African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Alain Locke, Foreword to Georgia Douglas Johnson, "An Autumn Love Cycle" (1928)


In the title of her first volume, The Heart of a Woman, Georgia Douglas Johnson chose with singular felicity, indeed with the felicity of instinct, her special domain in art. And as she proceeds with maturing power and courage of expression in this third volume, it becomes all the more apparent that the task which she has set herself is the documenting of the feminine heart. Any poetic expression of life from this point of view that achieves a genuine authenticity and sincerity of emotion is as welcome as it is rare. For the emotions of woman, time-old though they be and hackneyed over as in a sense they really are, are still but half expressed. They have yet to be carried beyond the platitudes and the sentimentalizations of a man-made tradition.

Yet in the wholesome stripping off of mediaeval brocades and the laces of classic conceits, it has often occurred to us to question whether the imposition of futurist patterns and the cubist cut of the current intellectual modes has given us any more vital or adequate a revelation of the flesh and blood figure of the "eternal feminine."

"Clothes are but clothes," as Carlyle would say: modern feminist realism has but overlaid the vitally human with another convention, and interposed another cloak. How long shall we make a sphinx of woman, who herself now yearns to throw off along with the mystery, the psychological vestments of disguise. Our author puts it pointedly in "Paradox,"-

Alas! you love me better cold
Strange as the pyramids of old
Responselessly . . .
So, like a veil, my poor disguise Is draped to save me from your eyes
Deep challenges.
Fain would I fling this robe aside And from you, in your bosom hide Eternally.

Voicing this yearning of woman for candid self-expression, Mrs. Johnson invades the province where convention has been most tyrannous and inveterate,--the experience of love. And here she succeeds where others more doctrinally feminist than she have failed; for they in over-sophistication, in terror of platitudes and the commonplace, have stressed the bizarre, the exceptional, in one way or another have over-intellectualized their message nad overleapt the common elemental experience they would nevertheless express. Mrs. Johnson, on the contrary, in a simple declarative style, engages with an ingenuous declarative style, engages with ingenuous directness the moods and emotions of her themes. 

Through you I entered Heaven and Hell 
Knew rapture and despair.

Here is the requisite touch, certainly for the experiences of the heart. Greater sophistication would spoil the message. Fortunately, to the gift on a lyric style, delicate in touch, rhapsodic in [t]one, authentic in timbre, there has been added a temperamental endowment of ardent sincerity of emotion, ingenuous candor of expression, and, happies of all for the particular task, a naive and unsophisticated spirit. 

By way of a substantive message, Mrs. Johnson’s philosophy of life is simple, unpretentious, but wholesome and spiritually invigorating. On the one hand, she belongs with those who, under the leadership of Sara Teasdale, have been rediscovering the Sapphic cult of love as the ecstasy of life, that cult of enthusiasm which leaps over the dilemma of optimism and pessimism, and accepting the paradoxes, pulses in the immediacies of life and rejoices openly in th glory of experience. In a deeper and somewhat more individual message, upon which she only verges, and which we believe will later be her most mature and original contribution, Mrs. Johnson probes under the experiences of love to the underlying forces of natural instinct which so fatalistically control our lives. [Especially is this evident in her suggestion of the tragic poignancy of Motherhood, where the consummation of love seems also the expiation of passion, and where, between the antagonisms of the dual role of Mother and Lover, we may suspect the real dilemma of womanhood to life.]

Whatever the philosophical yield, however, we are grateful for the prospect of such lyricism. Seeking a pure lyric gold, Mrs. Johnson has gone straight to the mine of the heart. She has dug patiently in the veins of her own subjective experience. What she has gleaned has been treasured for the joy of the search and for its own intrinsic worth, and not exploited for the values of show and applause. Above all, her material has been expressed with a candor that shows that she brings to the poetic field what it lacks most,-- the gift of the elemental touch. Few will deny that, with all its other excellences, the poetry of the generation needs just this touch o make it more vitally human and more spontaneously effective. 

Washington, D.C. 

This page has paths: