and explained.
  • Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. Reprint. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. Hughes’s autobiography contains a chapter, “Salvation,” which describes his loss of faith as a youth after a revival meeting.
  • Ostrom, Hans. A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Succinct entries on specific poems, persons, and topics by a leading Hughes scholar; meticulously researched and clearly annotated.
  • Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, 1988. The definitive biography, distinctive for its graceful writing and vigorous understanding of Hughes’s significance to American literary history and culture.
  • Sanders, Leslie Catherine. “I’ve Wrestled with Them All My Life: Langston Hughes’s Tambourines to Glory.” Black American Literature Forum 25 (Spring, 1991): 63-72. Accessible through JSTOR in a special issue devoted to “The Black Church and the Black Theatre.” Describes Hughes’s lifelong interest in black gospel music and the creation of his musical, Tambourines to Glory (pr., pb. 1963).
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