Re-Reading a Poem
There are three different extant versions of Georgia Douglas Johnson’s “A Sonnet: TO THE MANTLED!” with two different titles (“SONNET TO THE MANTLED” and “TO THE MANTLED”) and three different page layouts, introductions, contexts, political implications, and neighboring works. Imagine the very moment Johnson put the first word to the first page. Perhaps she wrote, “BUT they will rise…”, beginning an iterative drafting process that continued until the moment the the envelope was stamped and dropped into the mail. And perhaps in May of 1917 Douglas opened her copy of the NAACP’s publication, The Crisis, to see this poem on page 17, facing the image of Taylor Henson in the article, “The Man Who Never Sold an Acre.” Perhaps she pulled out a draft and noticed differences: were they mistakes or editorial? Later in 1917 Johnson published a second version in William Stanley Braithwaite’s An Anthology of Magazine Verse, which claimed to use the The Crisis version. In 1922 she published a final version in Bronze, a collection of her poetry. Though each version is different, they claim to be the same poem. How do we attend to their differences? Is there a true, definitive version?
George Bornstein, the editorial theorist, would smirk. He would pause to remind us that, “Indeed, the literary work might be said to exist not in any one version, but in all the versions put together. In reading a particular page, we would want to know of the other versions of that page, and the first step in reading would then be to discover what other pages exist with claims on our attention” (6). He constructs the distinction between linguistic and bibliographic codes, the difference between the “words” and “the material features of the text… page layout, book design, ink and paper… in its original time and space” (7). We’re interested in examining the way the bibliographic codes exert these “claims on our attention” and the way that the versions of the poem guide what we notice and what we ignore. For that is the work of this essay: to show that reading a poem is not as simple as finding a definite linguistic code. We must explore the bibliographic codes surrounding each instantiation in order to approach the complex interaction between bibliographic form and linguistic content, between text, medium, editor, art, and politic.
A brief note on the readings: in each section, we plan to ask two question. First, who are the “Mantled”? Second, what temporal relation does the reader of the poem have to the text of the poem? Each reading offers a subtly different answer to this question, each adding delightful complications to the previous reading.
A Reading in The Crisis
“A Sonnet: TO THE MANTLED!” first appears on the seventeenth page of the May 1917 edition of The Crisis. We assume that the poem will participate in the purported mission of the magazine: “to set forth those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested to-day toward colored people” (The Crisis 1:1, page 10). This bibliographic context gives us the first key to breaking into the poem: the “Mantled”, “they”, are “colored people.”
If we come to the poem through the previous article, though, “colored people” quickly becomes “colored boys” while also providing us a temporal relation to the piece through the aspirational model of Taylor Henson. The previous article, “The Man Who Never Sold an Acre” was written by a certain J.B. Woods about a man named Taylor Henson from Arkansas. Henson was born into slavery before starting a wildly successful farm, clearing timber and growing corn. By the time the article was written, Henson had over 1,000 acres of prime real estate, having never sold one of them. It’s a simple success story telling the “many thousands of colored boys, now growing up, that they may aspire to follow in the footsteps of progress and become credits to their race” (17).
The very next bit of text – placed almost as a footnote to Woods’s story – is the title of Johnson’s piece, leading into the opening line, “And they shall rise and cast their mantles by” (17). Woods’s piece supplies that which “Mantled” modifies: suggesting the mantled, colored boys. Seen through the lens of Woods’ piece, the poem occupies a decidedly racial context: these boys have an example before them of men like Taylor Henson who have already broken the “dominion o’er the human clay” – even if the more evil curse of the poem, the chains of prejudice, have yet to be overcome (17). The poem gives hope by acting as prophecy for a victory already partially won by men like Henson – who, though they may not yet “soar aloft,” have certainly made a name for themselves.
When ‘they’ becomes “colored boys,” we run into the traditional boxes surrounding Johnson’s verse. The poem, using a racial linguistic code through “Mantled”, “prejudice”, and “fetters” as well as a racial bibliographic code through The Crisis does not at all limit itself in terms of gender. Johnson, as a woman, is delimited to poetic mother, prophesying success for the young men of the race. Just as the layout of the page has Johnson’s poem supporting the end of Taylor Henson’s tale, so her role in this grand narrative is that of aspirational prophet and matron. Her art, hope, and prophecy act as a podium for the success of black men – but what about women? A biblio-intersectional reading demands that we not merely attend to the racial signification of the piece, but also acknowledge the way that the The Crisis exerts a subtle masculinist influence over our reading of the poem.
A Woman Anthologized
Later in 1917 William Stanley Braithwaite released his Anthology of Magazine Verse For 1917. Georgia Douglas Johnson’s poem appeared under the title “TO THE MANTLED” with the citation “The Crisis… Georgia Douglas Johnson” appearing below. Braithwaite, as a scholar, represented a bulwark of upper middle class African American assimilationist values. In the April 1911 edition of The Crisis, after his poem “Resurrection”, he is introduced as follows: “Mr. Braithwaite’s art is characterized by care, restraint and exquisite taste. He marks the rise of Negro American letters above the mere bonds of race into the universal brotherhood” (19). Braithwaite wished to be known as a scholar, not a black scholar.
The anthology has no discernible organizational structure and brings in a wide array of poetry from a diversity of sources, not at all limited to a racial or gendered group. Johnson’s poem appears after Willard Wattles’ six-page “The Seventh Vial”, which addresses democracy in America and opens with: “These are the days when men draw pens for swords” (167). Johnson’s poem is followed by “Ishmael” by Louis Untermeyer, concerning the role of Jewish soldiers in World War I. The clues to a contextualized reading of the poem lie in both the citations and the brief biography in the back of the text. The immediate hints are The Crisis, as it was concerned with race prejudice; a recognition of keywords like “Mantled” and “prejudice”; or the name Georgia Douglas Johnson, a woman.
Before moving forward, here is a brief introduction to the term ‘Mantled’ as would be understood in a broad sense and in a racially co-opted sense. First, a mantle is a “loose sleeveless cloak” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which notes that, “Its application is now chiefly restricted to long cloaks worn by women and to the robes worn by royal, ecclesiastical, and other dignitaries on ceremonial occasions.” It has historically held significance in the phrase, “the mantle and the ring,” referring to a vow of chastity a widow would take upon the death of her husband. Second, during this period, black artists and intellectuals co-opted the term to refer to the racial ‘cloak’ that limits the black body. Du Bois, even in his forward to Bronze says, “Can you not see the marching of the mantled” in reference to the suggestions of Johnson’s verse. In the Harlem Renaissance community this term would have immediate racial significance.
The anthology, however, does not necessarily provide immediate or obvious access to the community of the Harlem Renaissance. A turn to page 398 of Braithwaite’s book shows a brief biography concerning Johnson’s birth, education, and her divided interest between “writing and housekeeping” and her book of poetry, The Heart of a Woman, and Other Poems. There is no mention of race. For the uninitiated, Braithwaite thus accentuates a reading based on gender, suggesting a different answer to our first question: who are the “Mantled”? Well, they are the individuals who typically wear mantles: women. One might see the term “Mantled” in the same way other feminist discourse uses the term “Corset” – a piece of clothing that is constraining, muffling, or veiling.
An interested reader might then search for The Heart of a Woman, and Other Poems as a way to further explore Johnson’s verse, in an attempt to more deeply understand this term. They would immediately come across Braithwaite’s Introduction, a three page series of occasionally condescending, albeit genuine, compliments: “The poems in this book are intensely feminine and for me this means more than anything else that they are deeply human” (vii). After discussing the “mystery and passion” and lack of full emancipation of women, he says, “Here, then, is lifted the veil, in these poignant songs and lyrics” (vii). The veil of prejudice? Could this selection of poems be casting off of a mantle of sexism?
Reading through the lyrics in the edition does not debunk this analysis. Many of the images in “TO THE MANTLED” appear first here. On the first page, in the title poem, “The Heart of a Woman”, we see the image of a lone bird behind the bars of captivity attempting to “forget it has dreamed of the stars.” In The Anthology of Magazine Verse the “joyful exiles” break forth “Into the very star-shine, lo!” On page 5 of Johnson’s collection, the poem “Contemplation” opens and closes with the line, “We stand mute!”, mirroring the line in “TO THE MANTLED,” “While voices, strange to ecstasy, long dumb, / Break forth in major cadences, full sweet.” As a final example, the poem “Elevation” in Johnson’s collection speaks of the “highways in the soul […] Far beyond earth-veiled eyes.” The soul’s elevation is like the spirit which “soars aloft” in “TO THE MANTLED.” This continues.
A reader of The Anthology of Magazine Verse edition of “TO THE MANTLED” would not be wrong to read this poem as a lyric about the oppression of women written by a woman. Braithwaite encourages this reading. The prophecy feels lonely and powerless stuck in an anthology. The anthology, as a text, encourages reading “they” as “women,” “mantles” as “internalized sexism,” “prejudice” as “sexism outright,” and “spirit” as “the heart of a woman.” This is limiting. Without the bibliographic codes to understand the significance of language like “mantled,” the reader cannot possibly understand the layered significance in this work.
A Brazen Reading
Johnson’s 1922 book, Bronze, opens with our poem, this time entitled, “SONNET TO THE MANTLED.” This final instantiation of the piece appeared five years after it first appeared on the pages of The Crisis and Anthology of Magazine Verse. This version offers substantial changes to the linguistic code while proposing itself as the “definitive” version, ordered and organized by Johnson herself. This is the reading, we propose to crack open, not limiting the text to a black masculinity or a de-racialized femininity, but instead proposing a reading that honors each bibliographic precedent and layers them together.
In a 1941 letter to Arna Bontemps, Johnson writes, “My first book was the Heart of a Woman. It was not at all race conscious. Then someone said – she has no feeling for the race. So I wrote Bronze – it is entirely racial…” And so we would argue that Bronze is not entirely racial, but is deeply informed by a black feminist experience.
We should first note the linguistic shifts from the first version in The Crisis to this version. The key change is the shift in the fifth line from a period to a comma. Instead of “To lift no more her leprous, blinded eye. / Reft of the fetters,” this version proceeds “To lift no more her leprous, blinded eye, / Reft of the fetters…” This shift in modification is key to the central meaning of the text, introducing an ambiguity absent in previous versions. Where once “Reft of the fetters” clearly modified “The spirit” now we see an extended uncertainty. The phrase still works best as a modification of “The spirit” but a first reading suggests that the phrase might modify “blinded eye” or even “prejudice” itself. The mantle of prejudice is, in some sense, freed just as the spirit is freed.
We might ask, then, why this prejudice needs freedom. Perhaps prejudice, here, is not an amorphous thing, but is treated synonymously to “mantles.” Prejudice is a mantle. In this reading, Johnson suggests that both prejudice and the spirit are “reft of the fetters.” Perhaps this mantle of prejudice is not merely a spiritual one, but that the body itself is being Curfewed to death – that freedom from prejudice is freedom from the mantle of the body. Prejudice is mantle is body. The images are those of the body being freedom from the fetters of man and of death freeing the spirit from the body.
While in The Crisis and the Anthology didn’t usher these Christian readings to the surface, both the author’s note and the structure of the book give us reason to propose them. Johnson’s tone as framed by the section is one of “Exhortation.” If an exhortation is a strong plea or encouragement, how can this be prophecy? The “shall” becomes less certain in the first line – more or a request.
It is a plea for freedom from the chains of the body by a spirit who feels caged by the “identities” forced upon it and the implications and assumptions of that identity. It is a vision of a freedom manipulating the lexica of race and feminism to plea for a future victory and a reclamation of voices “long dumb.”
Cast Her Mantle By
There are two ways to approach this sonnet. First, we, like DuBois in the Bronze foreword could acknowledge Johnson as merely a colored woman writing for colored women: “Those who know what it means to be a colored woman in 1922 – and know it not so much in fact as in feeling, apprehension, unrest and delicate yet stern thought – must read Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Bronze” (7). Or we, like Jessie Fauset in her review of Heart of a Woman, and Other Poems, could explore her poetry as revolutionary: “In this work, Mrs. Johnson, although a woman of color, is dealing with life as it is regardless of the part that she may play in the great drama” (468). Now, we may (and should) challenge her perceived role “in the great drama.” We must acknowledge that “the mantled” are a complicated entity with a multiplicity of identities – and just as this poem could stand for the Feminist and the African American, so it also stands for the African American Feminist. We must acknowledge Johnson’s voice as the the poignant expression of a complicated mesh of oppressions and delimitations, and follow the linguistic and bibliographic codes into a marginalized and complicated life.
Bornstein, George. Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
Braithwaite, William Stanley, ed. Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1917. Boston, Mass: Small, Maynard, and Company, 1917. Print.
—. “Introduction.” The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems. Boston, Mass: The Cornhill Company, 1918. Print.
—. “Resurrection.” The Crisis Apr. 1911: 17. Print.
Du Bois, W. E. B. “Foreword.” Bronze. Boston, Mass: B. J. Brimmer Company, 1922. Print.
“Editorial.” The Crisis Nov. 1910: 10. Print.
Fauset, Jessie. “Review of ‘The Heart of a Woman’ by Georgia Douglas Johnson.” The Journal of Negro History Oct. 1919: 467–468. Print.
Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Print. Everywoman: Studies in Hist., Lit. & Culture xi, 240 pp.
Johnson, Georgia Douglas. “A Sonnet: To the Mantled!” The Crisis May 1917: 17. Print.
—. Bronze. Boston, Mass: B. J. Brimmer Company, 1922. Print.
—. GDJ to Arna Bontemps. 19 July 1941. Letter.
—. The Heart of a Woman and Other Poems. Boston: The Cornhill Company, 1918. Print.
Jones, Gwendolyn S. “Georgia Douglas Johnson (1880?-1966).” African American Authors, 1745-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. (ed. and preface) Nelson. xvi, 525 pp. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. 284–289. Print.