Monday, August 6, 2012

POETRY BREAK #8: "The Prodigal Son" by James Weldon Johnson

Albie's Note:  Here is a poem by the great American poet James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) first published in his incredible little volume GOD'S TROMBONES back in 1927.  Subtitled "Seven Negro Sermons In Verse," this book is said to be "patterned after traditional African-American religious oratory" and is now considered one of the seminal works in American Literary and Poetic History.  

The Prodigal Son

by James Weldon Johnson

Young man—

Young man—

Your arm's too short to box with God.

But Jesus spake in a parable, and he said:

A certain man had two sons.

Jesus didn't give this man a name,

But his name is God Almighty.

And Jesus didn't call these sons by name,

But ev'ry young man,


Is one of these two sons.

And the younger son said to his father,

He said: Father, divide up the property,

And give me my portion now.

And the father with tears in his eyes 'said: Son,

Don't leave your father's house.

But the boy was stubborn in his head,

And haughty in his heart,

And he took his share of his father's goods,

And went into a far-off country.

There comes a time,

There comes a time

When ev'ry young man looks out from his father's house

Longing for that far-off country.

And the young man journeyed on his way,

And he said to himself as he travelled along:

This sure is an easy road,

Nothing like the rough furrows behind my father's plough.

Young man—

Young man—

Smooth and easy is the road

That leads to hell and destruction.

Down grade all the way,

The farther you travel, the faster you go.

No need to trudge and sweat and toil,

Just slip and slide and slip and slide

Till you bang up against hell's iron gate.

And the younger son kept travelling along,

Till at night-time he came to a city.

And the city was bright in the night-time like day,

The streets all crowded with people,

Brass bands and string bands a-playing,

And ev'rywhere the young man turned

There was singing and laughing and dancing.

And he stopped a passer-by and he said:

Tell me what city is this?

And the passer-by laughed and said: Don't you know?

This is Babylon, Babylon,

That great city of Babylon.

Come on, my friend, and go along with me.

And the young man joined the crowd.

Young man—

Young man—

You're never lonesome in Babylon.

You can always join a crowd in Babylon.

Young man—

Young man—

You can never be alone in Babylon,

Alone with your Jesus in Babylon.

You may never find a place, a lonesome place,

A lonesome place to go down on your knees,

And talk with your God, in Babylon.

You're always in a crowd in Babylon.

And the young man went with his new-found friend,

And bought himself some brand-new clothes,

And he spent his days in the drinking-dens,

Swallowing the fires of hell.

And he spent his nights in the gambling-dens,

Throwing dice with the devil for his soul.

And he met up with the women of Babylon.

Oh, the women of Babylon !

Dressed in yellow and purple and scarlet,

Loaded with rings and earrings and bracelets,

Their lips like honeycomb dripping with honey,

Perfumed and sweet-smelling like a jasmine flower;

And the jasmine smell of the Babylon women

Got in his nostrils and went to his head,

And he wasted his substance in riotous living,

In the evening, in the black and dark of night,

With the sweet-sinning women of Babylon.

And they stripped him of his money,

And they stripped him of his clothes,

And they left him broke and ragged

In the streets of Babylon.

Then the young man joined another crowd—

The beggars and lepers of Babylon.

And he went to feeding swine,

And he was hungrier than the hogs;

He got down on his belly in the mire and mud

And ate the husks with the hogs.

And not a hog was too low to turn up his nose

At the man in the mire of Babylon.

Then the young man came to himself—

He came to himself and said:

In my father's house were many mansions,

Ev'ry servant in his house has bread to eat,

Ev'ry servant in his house has a place to sleep;

I will arise and go to my father.

And his father saw him afar off,

And he ran up the road to meet him.

He put clean clothes upon his back,

And a golden chain around his neck,

He made a feast and killed the fatted calf,

And invited the neighbours in.

Oh-o-oh, sinner,

When you're mingling with the crowd in Babylon—

Drinking the wine of Babylon—

Running with the women of Babylon—

You forget about God, and you laugh at Death.

To-day you've got the strength of a bull in your neck

And the strength of a bear in your arms,

But some o' these days, some o' these days,

You'll have a hand-to-hand struggle with bony Death,

And Death is bound to win.

Young man, come away from Babylon,

That hell-border city of Babylon.

Leave the dancing and gambling of Babylon,

The wine and whisky of Babylon,

The hot-mouthed women of Babylon;

Fall down on your knees,

And say in your heart:

"I will arise and go to my Father."

"For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost."
--LUKE 19:10

N.C Wyeth, "The Prodigal Son Returns"


old guy rambling said...

Very nice, a great old story told in a new way. Well maybe not so new but unique.

Albie The Good said...

OLD GUY: Oh yeah Johnson was a classic... if you like this the whole little book is full of great similar poetry.

Thanks for commenting. :)

Oscar said...

Enough material there for a couple of hymns, too.

Albie The Good said...

OSCAR: I think you're right!

Now that I think of it one old hymn is kinda similar,too: "COME YE SINNERS POOR AND NEEDY"... Hmmmm I feel a blog comin' on!

Thanks for stoppin' Brother :)

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Your regards
Carla Pratt