James Weldon Johnson wrote several poems. But those written on religious themes, have a special appeal due to their extraordinary diction and lucid style. In this poem, the poet talks about the biblical story of the creation of heaven, earth, sun, moon, and other creatures. The poem contains several words that have the essence of the Negro dialect. Moreover, the full title of the poem is ‘The Creation: A Negro Sermon’. In this way, the poem describing the story of Genesis had become an important literary specimen of the Harlem Renaissance in America.
This poem starts with a sense of continuity. According to the poet, God might have felt lonely. For this reason, he created the earth. But, he was not satisfied until he made humans. In the body of the poem, readers can find how God made this creation bit by bit. Firstly, he brought light into the world by creating, sun, moon, and stars. Thereafter he cooled the temperature of the earth by creating rain and made several creatures fill the space with the spontaneity of life. After this long process, he thought he would be happy. But, he was not. Hence, he created humans from the “lump of clay.”
It is a free verse poem without having a specific line-length or a set rhyming pattern. However, the flow of the poem does not halt for a single moment. It is the beauty of internal rhythm used by the poet for maintaining the verbal energy throughout the text. In some instances, the poet uses slant rhymes too. Apart from that, some lines of the poem are long in comparison to the neighboring lines. Whereas some lines are comparably short. For this reason, one cannot find a set metrical scheme in this poem. However, the poet mostly uses iambic and anapestic meter in this poem with a few metrical variations.
To make this story of the creation more appealing to the readers, Johnson uses numerous literary devices in this poem. To begin with, in the first stanza, the poet uses alliteration in the phrase, “make me”. The second stanza contains a hyperbole in “Blacker than a hundred midnights” and a personification in this line, “Darkness covered everything.” In the third stanza as well as in some handful of instances, the poet freely uses the device anaphora. Johnson uses this device to depict creation as a continuing process. He uses a metaphor in “a shining ball” for the moon.
Moreover, the poet uses epistrophe in the following lines, “And the waters above the earth came down, / The cooling waters came down.” Thereafter, he uses consonance in the phrase, “green grass sprouted.” Moreover, the poet packs the ninth stanza with a lot of repetitions. In the same stanza, the last line, “And God said: I’m lonely still”, the poet uses irony. In the eleventh stanza, there is a simile in the line, “Like a mammy bending over her baby.” There is also a synecdoche in the usage of the phrase, “lump of clay.” Last but not least, the overall poem is an allusion to the biblical episode of Genesis.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’ll make me a world.
‘The Creation’ begins with a continuity. The first line of the poem starts with the conjunction “And”. It refers to the fact that God was thinking about creating the earth for a long time. One day, he felt it was necessary for starting the process as he could not tolerate the loneliness anymore. However, such a beginning of a deeply religious episode from the Bible makes the poem more interesting for the readers. It seems that the poet wrote this poem to make the story of Genesis clear to children too.
In the first stanza, the speaker of the poem says God stepped out on the space of the universe and he looked around. Thereafter, seeing the endless space, he felt lonely. Suddenly an idea struck his mind. He decided to make him a world.
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
In the second stanza, the speaker says as far as God could see “Darkness covered everything.” This image reflects a sense of hopelessness and destruction. To heighten the poetic effect of this section, the poet says space was blacker than “a hundred midnights.” The grandiose language of this line as well as the hyperbolic expression increases the tension. Moreover, the poet refers to a “cypress swamp.” So, the poet begins the poem after the creation of the earth. For this reason, the swamp is already there. In the following sections, the poet talks about the creation of other elements that made the earth habitable for every creature including humans.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!
The third stanza captures the reaction of God after looking at the earth. The darkness and the inhabitable environment of earth could not make God fearful. For this reason, he smiled after looking below. In a flash of a second, he brought light dispelling the darkness. According to the poet, “the darkness rolled up on one side” and “the light stood shining on the other.” This section depicts how in front of the power of goodness, the darkness of evil fades away. However, after bringing light to the earth he smiled and exclaimed, “That’s good!”
Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!
The fourth stanza of ‘The Creation’ deals with the things that happened after the previous episode. As he had temporarily brought light, he had to create a permanent solution. For this reason, God took the light in his hands and rolled it around. In this way, he made the sun. Thereafter, he set the sun “a-blazing” in the “heavens”, an implied reference to the skies. It seems as if the poet is comparing “light” to “flour”. However, after creating the sun, there was some light left in God’s store. He utilized it to make the moon. Thereafter, he flung it against the darkness and spangled the night with the moon and stars.
Moreover, the poet says when the making of the source of lights was done, God set the world into motion. From that time, the world has been revolving in its eternal motion. The last line of this stanza acts as a refrain since the last line of the previous stanza ends similarly.
Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
Thereafter, God stepped down. Readers can see that the poet writes “Then God himself stepped down.” It refers to the humbleness of God. He, despite being the mightiest in the universe, stepping down from his throne to make the world hospitable. Such an attitude of God also depicts how much he loved his creation. However, he stepped down from his seat holding the sun in his right hand and the moon on other others. The stars clustering around his head and the earth beneath his feet depict the power of the Almighty. Moreover, he is the protector and the creator of all those things.
When God walked on earth, he created the valleys and the mountains. According to the poet, where God trod “His footsteps hollowed the valleys out/ And bulged the mountains up.” In this way, the mountains and valleys appeared on the face of the earth.
Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
When God was treading on the earth, he felt it was hot and barren. As the poet is describing the episodes following the creation of the earth, the earth was still hot and barren. To decrease the temperature of the surface and to make it inhabitable by different life forms, God stepped over to the edge of the world. Then he spat out the seven seas. So, His mouth was the source of the seas in the earth.
Thereafter, he fluttered his eyes and the lightning flashed across the sky. He clapped His hands and thunders rolled down from the sky. Moreover, the water from the clouds came down in the form of rain. In this way, God cooled the earth down and created the cyclicity of water in it. Apart from that, this section depicts the destructive and kind sides of the creator in one place.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder.
In this section of ‘The Creation’, the poet describes what happened after God eventuated raining on earth. Then the green grass raised their heads from the soft breast of earth, once that was extremely hot. In between them, little red flowers blossomed, followed by the sprouting of the pine tree. In the line, “The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,” the poet uses a personification. Here, the tree points its finger or branches to God sitting in heaven. Moreover, there was the oak tree spreading out its arms. The lakes cuddled down in the hollows and the rivers ran down to the sea.
To see such a beautiful nature, God smiled in admiration of his artistic sensibility. With his smile, the rainbow appeared in the sky and curled itself around God’s mighty shoulder.
Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!
Thereafter God raised his arm and waved to someone over the sea and the land. It seems that God might have waved to nature. Whatsoever, waving his hands he ordered to bring forth. No sooner had He dropped his hands than the fishes, fowls, beasts, and birds appeared. The fishes swam in the rivers and seas, the beasts followed the call of wilderness, and the birds split the air with their wings as warriors cutting all the barriers with their mighty swords. Moreover, He observed the activities of His creatures and uttered to himself, “That’s good!”
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.
In this stanza, the mood and tone of the poem changes. It shows how God became sad again even after creating nature and living creatures. According to the poet, God walked and looked around what he had created. Firstly, he looked at His sun. Thereafter he continued to observe His moon, stars, world, and all its living things. Still, something was missing in his art. His creation lacked the last touch. The stroke having the ability to heighten its artistic excellence. Whatsoever, as he looked at all that he created, he felt lonely again. In this way, the poet infuses more humanly qualities in his definition of “God”.
Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
In the tenth stanza of ‘The Creation’, the omniscient speaker says that God sat down on the side of a hill to think. There was a deep and wide river babbling by. He brainstormed for a solution to end his loneliness and insecurity just like a human being does. According to the image depicted in this stanza, God sat “with His head in His hands,/ God thought and thought.” In the fourth line, the poet uses the repetition of the “h” sound to create a resonating effect. The following line contains a palilogy. Whatsoever, at last, God decided to make a man. He thought the race of humans could end his loneliness and give him company.
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;
In this long stanza, the poet describes the creation of humankind. God was there where he was sitting in the previous stanza, beside a river and on the side of a hill. From the river bed, He scooped a sound amount of clay and by the bank, he kneeled.
In the following lines, the poet uses the stylistics of an epic and magnifies the importance of God. According to the poet, God “lit the sun and fixed it in the sky.” Moreover, he “flung the stars to the most far corner of the night” sky and “rounded the earth in the middle of His hand.” In this manner, the “Great God” knelt to create His most beloved creatures, humankind. How humble God is!
In the next line, the poet uses a simile. Here, he compares God to a “mammy” or mother who bends over her baby to pamper. Like a mother, God kneeled in the dust toiling over a lump of clay. In this line, the poet refers to God’s lowliness. However, He worked till He shaped it in an image that resembled him. In this way, God created the body of a man.
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
In the last stanza of the poem, the poet refers to how God gave life to the “lump of clay.” After shaping the clay into humans, He blew the “breath of life.” In this way, “man became a living soul.” As this poem is a sermon, the poet utters “amen” twice at the end. It means “so be it” and is used to express agreement or assent. Apart from that, in the first line of this stanza, the poet uses a metaphor in “breath of life.” It stands for the human soul.
The poet of ‘The Creation’, James Weldon Johnson was a famous 20th-century American poet. He is also one of the best African-American poets. Moreover, Johnson was the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was also one of the proponents of the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Movement (later named after The New Negro). In his poetry, readers can find several elements that reflect the essence of the black culture. In this poem, ‘The Creation: A Negro Sermon’, the poetic style and diction used by Johnson reflect closeness to Negro culture. The westernized version of the story of Genesis finds an indigenous expression in this poem. The poem was published in Johnson’s poetry collection “The Book of American Negro Poetry” (1922).
Here is a list of a few poems which are similar to the themes and subject matter of J. W. Johnson’s poem, ‘The Creation’. Readers can refer to the following poems for understanding how the theme of Genesis gets new embodiments in other writers’ works.
- In Praise of Creation by Elizabeth Jennings – In this poem, the speaker or the poet is in awe of creation. Moreover, the speaker is deliberately vague about why nature is so inspiring and magnificent.
- Praise Of Creation by George Moses Horton – This poem is about the creation of the universe. The poet begins this poem by glorifying God and praising his creation.
- The Pulley by George Herbert – In this metaphysical poem by Herbert. Here, the conceit revolves around the pulley and the dissatisfaction of humans.
- The Tyger by William Blake – It’s one of the best William Blake poems. Here, the poet depicts the formidable side of God who created ferocious creatures like the tiger.
- God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins – In this poem, Hopkins talks about the “grandeur of God.” Here, the poet expresses his faith in God and his creation even if the race of humankind is making it inhabitable.