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James Weldon Johnson's "Mother Night"

Updated on November 25, 2017
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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, "Mother Night"

James Weldon Johnson's "Mother Night," a Petrarchan (or Italian) sonnet, metaphorically dramatizes night as the calm union of the soul with the Oversoul. The speaker, influenced by Eastern as well as Christian philosophical tenets, draws a parallel between the conflict of day and night in the cosmos and his own struggle with the pairs of opposites in his earthly sojourn.

Mother Night

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

Reading of Johnson's "Mother Night"

Commentary

First Quatrain: "Eternities before the first-born day"

Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.

Like a brooding mother, that is, a mother bird who is sitting on her brood of eggs and then who continues to protect and keep them warm as baby birds, "Calm Night" kept watch over the unmanifested entity until the first-born day, before the first planets were created and hurled into activity: "ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame." The mature planet of the sun is like a bird that is now flying off on its own, after having been tenderly nurtured by its mother.

Mother Night tenderly nurtured the growing cosmos that ultimately resulted in planets and people. Johnson's metaphoric Night represents the non-vibratory realm of reality where nothing is manifested, and only the mind of God exists in that vibrationless realm.

There is no creation only a peaceful possibility, a potential. Until God chooses to create beings to populate His cosmos, He simply broods like a mother over chaos. Here the term chaos does not refer to our modern usage of confusion and disorder but to infinite formlessness. The term originates from the Greek Khaos, indicating a dark void from which the gods originated.

Second Quatrain: "And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay"

And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.

The second quatrain describes the plight of whirling suns as they "blaze and then decay." Those planets of fire will eventually burn out and after they do, they will return "[b]ack to Nirvanic peace." The speaker employs the term Nirvanic, adjectival form for "Nirvana," the Buddhist term for God-union, which is "Samadhi" in Hinduism, "Salvation" in Christianity, and "Fana" in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.

The speaker cleverly plays by punning "whirling suns," whereas sun puns son. With God as Mother Night, Her suns (sons) will "run their fiery courses" (live their passionate lives) and then recede back into the arms of the brooding mother or God.

First Tercet: "So when my feeble sun of life burns out"

So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,

The sestet then shifts from the cosmos to the speaker himself, a son of the night mother. The speaker vows that he will react to his death a certain way, but he does not clarify that way yet, but merely sets up the conditions for his final claim. As his life comes to an end, as he knows that it "is the hour for [his] long sleep," he will be fully aware that his life is ebbing.

Second Tercet: "Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt"

Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.

And the speaker will "[w]elcome the darkness without fear or doubt." His strong faith and intuition allow him to realize that his soul is going home. His eyelids may droop, but his soul is ever ensconced in the intractable protection of the beautiful mother, the Mother Night, who will throughout eternity continue to brood over and fiercely guide and guard her beloved son.

Biographical 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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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