Saturday, April 30, 2011

The White Witch by James Weldon Johnson

The book of American Negro poetry

In my adolescence I enjoyed a short obsession with poetry and checked out book after book of it from my middle school library. I would type up my favorite poems and I remember loving James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes in particular. My middle school library was filled with the works of African American poets--it must have been a soft spot and quest of my adored African American librarian at the school. "Go Down Death" by James Weldon Johnson resonated then and it still one of the few poems I can quote parts to myself. (I am a horrible, horrible memorizer so that is a feat.) 

Anyway, this poem is Johnson's own invention and has many possible interpretations When rereading it this month, I was also reminded of The Snow Queen, so I decided to share it here. That's the beauty of poetry. We bring our own experience to it which gives it other meanings the poet perhaps never intended. Of course, this one has many layers considering Johnson's heritage, but he creates a parable type story where it can be as innocuous or as subversive as one would like.

The White Witch
by James Weldon Johnson

O brothers mine, take care! Take care!
The great white witch rides out to-night.
Trust not your prowess nor your strength,
Your only safety lies in flight;
For in her glance there is a snare,
And in her smile there is a blight.

The great white witch you have not seen?
Then, younger brothers mine, forsooth,
Like nursery children you have looked
For ancient hag and snaggle-tooth;
But no, not so; the witch appears
In all the glowing charms of youth.

Her lips are like carnations, red,
Her face like new-born lilies, fair,
Her eyes like ocean waters, blue,
She moves with subtle grace and air,
And all about her head there floats
The golden glory of her hair.

But though she always thus appears
In form of youth and mood of mirth,
Unnumbered centuries are hers,
The infant planets saw her birth;
The child of throbbing Life is she,
Twin sister to the greedy earth.

And back behind those smiling lips,
And down within those laughing eyes,
And underneath the soft caress
Of hand and voice and purring sighs,
The shadow of the panther lurks,
The spirit of the vampire lies.

For I have seen the great white witch,
And she has led me to her lair,
And I have kissed her red, red lips
And cruel face so white and fair;
Around me she has twined her arms,
And bound me with her yellow hair.

I felt those red lips burn and sear
My body like a living coal;
Obeyed the power of those eyes
As the needle trembles to the pole;
And did not care although I felt
The strength go ebbing from my soul.

Oh! she has seen your strong young limbs,
And heard your laughter loud and gay,
And in your voices she has caught
The echo of a far-off day,
When man was closer to the earth;
And she has marked you for her prey.

She feels the old Antaean strength
In you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet.

O, brothers mine, take care! Take care!
The great white witch rides out to-night.
O, younger brothers mine, beware!
Look not upon her beauty bright;
For in her glance there is a snare,
And in her smile there is a blight.

From The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson, published in 1922. (Found on and elsewhere on the web.) This one is out of copyright.

No comments:

Post a Comment