James Weldon Johnson's "My City"

Updated on February 7, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

James Weldon Johnson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "My City"

James Weldon Johnson’s “My City” is a Petrarchan or 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.")

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

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!"

Life Sketch of James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871. The son of James Johnson, a free Virginian, and a Bahamian mother, Helen Louise Dillet, who served as the first black, female school teacher in Florida. His parents raised him to be a strong, independent, free-thinking individual, instilling in him the notion that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.

Johnson attended Atlanta University, and after graduation, he became principal of the Stanton School, where his mother had been a teacher. While serving as principle at the Stanton school, Johnson founded the newspaper, The Daily American. He later became the first black American to pass the Florida bar exam.

In 1900, with his brother,J. Rosamond Johnson, James composed the influentional hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," which became known as the Negro National Anthem. Johnson and his brother continued to compose songs for Broadway after moving to New York. Johnson later attended Columbia University, where he studied literature.

In addition to serving as educator, lawyer, and composer of songs, Johnson, in 1906, became a diplomat to Nicaragua and Venezuela, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. After returning to the United States from the Dipolomatic Corps, Johnson became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in 1920, he began serving as the president of that organization.

James Weldon Johnson also figures strongly in the arts movement known as the Harlem Rensaissance. In 1912, while serving as the Nicaraguan diplomat, he penned his classic, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Then after resigning from that diplomatic position, Johnson retured to the States and began writing full time.

In 1917, Johnon published his first book of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems. This collection was highly praised by critics, and helped establish him as an important contributor to the Harem Renaissance Movement. He continued to write and publish, and he also edited several volumes of poetry, including The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).

Johnson's second collection of poems, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, appeared in 1927, again to critical acclaim. Education reformer and best-selling American author of the early 20th century, Dorothy Canfield Fisher expressed high praise for Johnson's work, stating in a letter to Johnson that his works were "heart-shakingly beautiful and original, with the peculiar piercing tenderness and intimacy which seems to me special gifts of the Negro. It is a profound satisfaction to find those special qualities so exquisitely expressed."

Johnson contined to write after retiring from the NAACP, and he then later served as professor at New York University. About Johnson's reputation upon joining the faculty, Deborah Shapiro has stated:

Dr. James Weldon Johnson was already a world-renowned poet, novelist, and educator when he arrived at the School of Education in 1934. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Educational Sociology, yet Johnson’s influence did not end there. As the first black professor at NYU, Johnson broke a crucial color barrier, inspiring further efforts toward racial equality both within and outside the boundaries of Washington Square.

At age 67, Johnson was killed in an automobile accident in Wiscasset, Maine. His funeral was held in Harlem, New York, and was attended by over 2000 people. Johnson's creative power rendered him a true "renaissance man," who lived a full life, penning some of the finest poetry and songs ever to appear on the American Literary Scene.

A short biography of James Weldon Johnson

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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