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Rennaisance Man

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a man who did so many things that it would take an article as long as a Dostoyevski novel to truely do him justice. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, and initially home schooled by his mother, he went on to become many things - an author, poet, teacher, editor, lawyer, journalist, songwriter, literary critic, politician, university professor, diplomat, civil rights activist and a noted figure in the Harlem rennaisance. Somewhere in there he wrote sixteen volumes of poetry and compiled anthologies of African-American poetry and folklore.

After serving on Teddy Roosevelt's presidential campaign, he was US Consul to Venezuela, and then Nicaragua. He spent ten years as head of the NAACP where he initiated non-violent demonstrations that would be echoed decades lated under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1920 he led a delegation to Haiti, then under U.S. occupation, and emphasized the need for economic and social development, issues that persist tot the present day. During the 1920's he was one of the drivers behind the Harlem Rennaisance, working to get young black witers and musicians visibility and publishing opportunities.

The poems added to Poets Corner, http://theotherpages.org/poems/poem-ij.html#jwjohnson are from his 1917 volume Fifty Years and Other Poems, and cover a wide range of subjects in clear, elegant voice. A sampling:

 

Sunset in the Tropics

 


from Down by the Carib Sea

A SILVER flash from the sinking sun,
Then a shot of crimson across the sky
That, bursting, lets a thousand colors fly
And riot among the clouds; they run,
Deepening in purple, flaming in gold,
Changing, and opening fold after fold,
Then fading through all of the tints of the rose into gray,
Till, taking quick fright at the coming night,
They rush out down the west,
In hurried quest
Of the fleeing day.

Now above where the tardiest color flares a moment yet,
One point of light, now two, now three are set
To form the starry stairs,--
And, in her fire-fly crown,
Queen Night, on velvet slippered feet, comes softly down.

 

Sonnet

 


From the Spanish of Placido

ENOUGH of love! Let break its every hold!
Ended my youthful folly! for I know
That, like the dazzling, glister-shedding snow,
Celia, thou art beautiful, but cold.
I do not find in thee that warmth which glows,
Which, all these dreary days, my heart has sought,
That warmth without which love is lifeless, naught
More than a painted fruit, a waxen rose.

Such love as thine, scarce can it bear love's name,
Deaf to the pleading notes of his sweet lyre,
A frank, impulsive heart I wish to claim,
A heart that blindly follows its desire.
I wish to embrace a woman full of flame,
I want to kiss a woman made of fire.

 

Before a Painting

 



I KNEW not who had wrought with skill so fine
What I beheld; nor by what laws of art
He had created life and love and heart
On canvas, from mere color, curve and line.
Silent I stood and made no move or sign;
Not with the crowd, but reverently apart;
Nor felt the power my rooted limbs to start,
But mutely gazed upon that face divine.

And over me the sense of beauty fell,
As music over a raptured listener to
The deep-voiced organ breathing out a hymn;
Or as on one who kneels, his beads to tell,
There falls the aureate glory filtered through
The windows in some old cathedral dim.

 

Father, Father Abraham

 


On the Anniversary of Lincoln's Birth

FATHER, Father Abraham,
To-day look on us from above;
On us, the offspring of thy faith,
The children of thy Christ-like love.

For that which we have humbly wrought,
Give us to-day thy kindly smile;
Wherein we've failed or fallen short,
Bear with us, Father, yet awhile.

Father, Father Abraham,
To-day we lift our hearts to thee,
Filled with the thought of what great price
Was paid, that we might ransomed be.

To-day we consecrate ourselves
Anew in hand and heart and brain,
To send this judgment down the years:
The ransom was not paid in vain.

 


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