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

James Weldon Johnson, "Fifty Years and Other Poems" (1917) (Full text)


With an Introduction by BRANDER MATTHEWS


G. N. F.


For permission to reprint certain poems in this book thanks are due to
the editors and proprietors of the Century Magazine, the
Independent,  The Crisis, The New York Times, and the following
copyright holders, G. Ricordi and Company, G. Schirmer and Company,
and Joseph W. Stern and Company.


Introduction by Brander Matthews, Columbia Universtiy
Fifty Years
To America
O Black and Unknown Bards
O Southland
To Horace Bumstead
The Color Sergeant
The Black Mammy
Father, Father Abraham
The White Witch
Mother Night
The Young Warrior
The Glory of the Day Was in Her Face
From the Spanish of Plácido
From the Spanish
From the German of Uhland
Before a Painting
I Hear the Stars Still Singing
Girl of Fifteen
The Suicide
Down by the Carib Sea   I.  Sunrise in the Tropics  II.  Los Cigarillos III.  Teestay  IV.  The Lottery Girl   V.  The Dancing Girl  VI.  Sunset in the Tropics

The Greatest of These Is War
A Mid-Day Dreamer
The Temptress
Ghosts of the Old Year
The Ghost of Deacon Brown
Deep in the Quiet Wood
The Word of an Engineer
Prayer at Sunrise
The Gift to Sing
Morning, Noon and Night
Her Eyes Twin Pools
The Awakening
Beauty That Is Never Old
Venus in a Garden
The Reward


    Around the council-board of Hell, with Satan at their head,
    The Three Great Scourges of humanity sat.
    Gaunt Famine, with hollow cheek and voice, arose and spoke,--
    "O, Prince, I have stalked the earth,
    And my victims by ten thousands I have slain,
    I have smitten old and young.
    Mouths of the helpless old moaning for bread, I have filled with dust;
    And I have laughed to see a crying babe tug at the shriveling breast
    Of its mother, dead and cold.
    I have heard the cries and prayers of men go up to a tearless sky,
    And fall back upon an earth of ashes;
    But, heedless, I have gone on with my work.
    'Tis thus, O, Prince, that I have scourged mankind."

    And Satan nodded his head.

    Pale Pestilence, with stenchful breath, then spoke and said,--
    "Great Prince, my brother, Famine, attacks the poor.
    He is most terrible against the helpless and the old.
    But I have made a charnel-house of the mightiest cities of men.
    When I strike, neither their stores of gold or of grain avail.
    With a breath I lay low their strongest, and wither up their fairest.
    I come upon them without warning, lancing invisible death.
    From me they flee with eyes and mouths distended;
    I poison the air for which they gasp, and I strike them down fleeing.
    'Tis thus, great Prince, that I have scourged mankind."

    And Satan nodded his head.

    Then the red monster, War, rose up and spoke,--
    His blood-shot eyes glared 'round him, and his thundering voice
    Echoed through the murky vaults of Hell.--
    "O, mighty Prince, my brothers, Famine and Pestilence,
    Have slain their thousands and ten thousands,--true;
    But the greater their victories have been,
    The more have they wakened in Man's breast
    The God-like attributes of sympathy, of brotherhood and love
    And made of him a searcher after wisdom.
    But I arouse in Man the demon and the brute,
    I plant black hatred in his heart and red revenge.
    From the summit of fifty thousand years of upward climb
    I haul him down to the level of the start, back to the wolf.
    I give him claws.
    I set his teeth into his brother's throat.
    I make him drunk with his brother's blood.
    And I laugh ho! ho! while he destroys himself.
    O, mighty Prince, not only do I slay,
    But I draw Man hellward."

    And Satan smiled, stretched out his hand, and said,--
    "O War, of all the scourges of humanity, I crown you chief."

    And Hell rang with the acclamation of the Fiends.


    I love to sit alone, and dream,
    And dream, and dream;
    In fancy's boat to softly glide
    Along some stream
    Where fairy palaces of gold
    And crystal bright
    Stand all along the glistening shore:
    A wondrous sight.

    My craft is built of ivory,
    With silver oars,
    The sails are spun of golden threads,
    And priceless stores
    Of precious gems adorn its prow,
    And 'round its mast
    An hundred silken cords are set
    To hold it fast.

    My galley-slaves are sprightly elves
    Who, as they row,
    And as their shining oars they swing
    Them to and fro,
    Keep time to music wafted on
    The scented air,
    Made by the mermaids as they comb
    Their golden hair.

    And I the while lie idly back,
    And dream, and dream,
    And let them row me where they will
    Adown the stream.


    Old Devil, when you come with horns and tail,
    With diabolic grin and crafty leer;
    I say, such bogey-man devices wholly fail
    To waken in my heart a single fear.

    But when you wear a form I know so well,
    A form so human, yet so near divine;
    'Tis then I fall beneath the magic of your spell,
    'Tis then I know the vantage is not mine.

    Ah! when you take your horns from off your head,
    And soft and fragrant hair is in their place;
    I must admit I fear the tangled path I tread
    When that dear head is laid against my face.

    And at what time you change your baleful eyes
    For stars that melt into the gloom of night,
    All of my courage, my dear fellow, quickly flies;
    I know my chance is slim to win the fight.

    And when, instead of charging down to wreck
    Me on a red-hot pitchfork in your hand,
    You throw a pair of slender arms about my neck,
    I dare not trust the ground on which I stand.

    Whene'er in place of using patent wile,
    Or trying to frighten me with horrid grin,
    You tempt me with two crimson lips curved in a smile;
    Old Devil, I must really own, you win.


    The snow has ceased its fluttering flight,
    The wind sunk to a whisper light,
    An ominous stillness fills the night,
      A pause--a hush.
    At last, a sound that breaks the spell,
    Loud, clanging mouthings of a bell,
    That through the silence peal and swell,
      And roll, and rush.

    What does this brazen tongue declare,
    That falling on the midnight air
    Brings to my heart a sense of care
      Akin to fright?
    'Tis telling that the year is dead,
    The New Year come, the Old Year fled,
    Another leaf before me spread
      On which to write.

    It tells the deeds that were not done,
    It tells of races never run,
    Of victories that were not won,
      Barriers unleaped.
    It tells of many a squandered day,
    Of slighted gems and treasured clay,
    Of precious stores not laid away,
      Of fields unreaped.

    And so the years go swiftly by,
    Each, coming, brings ambitions high,
    And each, departing, leaves a sigh
      Linked to the past.
    Large resolutions, little deeds;
    Thus, filled with aims unreached, life speeds
    Until the blotted record reads,
      "Failure!" at last.


    In a backwoods town
    Lived Deacon Brown,
    And he was a miser old;
    He would trust no bank,
    So he dug, and sank
    In the ground a box of gold,
    Down deep in the ground a box of gold.

    He hid his gold,
    As has been told,
    He remembered that he did it;
    But sad to say,
    On the very next day,
    He forgot just where he hid it:
    To find his gold he tried and tried
    Till he grew faint and sick, and died.

    Then on each dark and gloomy night
    A form in phosphorescent white,
    A genuine hair-raising sight,
    Would wander through the town.
    And as it slowly roamed around,
    With a spade it dug each foot of ground;
    So the folks about
    Said there was no doubt
    'Twas the ghost of Deacon Brown.

    Around the church
    This Ghost would search,
    And whenever it would see
    The passers-by
    Take wings and fly
    It would laugh in ghostly glee,
    Hee, hee!--it would laugh in ghostly glee.

    And so the town
    Went quickly down,
    For they said that it was haunted;
    And doors and gates,
    So the story states,
    Bore a notice, "Tenants wanted."

    And the town is now for let,
    But the ghost is digging yet.


    Some men enjoy the constant strife
    Of days with work and worry rife,
    But that is not my dream of life:
      I think such men are crazy.
    For me, a life with worries few,
    A job of nothing much to do,
    Just pelf enough to see me through:
      I fear that I am lazy.

    On winter mornings cold and drear,
    When six o'clock alarms I hear,
    'Tis then I love to shift my ear,
      And hug my downy pillows.
    When in the shade it's ninety-three,
    No job in town looks good to me,
    I'd rather loaf down by the sea,
      And watch the foaming billows.

    Some people think the world's a school,
    Where labor is the only rule;
    But I'll not make myself a mule,
      And don't you ever doubt it.
    I know that work may have its use,
    But still I feel that's no excuse
    For turning it into abuse;
      What do _you_ think about it?

    Let others fume and sweat and boil,
    And scratch and dig for golden spoil,
      And live the life of work and toil,
    Their lives to labor giving.
    But what is gold when life is sped,
    And life is short, as has been said,
    And we are such a long time dead,
      I'll spend my life in living.


    Old Omar, jolly sceptic, it may be
    That, after all, you found the magic key
    To life and all its mystery, and I
    Must own you have almost persuaded me.


    Are you bowed down in heart?
    Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life?
    Then come away, come to the peaceful wood,
    Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now,
    From out the palpitating solitude
    Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains?
    They are above, around, within you, everywhere.
    Silently listen! Clear, and still more clear, they come.
    They bubble up in rippling notes, and swell in singing tones.
    Now let your soul run the whole gamut of the wondrous scale
    Until, responsive to the tonic chord,
    It touches the diapason of God's grand cathedral organ,
    Filling earth for you with heavenly peace
    And holy harmonies.


    To chase a never-reached mirage
    Across the hot, white sand,
    And choke and die, while gazing on
    Its green and watered strand.


    "She's built of steel
    From deck to keel,
    And bolted strong and tight;
    In scorn she'll sail
    The fiercest gale,
    And pierce the darkest night.

    "The builder's art
    Has proved each part
    Throughout her breadth and length;
    Deep in the hulk,
    Of her mighty bulk,
    Ten thousand Titans' strength."

    The tempest howls,
    The Ice Wolf prowls,
    The winds they shift and veer,
    But calm I sleep,
    And faith I keep
    In the word of an engineer.

    Along the trail
    Of the slender rail
    The train, like a nightmare, flies
    And dashes on
    Through the black-mouthed yawn
    Where the cavernous tunnel lies.

    Over the ridge,
    Across the bridge,
    Swung twixt the sky and hell,
    On an iron thread
    Spun from the head
    Of the man in a draughtsman's cell.

    And so we ride
    Over land and tide,
    Without a thought of fear--
    _Man never had
    The faith in God
    That he has in an engineer!_


    Out of the infinite sea of eternity
    To climb, and for an instant stand
    Upon an island speck of time.

    From the impassible peace of the darkness
    To wake, and blink at the garish light
    Through one short hour of fretfulness.


    O Sleep, thou kindest minister to man,
      Silent distiller of the balm of rest,
    How wonderful thy power, when naught else can,
      To soothe the torn and sorrow-laden breast!
    When bleeding hearts no comforter can find,
      When burdened souls droop under weight of woe,
    When thought is torture to the troubled mind,
      When grief-relieving tears refuse to flow;
    'Tis then thou comest on soft-beating wings,
      And sweet oblivion's peace from them is shed;
    But ah, the old pain that the waking brings!
      That lives again so soon as thou art fled!

    Man, why should thought of death cause thee to weep;
    Since death be but an endless, dreamless sleep?


    O mighty, powerful, dark-dispelling sun,
    Now thou art risen, and thy day begun.
    How shrink the shrouding mists before thy face,
    As up thou spring'st to thy diurnal race!
    How darkness chases darkness to the west,
    As shades of light on light rise radiant from thy crest!
    For thee, great source of strength, emblem of might,
    In hours of darkest gloom there is no night.
    Thou shinest on though clouds hide thee from sight,
    And through each break thou sendest down thy light.

    O greater Maker of this Thy great sun,
    Give me the strength this one day's race to run,
    Fill me with light, fill me with sun-like strength,
    Fill me with joy to rob the day its length.
    Light from within, light that will outward shine,
    Strength to make strong some weaker heart than mine,
    Joy to make glad each soul that feels its touch;
    Great Father of the sun, I ask this much.


    Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
    And blackening clouds about me cling;
    But, oh, I have a magic way
    To turn the gloom to cheerful day--
      I softly sing.

    And if the way grows darker still,
    Shadowed by Sorrow's somber wing,
    With glad defiance in my throat,
    I pierce the darkness with a note,
      And sing, and sing.

    I brood not over the broken past,
    Nor dread whatever time may bring;
    No nights are dark, no days are long,
    While in my heart there swells a song,
      And I can sing.


    When morning shows her first faint flush,
    I think of the tender blush
    That crept so gently to your cheek
    When first my love I dared to speak;
    How, in your glance, a dawning ray
    Gave promise of love's perfect day.

    When, in the ardent breath of noon,
    The roses with passion swoon;
    There steals upon me from the air
    The scent that lurked within your hair;
    I touch your hand, I clasp your form--
    Again your lips are close and warm.

    When comes the night with beauteous skies,
    I think of your tear-dimmed eyes,
    Their mute entreaty that I stay,
    Although your lips sent me away;
    And then falls memory's bitter blight,
    And dark--so dark becomes the night.


    Her eyes, twin pools of mystic light,
    The blend of star-sheen and black night;
    O'er which, to sound their glamouring haze,
    A man might bend, and vainly gaze.

    Her eyes, twin pools so dark and deep,
    In which life's ancient mysteries sleep;
    Wherein, to seek the quested goal,
    A man might plunge, and lose his soul.


    I dreamed that I was a rose
    That grew beside a lonely way,
    Close by a path none ever chose,
    And there I lingered day by day.
    Beneath the sunshine and the show'r
    I grew and waited there apart,
    Gathering perfume hour by hour,
    And storing it within my heart,
      Yet, never knew,
    Just why I waited there and grew.

    I dreamed that you were a bee
    That one day gaily flew along,
    You came across the hedge to me,
    And sang a soft, love-burdened song.
    You brushed my petals with a kiss,
    I woke to gladness with a start,
    And yielded up to you in bliss
    The treasured fragrance of my heart;
      And then I knew
    That I had waited there for you.


    When buffeted and beaten by life's storms,
    When by the bitter cares of life oppressed,
    I want no surer haven than your arms,
    I want no sweeter heaven than your breast.

    When over my life's way there falls the blight
    Of sunless days, and nights of starless skies;
    Enough for me, the calm and steadfast light
    That softly shines within your loving eyes.

    The world, for me, and all the world can hold
    Is circled by your arms; for me there lies,
    Within the lights and shadows of your eyes,
    The only beauty that is never old.


    'Twas at early morning,
    The dawn was blushing in her purple bed,
    When in a sweet, embowered garden
    She, the fairest of the goddesses,
    The lovely Venus,
    Roamed amongst the roses white and red.
    She sought for flowers
    To make a garland
    For her golden head.

    Snow-white roses, blood-red roses,
    In that sweet garden close,
    Offered incense to the goddess:
    Both the white and the crimson rose.

    White roses, red roses, blossoming:
    But the fair Venus knew
    The crimson roses had gained their hue
    From the hearts that for love had bled;
    And the goddess made a garland
    Gathered from the roses red.


    I sometimes take you in my dreams to a far-off land I used to know,
    Back in the ages long ago; a land of palms and languid streams.

    A land, by night, of jeweled skies, by day, of shores that glistened bright,
    Within whose arms, outstretched and white, a sapphire sea lay crescent-wise.

    Where twilight fell like silver floss, where rose the golden moon half-hid
    Behind a shadowy pyramid; a land beneath the Southern Cross.

    And there the days dreamed in their flight, each one a poem chanted through,
    Which at its close was merged into the muted music of the night.

    And you were a princess in those days. And I--I was your serving lad.
    But who ever served with heart so glad, or lived so for a word of praise?

    And if that word you chanced to speak, how all my senses swayed and reeled,
    Till low beside your feet I kneeled, with happiness o'erwrought and weak.

    If, when your golden cup I bore, you deigned to lower your eyes to mine,
    Eyes cold, yet fervid, like the wine, I knew not how to wish for more.

    I trembled at the thought to dare to gaze upon, to scrutinize
    The deep-sea mystery of your eyes, the sun-lit splendor of your hair.

    To let my timid glances rest upon you long enough to note
    How fair and slender was your throat, how white the promise of your breast.

    But though I did not dare to chance a lingering look, an open gaze
    Upon your beauty's blinding rays, I ventured many a stolen glance.

    I fancy, too, (but could not state what trick of mind the fancy caused)
    At times your eyes upon me paused, and marked my figure lithe and straight.

    Once when my eyes met yours it seemed that in your cheek, despite your pride,
    A flush arose and swiftly died; or was it something that I dreamed?

    Within your radiance like the star of morning, there I stood and served,
    Close by, unheeded, unobserved. You were so near, and, yet, so far.

    Ah! just to stretch my hand and touch the musky sandals on your feet!--
    My breaking heart! of rapture sweet it never could have held so much.

    Oh, beauty-haunted memory! Your face so proud, your eyes so calm,
    Your body like a slim young palm, and sinuous as a willow tree.

    Caught up beneath your slender arms, and girdled 'round your supple waist,
    A robe of curious silk that graced, but only scarce concealed your charms.

    A golden band about your head, a crimson jewel at your throat
    Which, when the sunlight on it smote, turned to a living heart and bled.

    But, oh, that mystic bleeding stone, that work of Nature's magic art,
    Which mimicked so a wounded heart, could never bleed as did my own!

    Now after ages long and sad, in this stern land we meet anew;
    No more a princess proud are you, and I--I am no serving lad.

    And yet, dividing us, I meet a wider gulf than that which stood
    Between a princess of the blood and him who served low at her feet.


    No greater earthly boon than this I crave,
    That those who some day gather 'round my grave,
    In place of tears, may whisper of me then,
    "He sang a song that reached the hearts of men."

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