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

Georgia Douglas Johnson, "The Heart of a Woman" (Full Text) (1918)

The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems

Georgia Douglas Johnson

With an Introduction by
William Stanley Braithwaite

The Cornhill Company


Introduction by William Stanley Braithwaite
The Heart of a Woman
The Dreams of the Dreamer
Dead Leaves
Pages from Life
In Quest
Smothered Fires
Tears and Kisses
The Measure
What Need Have I For Memory?
When I Am Dead
Whene'er I Lift My Eyes to Bliss


The poems in this book are intensely feminine and for me this means more than anything else that they are deeply human. We are yet scarcely aware, in spite of our boasted twentieth-century progress, of what lies deeply hidden, of mystery and passion, of domestic love and joy and sorrow, of romantic  visions and practical ambitions, in the heart  of a woman. The emancipation of woman is  yet to be wholly accomplished; though  woman has stamped her image on every age  of the world's history, and in the heart of  almost every man since time began, it is only  a little over half of a century since she has  either spoke or acted with a sense of freedom.  During this time she has made little more  than a start to catch up with man in the  wonderful things he has to his credit; and yet  all that man has to his credit would scarcely  have been achieved except for the devotion  and love and inspiring comradeship of woman.   Here, then, is lifted the veil, in these poignant songs and lyrics. To look upon  what is revealed is to give one a sense of  infinite sympathy; to make one kneel in spirit to the marvelous patience, the wonderful endurance, the persistent faith, which are  hidden in this nature.

   The heart of a woman 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.   
sings the poet.

   And the songs of the singer
   Are tones that repeat
   The cry of the heart
   Till it ceases to beat.
This verse just quoted is from "The Dreams of the Dreamer," and with the previous quotation tells us that this woman's heart is keyed in the plaintive, knows the sorrowful agents of life and experience which knock and enter at the door of dreams. But women have made the saddest songs of the world, Sappho no less than Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ruth the Moabite poetess gleaning in the fields of Boaz no less than Amy Levy, the Jewess who broke her heart against the London pavements; and no less does sadness echo its tender and appealing sigh in these songs and lyrics of Georgia Douglas Johnson. But sadness is a kind of felicity with woman,  paradoxical as it may seem; and it is so because through this inexplicable felicity they  touched, intuitionally caress, reality.
So here engaging life at its most reserved sources, whether the form or substance through which it articulates be nature, or the seasons, touch of hands or lips, love, desire, or any of the emotional abstractions which sweep like fire or wind or cooling water through the blood, Mrs. Johnson creates just that reality of woman's heart and experience with astonishing raptures. It is a kind of privilege to know so much about the secrets of woman's nature, a privilege all the more to be cherished when given, as in these poems,  with such exquisite utterance, with such a  lyric sensibility.
William Stanley Braithwaite.
Cambridge, Massachusetts.

* * * 

The Heart of a Woman

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o'er life's turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman 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 dreams of the dreamer
Are life-drops that pass
The break in the heart
To the soul’s hour-glass.
The songs of the singer
Are tones that repeat
The cry of the heart
'Till it ceases to beat.

The Dreams of the Dreamer
The dreams of the dreamer
   Are life-drops that pass
The break in the heart
   To the soul’s hour-glass.
The songs of the singer
   Are tones that repeat
The cry of the heart
   'Till it ceases to beat.


My joy leaps with your ecstasy,
   In sympathy divine;
The smiles that wreathe upon your lips.
   Find sentinels on mine:
Your lightest sigh I'm echoing,
   I tremble with your pain,
And all your tears are falling
   In my heart like bitter rain.


We stand mute!
No words can paint such fragile imagery,
Those prismic gossamers that roll
Beyond the sky-line of the soul;
We stand mute!

Dead Leaves

The breaking dead leaves 'neath my feet
A plaintive melody repeat,
Recalling shattered hopes that lie
As relics of a bygone sky.
Again I thread the mazy past,
Back where the mounds are scattered fast -
Oh! foolish tears, why do you start,
To break of dead leaves in the heart?


Trailing night's sand-sifted stars,
Rainbows sweep, as day unbars.
Fragrant essences of morn,
Bathe humanity — new-born!


There are highways in the soul,
   Heights like pyramids that rise
   Far beyond earth-veiled eyes,
   Sweeping through the barless skies
O'er the line where daylight dies —
There are highways in the soul!


Minutes swiftly throb and pass,
   Shadows cross the dial-glass,
Speeding ever to some call,
   Weary world and shadows, all.
Down the closing aisles of day,
   Tramping footsteps die away,
But no tidings thread the gloom,
   From the hushed and silent tomb.

The phantom happiness I sought
   O'er every crag and moor;
I paused at every postern gate,
   And knocked at every door;
In vain I searched the land and sea,
   E'en to the inmost core,
The curtains of eternal night
   Descend — my search is o'er.


Our separate winding ways we trod,
Along the highways, unto God,
Unbonded by the clasp of hand,
Without a vow — we understand.
Estranged for aye, the fusing kiss.
Omnipotent, we bide in this —
They need no trammeling of bars
Whose souls were welded with the stars.


A wordless kiss, a stifled sigh,
A trembling lip, a downcast eye,
   "Alas," they say,
   "A-day, a-day,"
The cruse has failed, the lamp must die!


When lone and solitaire within your chamber,
   With lamp unlit, as evening shades unroll.
If you reveal the trail your thoughts are taking,
   I then may read the riddle of your soul.
For it is then, the tired mind unveiling,
   Drifts stark into the holy after-glow.
Within the hour of quiet meditation.
   The tidal thoughts, like limpid waters, flow.


The rain is falling steadily
   Upon the thirsty earth,
While dry-eyed, I remain, and calm
   Amid my own heart's dearth.
Break! break! ye flood-gates of my tears
   All pent in agony,
Rain, rain! upon my scorching soul
   And flood it as the sea! 

Pages from Life

Not for your tender eyes that shine,
Nor for your red lips pulsing wine,
I love you, dear: your soul divine.
In sweet captivity, holds mine!
. . .
The tender eyes have lost their glow,
The flagons of the lips run low.
The autumn trembles in the air, —
A woman passes solitaire!


Winter — aback sweeps the inward eye,
Fleet o'er the trail to a rose-wreathed sky,
Girt by a cordon of dreams I dwell
Deep in the heart of the old-time spell.
Almost, the tones of your whispered word,
Almost! the thrill that your dear lips stirred,
Almost!! that wild pulsing throb again —
Almost!!! —
      ('Tis winter, the falling rain).

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.


I rest me deep within the wood,
   Drawn by its silent call,
Far from the throbbing crowd of men
   On nature's breast I fall.
My couch is sweet with blossoms fair,
   A bed of fragrant dreams,
And soft upon my ear there falls
   The lullaby of streams.
The tumult of my heart is stilled,
   Within this sheltered spot.
Deep in the bosom of the wood.
   Forgetting, and — forgot!


The curtains of twilight are drawn in the west
   And vespers are sweet on the air,
While I, through my leafless, ungarlanded way
   But pause at the gates of despair.
Good-bye to the hopes that were never fulfilled,
   Good-bye to the fond dreams that failed.
Good-bye to my dead that has never been born.
   Good-bye to love's ship that ne'er sailed.


The silence of the brooding night,
Enfolds me with its eerie light;
I lie upon its shadowed breast
A pilgrim, wearying for rest
Nightfall! thy sable curtains steep
My very soul in solace deep,
God sends thee with thy soothing balms,
That I may falter to thy arms.


Into the garden of sorrow,
Some day we all must roam,
If not to-day, then to-morrow,
Bow 'neath its purple dome.
Out from the musk-laden banqueting halls,
Doffing our mirth-spangled vestments like thralls,
Softly we wend to Gethsemane,
In the hour that sorrow calls!


Walk within thy own heart's temple, child, and rest,
What you seek abides forever in thy breast.
Closer than thy folded arm
Is the soul-renewing-balm,
Walk within thy own heart's temple, child, and rest.


Athwart the sky the great sun sails,
Through aeons thus, the daylight trails,
And man, living breath of the sod
Beholding, in his heart knows God.
Throughout the night's long brooding deep,
Earth's trustful children die-to-sleep.
But with the whisperings of morn
Awake, unto the day, new-born.
The mystery of earth untold,
The great infinite, none behold,
Forge ever new the spiral chain,
Revolving man to God again.

In Quest

With the first blush of morning, my soul is awing,
Away o'er the phantom lands free, wandering,
I seek thee in hamlet, in woodland, and hall.
Till night-shades, enfolding my tired heart, fall.
Yet ever and alway, like the thrush in a tree.
My heart lifts its preluding love-song to thee;
I call through the days, through the long weary years.
And slumber at night-fall, refreshed by my tears.


There's nothing in the world that clings
As does a memory that stings;
While happy hours fade and pass,
Like shadows in a looking-glass.


Alone! yes, evermore alone — isolate each his way,
Though hand is echoing to hand vain sophistries of clay.
Within that veil├Ęd, mystic place where bides the inmost soul,
No twain shall pass while tides shall wax, nor changing seasons roll.
Enisled, apart our pilgrimage, despite the arms that twine.
Despite the fusing kiss that wields the magic charm of wine.
Despite the interplay of sigh, the surge of sympathy.
We tread in solitude remote, the trail of destiny!


There's a soft rosy glow o’er the whole world to-day,
There's a freshness and fragrance that trembles in May,
There's a lilt in the music that vibrates and thrills
From the uttermost glades to the tops of the hills.
Oh! I am so happy, my heart is so light.
The shades and the shadows have vanished from sight,
This wild pulsing gladness throbs like a sweet pain —
O soul of me, drink, ere night falleth again!


Love's roses I gathered, all dewy, in May,
My heart holds the breath of their attar to-day;
And now, while the blasts of the winter winds ring,
I hear not the tempest, Tm dreaming of Spring.


The petals of the faded rose
   Commingle silently,
One with the atoms of the dust,
   One with the chaliced sea. -
The essence of my fleeting youth
   Caught in the web of time,
Exhales within the springing flowers
   Or breathes in love sublime.

The fragile fabric of our dream
Drifts as a feather down life's stream
The long defile of empty days
Grim silhouetted, mock my gaze.
Though oft escapes the stifled sigh,
A desert ever broods my eye —
Since you have utterly forgot,
God grant that I remember not!


Behold! the living thrilling lines
That course the blood like madd'ning wines,
And leap with scintillating spray
Across the guards of ecstasy.
The flame that lights the lurid spell
Springs from the soul's artesian well,
Its fairy filament of art
Entwines the fragments of a heart.


Of what avail the tardy showers,
To the famished summer flowers?
All in vain the rain-drops cry,
Dead things never make reply.
Life's belated cup of bliss,
Woo the weary lips to kiss,
When the singing is a sigh.
Pulses quivering, to die.


Is she the sage who will not sip
The cup love presses to her lip?
Or she who drinks the mad cup dry,
And turns with smiling face — to die?


Roses after rain,
Pleasure after pain,
Happiness will soothe the sigh,
Smiles await the tear-dimmed eye
Bloom will follow blight,
Daylight trails the night,
Life is sweeter
Love is deeper
In the heart's twilight!


Nobody cares when I am glad,
      I beat upon their hearts in glee,
   "Drink, drink joy's brimming cup with me,"
   All echoless, my ecstasy —
Nobody cares when I am glad.
Nobody cares when I am sad,
      Whene'er I seek compassion's breast,
   I falter wounded from my quest
   Back! back into my heart, sore prest —
Nobody cares when I am sad.


Oh, my fancy teems with a world of dreams, —
   They revolve in a glittering fire,
How they twirl and go with the tunes that flow
   On the breath of my soul-strung lyre.
Smothered Fires

A woman with a burning flame
   Deep covered through the years
With ashes. Ah! she hid it deep,
   And smothered it with tears.
Sometimes a baleful light would rise
   From out the dusky bed,
And then the woman hushed it quick
   To slumber on, as dead.
At last the weary war was done
   The tapers were alight,
And with a sigh of victory
   She breathed a soft — good-night!


The fairest lips are those we kiss,
With greatest ecstasy and bliss;
The brightest eyes, are those that shine,
Unchangingly through changing time;
The greatest love is that we know.
When life is just an afterglow.


My joy leaps with your ecstasy,
   In sympathy divine;
The smiles that wreathe upon your lips.
   Find sentinels on mine:
Your lightest sigh I'm echoing,
   I tremble with your pain,
And all your tears are falling
   In my heart like bitter rain.

Tears and Kisses

There are tears sweet, refreshing like dewdrops that rise,
There are tears far too deep for the lakes of the eyes.
There are kisses like thistledown, fitfully sped,
There are kisses that live in the hearts of the dead.

The Measure

Fierce is the conflict — the battle of eyes,
Sure and unerring, the wordless replies,
Challenges flash from their ambushing caves
Men, by their glances, are masters or slaves.


Fragile, tiny, just a sprite,
Holding me a thrall bedight,
Stronger than a giant's wand
Serves the word of your command.
Out from rushing worlds, though low
Should you whisper, I would know,
And would answer, though the breath
Be the gateway unto death.


I’m tired, days and nights to me
Drag on in slow monotony,
With not a single star in sight
To lend a gleam of cheering light.
I'm tired, there are none to care
That I am drifting to despair:
O shadows! take me to your breast
For I am tired — I would rest.

What Need Have I For Memory?

What need have I for memory,
   When not a single flower
Has bloomed within life's desert
   For me, one little hour.
What need have I for memory
   Whose burning eyes have met
The corse of unborn happiness
   Winding the trail regret?
When I Am Dead

When I am dead, withhold, I pray, your blooming legacy;
Beneath the willows did I bide, and they should cover me;
I longed for light and fragrance, and I sought them far and near,
O, it would grieve me utterly, to find them on my bier!

Whene'er I Lift My Eyes to Bliss

Whene'er I lift my eyes to bliss,
   I stagger blind with pain,
Afar into the folding night
   The silence, and the rain.
Whene'er I feel the urge of Spring,
   A throbbing, unknown woe
Enfolds me; I am desolate
   When love is calling low.


I called you through the silent night
   Across the brooding deep,
I sought you in the shadowland
   From out the world — asleep;
No answer echoed to my call,
   And now my way I thread
About the lowly mounds that rise
   Among the silent dead.
Though voiceless, you will hear my call,
   Your soul will heed my cry.
Will rise, and mock the prison where
   Your bones recumbent lie.


The dew is on the grasses, dear,
The blush is on the rose.
And swift across our dial-youth,
A shifting shadow goes.
The primrose moments, lush with bliss,
Exhale and fade away,
Life may renew the Autumn time,
But nevermore the May!

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