Before a Painting

James Weldon Johnson - 1871-1938

I knew not who had wrought with skill so fine
    What I beheld; nor by what laws of art
    He had created life and love and heart
On canvas, from mere color, curve and line.
Silent I stood and made no move or sign;
    Not with the crowd, but reverently apart;
    Nor felt the power my rooted limbs to start,
But mutely gazed upon that face divine.

And over me the sense of beauty fell,
    As music over a raptured listener to
        The deep-voiced organ breathing out a hymn;
Or as on one who kneels, his beads to tell,
    There falls the aureate glory filtered through
        The windows in some old cathedral dim.
 

More by James Weldon Johnson

Go Down, Death

 (A Funeral Sermon)

Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband--weep no more;
Grief-stricken son--weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter --weep no more;
She only just gone home.

Day before yesterday morning,
God was looking down from his great, high heaven,
Looking down on all his children,
And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,
Tossing on her bed of pain.
And God's big heart was touched with pity,
With the everlasting pity.

And God sat back on his throne,
And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:
Call me Death!
And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice
That broke like a clap of thunder:
Call Death!--Call Death!
And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven
Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,
Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.

And Death heard the summons,
And he leaped on his fastest horse,
Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.
Up the golden street Death galloped,
And the hooves of his horses struck fire from the gold,
But they didn't make no sound.
Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,
And waited for God's command.

And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She's borne the burden and heat of the day,
She's labored long in my vineyard,
And she's tired--
She's weary--
Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

And Death didn't say a word,
But he loosed the reins on his pale, white horse,
And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,
And out and down he rode,
Through heaven's pearly gates,
Past suns and moons and stars;
on Death rode,
Leaving the lightning's flash behind;
Straight down he came.

While we were watching round her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn't see;
She saw Old Death.  She saw Old Death
Coming like a falling star.
But Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline;
He looked to her like a welcome friend.
And she whispered to us: I'm going home,
And she smiled and closed her eyes.

And Death took her up like a baby,
And she lay in his icy arms,
But she didn't feel no chill.
And death began to ride again--
Up beyond the evening star,
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great White Throne.
And there he laid Sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus.

And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,
And he smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,
And kept a-saying: Take your rest,
Take your rest.

Weep not--weep not,
She is not dead;
She's resting in the bosom of Jesus.

Listen, Lord: A Prayer


(A Prayer from God's Trombones)

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body-bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
O Lord—this morning—
Bow our hearts beneath our knees,
And our knees in some lonesome valley.
We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord—open up a window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.

Lord, have mercy on proud and dying sinners—
Sinners hanging over the mouth of hell,
Who seem to love their distance well.
Lord—ride by this morning—
Mount Your milk-white horse,
And ride-a this morning—
And in Your ride, ride by old hell,
Ride by the dingy gates of hell,
And stop poor sinners in their headlong plunge.

And now, O Lord, this man of God,
Who breaks the bread of life this morning—
Shadow him in the hollow of Thy hand,
And keep him out of the gunshot of the devil.
Take him, Lord—this morning—
Wash him with hyssop inside and out,
Hang him up and drain him dry of sin.
Pin his ear to the wisdom-post,
And make his words sledge hammers of truth—
Beating on the iron heart of sin.
Lord God, this morning—
Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,
And let him look upon the paper walls of time.
Lord, turpentine his imagination,
Put perpetual motion in his arms,
Fill him full of the dynamite of Thy power,
Anoint him all over with the oil of Thy salvation,
And set his tongue on fire.

And now, O Lord—
When I've done drunk my last cup of sorrow—
When I've been called everything but a child of God—
When I'm done traveling up the rough side of the mountain—
O—Mary's Baby—
When I start down the steep and slippery steps of death—
When this old world begins to rock beneath my feet—
Lower me to my dusty grave in peace
To wait for that great gittin'-up morning—Amen.

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Related Poems

To S. M., A Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works

   To show the lab'ring bosom's deep intent, 
And thought in living characters to paint, 
When first thy pencil did those beauties give, 
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live, 
How did those prospects give my soul delight, 
A new creation rushing on my sight? 
Still, wond'rous youth! each noble path pursue; 
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view: 
Still may the painter's and the poet's fire, 
To aid thy pencil and thy verse conspire! 
And may the charms of each seraphic theme 
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame! 
High to the blissful wonders of the skies 
Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes. 
Thrice happy, when exalted to survey 
That splendid city, crown'd with endless day, 
Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring: 
Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring. 
   Calm and serene thy moments glide along, 
And may the muse inspire each future song! 
Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless'd, 
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest! 
But when these shades of time are chas'd away, 
And darkness ends in everlasting day, 
On what seraphic pinions shall we move, 
And view the landscapes in the realms above? 
There shall thy tongue in heav'nly murmurs flow, 
And there my muse with heav'nly transport glow; 
No more to tell of Damon's tender sighs, 
Or rising radiance of Aurora's eyes; 
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain, 
And purer language on th' ethereal plain. 
Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night 
Now seals the fair creation from my sight.