Lift Every Voice and Sing

by James Weldon Johnson

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Last Updated on December 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 792

James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is often sung rather than read, as the title and first line suggest it should be. It was intended as a song from the first, written for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900 with music by the poet’s brother, the composer John Rosamond Johnson.

The poem is divided into three stanzas, each consisting of ten lines. In print, however, the penultimate line is usually broken into two at the caesura in the second stanza, and the same is done to both the penultimate and final lines in the third stanza. This means that the poem’s three stanzas, while containing the same number of feet and the same metrical structure, sometimes appear on the page as a group ascending from ten to eleven to twelve lines. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is aabccbddee. The d rhyme is always feminine, and there is an internal rhyme in the penultimate line, so the final couplet (ee) is laid out as eee in the second stanza and eefe in the third.

Since the poem is also a song, the meter is of primary importance. The first two lines are trochaic trimeter, as in “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” followed by a line of iambic pentameter, and this pattern is repeated in lines four to six. The trochees give an optimistic rising intonation, appropriate to the subject matter of freedom, hope, and progress. The longer iambic lines add a certain ponderous majesty. This is augmented by the exceptionally long seventh and eighth lines, each of which is fourteen syllables. The trimeter rhythm is resumed in the ninth line, split into two trimeters by the internal rhyme and strong caesura. The final line returns to pentameter. These rhythms, in particular the alternation of short and long lines, all with clearly defined metrical patterns, are frequent features of hymns, adding to the strong religious tone of the poem. The opening couplet recalls the first line of George Herbert’s poem and hymn “Antiphon (I),” which reads,

Let all the world in ev'ry corner sing.

The diction and imagery of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” are also reminiscent of the hymnal, as is the frequent use of parallelism to emphasize a point. The poem begins with an exhortation to make a joyful noise that rings throughout heaven and earth. The theme, however, is not only joy but also “Liberty,” in honor of the great emancipator (that is, Lincoln). The vast scope of the joyful sound is emphasized by the references to “earth and heaven,” the skies and the sea, making the sound seem to fill the world and become a force of nature itself. The long seventh and eighth lines employ grammatical parallelism to juxtapose and contrast the “dark past” with the present. The continuity of hopeful present into bright future is emphasized by the image of marching on while facing the rising sun.

The second stanza begins with harsh images of the past, biblical depictions of the stony road and the “chastening rod” of slavery. The hope of which the first stanza spoke so triumphantly used to die unborn in those dark days, yet the poet says we have come to the hopeful present “for which our fathers sighed” through perseverance: the onomatopoeic “steady beat” of “weary feet” on the long, hard road to freedom. The poem, like the emancipated people, comes through tears and blood in this stanza, with traumatic imagery emphasizing past struggle. The stanza, however, ends on the same optimistic note as its predecessor, with the contrasting image of “the white gleam of our bright star.”

The final stanza intensifies the identification of the poem with a hymn by invoking God at the beginning of the first two lines. It is God, not Lincoln, who led his people “into the light,” and the religious atmosphere is furthered by an actual prayer in the sixth line:

Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

The poem ends with an exhortation to God to keep his people faithful and true to him. The grammatical parallelism, which is a feature of the long seventh and eighth lines in all three stanzas, here begins with “Lest.” Even in 1900, this was an archaic formulation, and its use stresses the timeless nature of the prayer. The image of God’s people shadowed beneath his hand in the ninth line of the final stanza recalls 1 Peter 5:6 in the Bible:

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time . . .

Finally, people’s twofold duty—to both God and country—is given emphasis by the parallelism of the poem’s final two lines:

True to our God,
True to our native land.

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