James Weldon Johnson

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James Weldon Johnson Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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James Weldon Johnson had many roles—lawyer, activist, politician, diplomat, journalist, songwriter, and anthologist—but he is perhaps best remembered for his writings, including his inspirational poetry. The lasting popularity and public interest in Johnson’s writings is demonstrated by the numerous reprints of his works.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Johnson wrote Lift Every Voice and Sing to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900; his brother John Rosamond Johnson set the poem to music. The rhyme scheme is aabccdeee. The popular composition is the voice of free African Americans expressing their hopes for the future of the United States. It served as the NAACP’s theme song and as the African American national hymn. Johnson’s elation each time he heard it is noted in Complete Poems.

Fifty Years, and Other Poems

Johnson’s first verse collection, Fifty Years, and Other Poems, compiled twenty years of writing. Johnson wrote the poem “Fifty Years” in Nicaragua in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The twenty-four-stanza poem, with a rhyme scheme of abab, originally was forty-one stanzas long. The New York Times published the poem on the fiftieth anniversary (1912) of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Many of the poems are about racial discrimination. “Color Sergeant” descrbies a man with “color black” who gives his life in warfare. Although “despised of men” for his color, the sergeant remains true “to his duty.” The poem reminds readers of the military contributions of African Americans. The five-stanza poem uses the rhyme scheme of abcb. The unrhymed “Brothers” is a graphic description of a mob’s burning an African American at the stake. The final words of the victim are “’Brothers in spirit, brothers in deed are we.’” The poem ends with the mob pondering what the victim meant by these words.

The last poems in the volume employ dialect, suggestive of the writings of Johnson’s friend Paul Laurence Dunbar. This writing is offensive to some readers and critics but pleasing to others. Two of the poems employing dialect—“Nobody’s Lookin’ but de Owl and de Moon: A Negro Serenade” and “You’s Sweet to Yo’ Mammy Jes de Same: Lullaby”—were lyrics taken from the songs written in New York by the Johnson brothers and Cole.

God’s Trombones

Johnson wrote the poetic sermons in God’s Trombones after having visited many churches. “The Creation,” written in 1920, was the first of the sermons; the remaining six were completed by 1926. Johnson conveys rhythm without strict rhyme schemes. He avoids the misspellings and mispronunciations that others often use to convey African American speech. Instead, he captures the beauty and the dignity of the sermons he had heard in order to convey the religious spirit of African Americans. He uses standard English and some dialect for effect; for example, Johnson compares God making a person from dust to a mammy bending over her baby.

Johnson duplicates some of the oratorical techniques that an accomplished speaker might use to involve his congregation. In “The Creation,” Johnson uses repetition, using the phrase “That’s good!” again and again. He employs hyperbole; for example, Johnson says valleys were produced by God’s footsteps. The poet uses alliteration: God “spat out the seven seas.” Johnson’s descriptions enable the reader to visualize scenes: lightning flashing when God bats his eyes, lakes cuddling in the hollows, and a rainbow curling around God’s shoulders.

Saint Peter Relates an Incident

The title of the collection Saint Peter Relates an Incident is taken from the poem “Saint Peter Relates an Incident of the Resurrection Day,” which describes the opening of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Judgment Day. A crowd...

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waits to see the unknown military hero who emerges; the watchers are astonished when they see that the occupant is an African American. Johnson wrote the poem in response to the unfair treatment that mothers of deceased black soldiers received on a nationally sponsored trip to Europe. As in his other works, he advocates empowerment, pride, self-assertion, communication, and cooperation among all people. The rhyme scheme of the lines in part 1 of the title poem isaabb. Part 4 has fourteen stanzas, and each verse has four lines with a rhyme scheme of aabb. No dialect is apparent. The stanzas in part 2, however, are irregular: One stanza has three lines, one has five lines, and the others have four lines. Parts 5 and 6 have verses with lines of no regular rhyme pattern and no set number of lines. This lack of structure is cited as a weakness by some critics. Interestingly, the soldier sings some lines from the spiritual “Deep River” as he climbs toward heaven. The poem concludes with a description of the emotion from heaven in response to the revelation of the identity of the unknown soldier; the emotion is a mixture of laughter and tears.

Johnson advanced pride in African Americans in his poems, including “O Black and Unknown Bards.” Johnson uses misspellings in some of the other poems in the collection, and some of these poems draw on songs and folklore, such as “Brer Rabbit, You’s de Cutes’ of ’Em All” and “Sence You Went Away.”

Complete Poems

Complete Poems includes an introduction, a chronology, and the collections God’s Trombones, Fifty Years, and Other Poems, and Saint Peter Relates an Incident. In the third part, “College Years, and Other Poems,” editor Sondra Kathryn Wilson includes some poems that had never before appeared in print. Most of the poems in this last section were written by Johnson while he was at Atlanta University, but some date from after the turn of the twentieth century. Some of Johnson’s poems from his college years imitate those of other poets. “Moods,” for example, is suggestive of “I Love You” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. His “Christmas Carol” reminds the reader of other familiar poems about the holiday season. Johnson’s “Ode to Florida” is similar to “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.

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