On Georgia Douglas Johnson

’s Poetry Essay, Research Paper

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 Women’s Writing in the United States. Ed.

Cathy N. Davidson, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Copyright ? 1995 by

Oxford University Press.

Winona Fletcher

["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


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


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


[. . . .]

[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. Grimk? wrote more directly of racial concerns, while

Dunbar-Nelson was also reticent in her poetry and short stories but bold in her other


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.

Claudia Tate

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 imagination—the soaring bird—found 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


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



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 contemporaries—Anne Spencer, Jessie Fauset, Helene

Johnson, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson—Johnson 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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