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

Georgia Douglas Johnson, "An Autumn Love Cycle" (full text) (1928)

[This document is still in progress as of Feburary 2024,. -AS]

Georgia Douglas Johnson, An Autumn Love Cycle

This book is lovingly dedicated to Zona Gale whose appreciation, encouragement, and helopful criticism have so heartened me

Foreword by Alain Locke


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. 

I Closed My Shutters Fast Last Night

I closed my shutters fast last night,
Reluctantly and slow,
So pleading was the purple sky
With all the lights hung low;
I left my lagging heart outside 
Within the dark alone, 
I heard it singing through the gloom
A wordless, anguished tone.
Upon my sleepless couch I lay 
Until the tranquil morn
Came through the silver silences
To bring my heart forlorn,
Restoring it with calm caress
Unto its sheltered bower,
While whispering: “Await, wait
Your golden, perfect hour.”


Passing ever, early, late,
No fond footsteps seek my gate,
But down the winding road they wend
To some other journey’s end.

Yet,--I would not have them wait
Here within my guarded gate,
Certain footsteps I shall know,
And for them I listen low!

Oh Night of Love

Oh night of love, your rapt ecstatic hours
Were mine, the languor of their pale perfume
Pervades me, kisses in a fountain-fire,
Surround me,--fetter and consume.

Oh night of love, your groves of strange content
Project a thralldom over comind days;
Exalted, derelict, and blind I went
Unmindfully along Life’s misty ways. 


Believe me–when I say
That love like yours, at this belated hour,
Overwhelms me,--
Stills the fount of thought!
I move as one new-born–
And strange to swift transitions
As from my prison door
I gaze
Into a blinding sunlight!


Your voice keeps ringing down the day
   In accents soft and mild,
   With which you have beguiled
   And wooed me as a child.

Your presence bounds my every way
   And thrills me in its fold
   With phantom hands that hold
   Like cherished chains of gold. 


Within your pulsing day 
There must be little space
For visions of my face
To lure your thoughts away.

Yet, I would have it so,
To be alone the pain
That saddens love’s refrain.
Pray God you never know!


Were you a leper bathed in wounds
   And by the world denied,
I’d share your fatal exile
   As a privilege, with pride.

You are the very sun, the moon,
   The starlight of my soul,
The sounding motif of my heart 
   Its impetus and goal!


The days lie dark between our jeweled meetings
Like wintry burials.

My heart bows low before the cheerless hearth
Until your voice rings through the gloom
And bids me
And live!


Let’s say ‘Good-bye’
Nor wait Love’s latest breath
Poised now so lightly on the wing of Death,
While yet within our eye one fervent gleam 
Remains to hallow this, a passing dream:
Yes, yes ‘Good-bye,’
For it is best to part
While Love’s low light still burns
Within the heart!

Love's Miracle

So like a boundless, soundless sea
The miracle of love to me
With all the world a rosy dream
Sailing upon a silver stream,
While I, a fairy in mid-air,
Am dancing, dancing everywhere.

Hark! do you hear the thunder peal?
I care not what it would reveal,
Tomorrow will be yesterday
When I am shivering and gray:

I will not heed the prompter's ring
Let others answer, I shall sing
And dance the merrier--away!
I'll live and live and live--today!

A Paradox

I know you love me better cold
Strange as the pyramids of old
but I am frail, and spent and weak
With surging torrents that bespeak
A living fire.
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
Alas! you love me better cold
Like frozen pyramids of old

How My Heart Sinks

How my heart sinks when I behold the sad reflection of my face,
A wan and wistful wound, wiht o, such meagre grace;
How can you hold me dear withal and conjure charms withdrawn.
Or does the Autumn twilight hold a charm unknown to dawn?

Hold! Do not speak! some day perchance, I'll read the message dire
Within the ashes of the flame, the aftermath of fire,
Ere then perhaps I shall have found the highways of the soul
Where one may read uncrucified, the blood-words of the scroll.
Till then, uphold illusion's veil before my gaze the while
That I may gather strength to fuse from agony, a smile! 

To Time

Day by day the threads of white
Muliply, Oh! hour-glass!
How passing swift your bright sands pass,
Fain would I hold you,
Linger, bide
Until these surges shall subside,
That sweep me forward unto bliss,
Oh! charging sun, I bid you rest,
Break not your arrow in my breast!


Would I might mend the fabric of my youth
Which daily flaunts its tatters to my eyes, 
Would I might compromise awhile with truth
Until love's moon, now waxing, wanes and dies.

For I would go a further while with you
And draing this Cup of Joy so passing fair,
Which meets my parching lips like cooling dew
'Ere time has brush cold fingers through my hair.


I fear my power impotent
To hold you leal and full content,
Some hapless look or word perchance
Dispels the glamor of romance;
I tremble lest some stranger fair
Arrest you,--cause you to compare
The meagre charms which I possess
With some resplendent loveliness.

How far removed from Youth's command
The trembling sceptre in my hand,
As miserly within the glass
I mark Love's fleeting hours pass. 


Oh! for the veils of my far-away youth,
Shielding my heart from the blaze of the truth;
Why did I stray from their foldings and grow
Into the sadness that follows--to know.

Impotent atom with desolate gaze
Treading Life's treacherous, intricate maze--
Oh for the veils, for the vails of my youth
Shielding my heart from the blaze of the truth!


You came,
The tapestries of love
Were shining in the sun,
My wishes settled down content
About you as you stood. 
I looked into your cryptic eyes
And thought I understood;
But no,--
The splendor of your gaudy robe
Grew dimmer day by day,
I wondered,
Searched within my soul to seize the mystery.
The answer staggered me,
Like one at bay,
I gazed with open eyes of thought upon you,
God! 'twas true--
A mockery, a parody, 
Had come to me--in you!


You gave me your hand,
I held it to be
The last word, the dear word,
The soul's entity;
I cherished it, treasured it,
Only to find
I held but a gauntlet--
That I had been blind!


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