‘The Heart of a Woman’ by Georgia Douglas Johnson is a short two stanza poem that consistently follows the rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD. “The Heart of a Woman” was included in Johnson’s collection of poems, The Heart of a Woman, published in 1918. You can read the full poem here.
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Summary of The Heart of a Woman
The poems begins with the speaker describing how at dawn a woman’s heart is able to fly forth from her home like a “lone bird.” This is the only way that a woman is able to experience, even for a time, true freedom. A woman’s heart, described as a softly flying bird, travels over all the varying landscapes of the world below. She flies over valleys and turrets and travels through all the feelings that call her home. She will return soon enough.
In the second stanza, the day has ended and the woman is forced back into the reality of her world. The bird is once more imprisoned in an “alien cage” that is meant to keep it safe. This confinement seems absurd and incomprehensible to the woman who was just living in so much freedom.
In the final lines of this piece, the cage in which the woman is trapped is described as being a “shelter.” This “shelter,” meant to keep a woman from falling to any harm, is the structure that harms her the most.
Analysis of The Heart of a Woman
The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,(…)In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The poet begins this piece by having her speaker describe one state in which a woman can exist. It is this first description, that takes up the majority of the first stanza, that will be longed for, and purposefully forgotten in the second stanza.
She begins by describing how the “heart of a woman” is able to travel out from her body and take flight “with the dawn.” This description of freedom initially seems perfect, as if there is nothing more than one could want than to be able to travel with the dawn. But it is important to note that this freedom is not physical, it is only within a woman’s heart that this happens. This is a very important restriction to keep in mind.
As the poem progresses the state of a woman’s freedom becomes more and more perilous and depressing. In the second line the speaker compares the traveling heart of a woman to a “lone bird” that flies over the world. The bird is said to be “soft winging” or softly flying, but is still restless in it’s movements. Through its flight it is attempting to find some peace, but it knows anything it finds will be temporary, as will be shown in the second stanza.
The bird, now being used as a metaphor for a woman’s heart, soul, and freedom, is flying over the “turrets” and “vales” of life. These two opposites, valleys, and towers, provide the reader with some additional insight into how this speaker sees the world. There are high points and low points. These high points, while safe, far above the ground, take one away from the realities of life. In contrast, the “vales,” or valleys over which the bird flies, can be seen as both deep, unknowable places, an oasis’s of beauty and possibility. The bird touches neither of these, but continues to fly.
All of this that is laid out below the bird has a pervading feeling, or echo, of home. While the woman, or bird, might be above all of that now, experiencing a sense of freedom, it will call her home. This is proven true in the second stanza.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,(…)While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
The heart that was traveling so freely during the day “falls back with the night.” As night falls, and the day becomes dark, blocking women off from the world, the bird is forced to return home. While to some this might be a relief, in this context the bird has entered an “alien cage” when it finally returns. It has grown used to the world outside and is surprised to find itself trapped once more.
Once inside this cage, and with no hope of escape, the bird and heart of a woman try to forget that there is anything other than the present. It will make imprisonment easier if she can completely block out the beauty of the world that she was just flying over.
The bars behind which she is trapped are unbreakable. But that does not stop her from banging on them, endless and ceaselessly. There is no hope of getting out, but the “shelter” they are providing is unwanted.
Johnson has been able to craft a perfectly well thought out and complete metaphor that describes the plight of women. This metaphor, while almost universally relevant in the early-mid-1900s while Johnson was writing, is still widely relevant today. Many women still find themselves trapped within cages and within homes that come hidden behind the guise of shelter.
About Georgia Douglas Johnson
Georgia Douglas Johnson was born in Atlanta, Georgia in September of 1877. She attended the Normal School of Atlanta University and graduated in 1893. After this, she taught for a time at schools in Atlanta and Marietta. She would go on to work as a school principal.
In 1903, she married Henry Lincoln Johnson who was an attorney and politician. With her husband, she moved to Washington, D.C. in 1916. It was there that her first books of poetry were published, The Heart of a Woman, in 1918 and Bronze, in 1922. Her husband died three years after the publication of Bronze and she was forced to return to the work. Johnson was a single parent but through her dedication to her sons, she was able to help fund their education and continue with her own writing.
Throughout her life, beginning around 1927, she wrote over twenty-eight plays. It was also during this time that her writing was at its most popular. Her third volume of poetry, An Autumn Love Cycle, was published in 1928 and her final volume, Share My World, was released in 1962. She died only four years later in May of 1966.
She is considered to be the most important African-American woman poet of her time.