By James Weldon Johnson
Eternities before the first-born day,
Or ere the first sun fledged his wings of flame,
Calm Night, the everlasting and the same,
A brooding mother over chaos lay.
And whirling suns shall blaze and then decay,
Shall run their fiery courses and then claim
The haven of the darkness whence they came;
Back to Nirvanic peace shall grope their way.
So when my feeble sun of life burns out,
And sounded is the hour for my long sleep,
I shall, full weary of the feverish light,
Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt,
And heavy-lidded, I shall softly creep
Into the quiet bosom of the Night.
(Today’s poem is in the public domain, belongs to the masses, and appears here today accordingly.)
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist. In addition to being known for his leadership of the NAACP, Johnson was known during the Harlem Renaissance for his poems, novels, and anthologies collecting both poems and spirituals of black culture. (Annotated biography of James Weldon Johnson courtesy of Wikipedia, with edits.)
Editor’s Note: This Yuletide season I have been thinking—and writing—about ancient holiday traditions that we still practice, and how we received them. So when I came across today’s poem I was struck by the homage it seems to pay to the ancient festival of Mothers’ Night. This winter celebration was held on the eve of Yule, and celebrated The Mothers (goddesses) giving birth to the sun and the new year.
Beyond its title, today’s poem is rich with images of this ancient holiday: the night of labor, the birth of the sun, and the cycle of a year, when “whirling suns shall blaze and then decay.” Yet just as winter is a kind of death, in the second stanza the poet turns “Mother Night” into a metaphor for his own eventual death, imagining that when his time comes he will “Welcome the darkness without fear or doubt” and “softly creep / Into the quiet bosom of the Night.”