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James Weldon Johnson's "My City"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Portrait of James Weldon Johnson

Portrait of James Weldon Johnson

Introduction and Text of "My City"

James Weldon Johnson’s “My City” is a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, with the traditional rime scheme: in the octave ABBACDDC and in the sestet DEDEGG. The poem features unexpected claims that diverge radically from what readers have come anticipate in a poem offering a personal, heartfelt tribute.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

My City

When I come down to sleep death's endless night,
The threshold of the unknown dark to cross,
What to me then will be the keenest loss,
When this bright world blurs on my fading sight?
Will it be that no more I shall see the trees
Or smell the flowers or hear the singing birds
Or watch the flashing streams or patient herds?
No, I am sure it will be none of these.

But, ah! Manhattan's sights and sounds, her smells,
Her crowds, her throbbing force, the thrill that comes
From being of her a part, her subtle spells,
Her shining towers, her avenues, her slums—
O God! the stark, unutterable pity,
To be dead, and never again behold my city!

Reading of "My City"

Commentary

Poet James Weldon Johnson was a native of Jacksonville, Florida, but this poem offers a tribute to his adopted city, New York City.

Octave: What Will Be His Greatest Loss?

When I come down to sleep death's endless night,
The threshold of the unknown dark to cross,
What to me then will be the keenest loss,
When this bright world blurs on my fading sight?
Will it be that no more I shall see the trees
Or smell the flowers or hear the singing birds
Or watch the flashing streams or patient herds?

The speaker poses two questions in the octave: the first question seeks the answer to what he will consider his greatest loss as he experiences death; the second question merely offers a suggestion as to what his great loss might entail. The speaker asks his first question, posing it poetically: "What to me then will be the keenest loss, / When this bright world blurs on my fading sight?" He places on display his abiding love for this world, calling it "this bright world." By thus labeling the world "bright," the speaker makes clear that he has a high regard for God’s creation, which he will regret leaving. He then dramatically and richly portrays death, labeling that state by expressing, "sleep death's endless night, / The threshold of the unknown dark to cross."

The second query proposes that he might mourn the fact that he no longer has the ability to "see trees," nor does he possesses the capability of "smell[ing] the flowers." He continues musing on the possibilities of his greatest losses and avers that the inability to listen to birds singing would also cause him great pain, which might be his greatest loss. The speaker then adds two further possibilities: "watch[ing] the flashing streams" or unhurriedly observing the "patient herds." The reader will take note that all of these many possible losses stem from the things of nature, ordinarily observed in a bucolic setting; thus recalling that the title of the poem is "My City," the reader will not be shocked that the speaker then answers his own question asserting, "No, I am sure it will be none of these."

Sestet: Losing the Sights, Sound, Smells of His City

No, I am sure it will be none of these.
But, ah! Manhattan's sights and sounds, her smells,
Her crowds, her throbbing force, the thrill that comes
From being of her a part, her subtle spells,
Her shining towers, her avenues, her slums—
O God! the stark, unutterable pity,
To be dead, and never again behold my city!

In the sestet, the speaker pronounces with an emphatic, fervent anguish that it is "Manhattan" that he will most long for, after death has taken him from this world. The speaker then enumerates the features that entice him and engender in him his deep love for his city: "Manhattan's sights and sounds, her smells, / Her crowds, her throbbing force." In addition to these, the speaker will also experience the forfeiture of continuing to experience, "Her shining towers, her avenues, her slums."

Although some of the items in this catalogue are not especially beautiful nor are they particularly inspiring, specifically to those engrossed in a rustic setting, this speaker possesses an abiding love for those things and is dreading the fact that death will dispossess him of the continued pleasure they have so long afforded him. In the speaker’s final outcry, as he verbalizes his mourning, his readers/listeners will understand the melancholy dramatized in his voice: "O God! the stark, unutterable pity, / To be dead, and never again behold my city!"

James Weldon Johnson: Harlem Renaissance

James Weldon Johnson - Commemorative Stamp

A short biography of James Weldon Johnson

Questions & Answers

Question: Was the poet James Weldon Johnson a New York native?

Answer: Poet James Weldon Johnson was a native of Jacksonville, Florida, but this poem offers a tribute to his adopted city, New York City.

Question: What is the main idea of each stanza of James Weldon Johnson's poem "My City"?

Answer: In the octave, the speaker asks the question regarding his state of mind as he dies, what will be his greatest loss? In the sestet, he suggests the answer, losing the sights, sound, smells of his adopted city.

Question: What does "patient herds" represent in the poem, "My City"?

Answer: The phrase, "patient herds," is referring to the groups of cows, sheep, or other farm animals grazing leisurely in the fields.

Question: What is the theme of James Weldon Johnson's "My City"?

Answer: This poem offers a tribute to the poet's adopted city of New York.

Question: Who is the speaker in the sonnet, "My City"?

Answer: The speaker is a resident of New York City, who is offering a tribute to his adopted city.

Question: What is the attitude in Johnson's poem, "My City"?

Answer: In James Weldon Johnson's "My City," the speaker exudes a controlled melancholy, as he offers his tribute to his adoptive city.

Question: What “keenest loss” does Johnson refer to in “my city”?

Answer: The "keenest loss" refers to the speaker's death. And he wonders which of the fives sense—especially in reference to his enjoyment of his city—he will miss most after he dies.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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