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James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation"

Updated on February 13, 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, "The Creation"

In James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation," the speaker dramatizes Genesis chapter 1, verses 1-25 (King James Version of the Holy Bible, Genesis 1:1-25.). The speaker employs the voice of a Southern preacher, exemplified by the lines, "Down in a cypress swamp" and "Like a mammy bending over her baby." This poem remains a marvelous example of Johnson's depth of spirituality as well as his skilled craftsmanship at poetry composition.

The Wintley Phipps recitation of James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation" is magnificent. Phipps performs a perfect interpretation of Johnson's poem. The experience of listening to a fine poem always adds a nuance of meaning that a simple quiet reading lacks.

The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

Wintley Phipps recitation of James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation"

Commentary

Johnson's speaker offers an imaginative, dramatic rendering of the origin of creation.

First and Second Stanzas: Personification of God

The speaker personifies God, giving the Deity the very human quality of loneliness and having Him "step [ ] out on space," where He observes the vastness and decides, "I'm lonely / I'll make me a world." The corresponding Genesis verse states,"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Johnson's speaker gives God anthropomorphic qualities in order metaphorically explain the process of creation as revealed in the Holy Scripture.

In Genesis, the darkness was on the face of the deep, because the world was formless. Johnson's speaker dramatically describes pre-creation as "blacker than a hundred midnights / Down in a cypress swamp." Of course, the speaker knows that his audience, likely his congregation, would be able to visualize that cypress swamp darkness.

Third and Fourth Stanzas: Calling for Light

Genesis reveals that God called for light by heralding, "Let there be light." Johnson's speaker creatively allows that first light to beam when God smiled. In addition, the speaker metaphorically has the light causing the darkness to "roll [ ] up on one side" while "light stood shining on the other." To all this drama, God says, "That's good!" Johnson's speaker makes God an even more active entity than the Genesis version, where instead of speaking, God's thoughts are exposed: "God saw the light, and it was good." At this point, only God could have had that thought.

The speaker then takes the liberty of having God create the sun by taking light in his hands and rolling the light into a ball and setting the sun "a-blazing in the heavens." Using the light remaining after making the sun, God gathered it up in "a shining ball / And flung it against the darkness / Spangling the night with the moon and stars." The importance of light motivates Johnson's speaker to elaborate on the creation of the earth's only source of light. And again, as is repeated in Genesis, the speaker has God aver, "That's good!"

Fifth and Sixth Stanzas: The Significance of the Sun

The importance of the sun is further emphasized as the speaker continues his drama. God begins to walk on the earth with the sun "on his right hand / And the moon on his left." And the stars were "clustered about his head." As God walked on the earth, His feet "hollowed the valleys out / And bulged the mountains up." Genesis more vaguely reveals God's creation process than this speaker, who imaginatively fills in the gaps as he creates his own creation myth.

In Genesis, God separates the heavens from the earth. This speaker has God spitting out the seven seas and after clapping His hands, the thunder begins and rain comes down, "cooling waters came down."

Seventh and Eighth Stanzas: Nature Comes into Being

After the rain, grasses appear, and "little red flowers blossomed. "A pine tree "pointed his finger to the sky." This speaker gives specific details again not found in Genesis. He has the oak "spread out his arms". He has lakes appearing as they "cuddled down in the hollows of the ground." He has rivers running to the ocean, and God smiling as "a rainbow appeared / And curled itself around his shoulder."

In his eighth stanza, the speaker has God creating "Fishes and fowls / And beasts and birds." God creates by raising His arm and waving His hand and commanding, "Bring forth! Bring forth!" Again, God evaluates His creation, declaring, "That's good!"

Ninth and Tenth Stanzas: A Lonely God

The speaker says that God walked about and observed all that He had created. Nevertheless, just as before He created all these things, God again found Himself lonely. Of course, Genesis does not anthropomorphize God; thus, there are no claims in Scripture that God was ever lonely.

In trying to understand the mind of God, the human mind assigns human qualities to the Deity. As long as one realizes the limitation of such assignment, no problem occurs and much understanding can be gained through metaphor and personification.

God then sits down to think about how to assuage His loneliness. Just as a man would do, He sits by a river with His head in His hands, thinking and thinking, and He finally gets the thought to make a man.

Eleventh and Twelfth Stanzas: Bodies of Clay

The speaker now has God create the first human being by "scoop[ing] the clay from the riverbed." He employs the image of a mammy bending over her baby while she kneeled down in the dust working over a lump of clay. God shaped this lump of clay in his own image, as Genesis says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."

Finally, God blew the breath of life into the body of the clay God-like image, and "man became a living soul." At this point, the speaker/preacher concludes his drama/sermon with the traditional, "Amen. Amen."

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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