Claudia Tate: On Georgia Douglas Johnson's Poetry

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 another.

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 ethos.


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.


Title Claudia Tate: On Georgia Douglas Johnson's Poetry Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Claudia Tate Criticism Target Georgia Douglas Johnson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Selected Works of Georgia Douglas Johnson
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