‘Sence You Went Away’ by James Weldon Johnson explores the loss of love, and how nothing seems quite right after it’s gone. Johnson uses examples of the natural world losing its sense of order and beauty now that he no longer has contact with his lover. Although we don’t know the reason for their departure, we can be sure that Johnson is deeply moved by their loss.
The poem has a repeating structure, three lines of explaining how things are now worse, and then the fourth containing the refrain ‘sence you went away’. It is a poem of loss, and how that loss impacts the poet.
You can read the full poem Sence You Went Away here.
As stated above, each stanza of ‘Sence You Went Away’ is ordered similarly. The first three lines of each stanza explore the impacts of the lover’s departure, with the final line echoing the cause: ‘sence you went away’. There are four stanzas within the poem, each being made up of a quatrain (four lines). Each of the first three lines within each stanza rhyme with each other – ‘bright’, ’light’ and ‘right’ being an example from the first stanza.
There is a sense of rhythm and flow within the poem. This can be attributed to the equal syllable length of each of the lines within the poem. In each stanza, the first three lines have 10 syllables, with the fourth line always having five. This cohesion between the lines gives the poem a steady sense of rhythm, a certain musicality being evoked by the poet’s words. On top of this, the use of dialect (which I will explain more about in Poetic Techniques) allows for the creation of this syllable count. By having the final line measure 5 syllables, instead of the 10 of every other line, Johnson furthers the sense of melancholy in admitting that his lover ‘went away’. The shorter line is structurally depressing, breaking the musicality of the poem each time it arrises. ‘Sence You Went Away’ is fantastically structured in order to convey the heartfelt emotion of the poet.
One technique that Johnson uses when writing ‘Sence You Went Away’ is dialect. By writing using African American Vernacular English (AAVE), he both simultaneously represents the Black community within his writing, and also allows for the metrical pacing of the poem to fit into the ten syllables he has constructed. In AAVE, some words that are presented with two syllables in Standard English instead only measure one syllable – an example being ‘goin’’. In doing this, Johnson conveys a great depth of meaning, while also constraining his writing into 10 syllables. Dialects are fascinating, if this is something you are interested in, there is a fantastic Stanford paper written about AAVE and how it is not just Standard English with grammar mistakes – something I think is incredibly important to understand.
Another technique that Johnson uses when writing ‘Sence You Went Away’ is natural imagery. Nature is something everyone can experience and visually. Therefore, when he references the beauty of the ‘stars’ and ‘sun’, everyone reading the poem can relate, furthering the intensity of the image due to the communal ease of reception. Johnson uses common natural images to house the beauty of the poem, detracting from them now that his lover is no longer with him.
A third technique that Johnson employs throughout the poem is anaphora. The repeating line starting words, ‘Seems lak to me’ allows for a sense of rhythm to be built up as the poem progresses. The regularity of the poem increases the ease of reading, with Johnson presenting a complex subject of heartbreak through understandable means. Anaphora builds the sense of cohesion across the poem, the repeating structure furthering the emphasis on each event Johnson references.
Sence You Went Away Analysis
Seems lak to me de stars don’t shine so bright,Seems lak to me de sun done loss his light,Seems lak to me der’s nothin’ goin’ right,Sence you went away.
Johnson begins ‘Sence You Went Away’ by focusing on how ‘de stars don’t shine so bright’. Light is often a metaphor for happiness, with starlight also being a feature of natural beauty. In reducing the presence of this image, now not ‘so bright’, Johnson eradicates this sense of beauty and positivity, allowing for the first line of the poem to suggest his internal melancholy.
This is then furthered by the ‘sun done loss his light’, Johnson again using the lack of light to symbolize his own sadness. The ‘sun’ is a powerful image of light and nature, Johnson once again detracting from these ideas by focusing on the lack of ‘sun’.
Now that his lover ‘went away’, Johnson suggests that ‘nothin’ goin’ right’, his life seemingly becoming complicated and nonsensical.
Seems lak to me de sky ain’t half so blue,Seems lak to me dat eve’ything wants you,Seems lak to me I don’t know what to do,Sence you went away.
Within this stanza of ‘Sence You Went Away’, Johnson continues to explain what exactly is going wrong in his life now that his lover ‘went away’. The first image relates again to nature, ‘da sky ain’t half so blue’, the blue color fading from the sky. The loss of color again relates to unhappiness, monochromatic ‘grey’ often being a melancholic color.
Johnson also makes reference to ‘everything’ in his life ‘wants you’, the use of the direct address suggesting that he is writing his towards his now ex-lover.
Indeed, without his lover, Johnson ‘don’t know what to do’, feeling a sense of loss now they have departed.
Seems lak to me dat eve’ything is wrong,Seems lak to me de day’s jes twice ez long,Seems lak to me de bird’s forgot his song,Sence you went away.
The ideas of loss continue in this stanza. First of all, ‘eve’ything is wrong’, the days also seem ‘twice ez long’. Finally, even the natural balance of the word is being thrown out of proportion, from the perspective of Johnson. Indeed, Johnson suggests that ‘de bird’s forgot his song’, the natural harmony of birdsong being extinguished. Again, this relates to the lack of Johnson’s love, it seeming like there is less joy in the world now they have departed.
Seems lak to me I jes can’t he’p but sigh,Seems lak to me ma th’oat keeps gittin’ dry,Seems lak to me a tear stays in ma eye,Sence you went away.
The fourth stanza echoes the ideas from the previous stanza, but focuses on the direct response of Johnson’s own body. The breakup has left him with ‘tear stays in ma eye’, a ‘th’oat’ that ‘keeps gettin’ dry’, and the constant need to ‘sigh’. Everything is going wrong for Johnson, from a physical response right up to natural disorder. The poem is one of lost love, with Johnson presenting all the things that have become worse now he is alone.