Gloria T. Hull: On Georgia Douglas Johnson's Poetry

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 "Foredoom":

 

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 Leaves":

 

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 ("Modulations").

[. . . .]

[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. Grimké wrote more directly of racial concerns, while Dunbar-Nelson was also reticent in her poetry and short stories but bold in her other work.

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."

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Title Gloria T. Hull: On Georgia Douglas Johnson's Poetry Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Gloria T. Hull Criticism Target Georgia Douglas Johnson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Color, Sex, & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance
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