James Weldon Johnson’s "My City"
James Weldon Johnson
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 incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct 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!
Octave: “When I come down to sleep death's endless night”
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: “But, ah! Manhattan's sights and sounds, her smells”
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!”
A short biography of James Weldon Johnson
© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes