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Deep in the Quiet Wood by James Weldon Johnson

“Deep in the Quiet Wood,” written by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), is a poem about finding an escape in the “peaceful wood” from the daily trials and tribulations of life. The speaker invites the readers to find complete solitude in the fantastical wood. He asks the listener to let their souls run wild and reach heaven, where they can finally hear the beautiful music and feel at peace at last.

  • Read the full text of “Deep in the Quiet Wood” below:
Deep in the Quiet Wood
by James Weldon Johnson

Are you bowed down in heart?
Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life?
Then come away, come to the peaceful wood,
Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now,
From out the palpitating solitude
Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains?
They are above, around, within you, everywhere.
Silently listen! Clear, and still more clear, they come.
They bubble up in rippling notes, and swell in singing tones.
Now let your soul run the whole gamut of the wondrous scale
Until, responsive to the tonic chord,
It touches the diapason of God’s grand cathedral organ,
Filling earth for you with heavenly peace
And holy harmonies.
Analysis of Deep in the Quiet Wood by James Weldon Johnson


Summary

This poem is an allegory that reminds people that we shouldn’t lose the sense of who we are or what truly matters despite the noise or din of daily life. Johnson was known to be a musician at heart, and the way the poem has auditory imagery despite not having a fixed rhyming scheme is commendable. The speaker of this poem sends an invitation to all the readers to reconsider their priorities in life and explore the woods in search of something truly meaningful.

Structure & Form

Johnson’s “Deep in the Quiet Wood” has fourteen lines with no stanza breaks, making it a loose sonnet. However, unlike traditional sonnets, this poem does not have a fixed rhyme scheme though it has a few internal rhymes like “Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life?” and “They bubble up in rippling notes, and swell in singing tones.” This poem has a continuous structure with a free flow and does not follow the usual meter that sonnets follow. Hence, it is a free-verse lyric. Besides, the tone of the poem shifts from rhetorical to narrative at the end of line four.

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Literary Devices & Figurative Language 

In “Deep in the Quiet Wood,” Johnson uses many poetic devices to enhance his ideas; some of them are: 

  • Rhetorical Question: A literary device used to influence, convince or please an audience that doesn’t require an actual response. The poet uses this to evoke thought in the readers or to grasp their attention; for example, “Are you bowed down in heart?”, “Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life?” and “Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains?”
  • Apostrophe: It occurs when the speaker addresses a person or an object that does not exist in the poem. For example, “Listen! Now,/ From out the palpitating solitude” and “Silently listen! Clear, and still more clear, they come.” 
  • Allegory: A poem that conveys a hidden moral meaning; here, the poet is seemingly talking about finding peace and solitude in the woods, but it also means taking a hiatus from our hectic daily lives and not losing one’s real self. 
  • Metaphor: A comparison between two, unlike things, is a metaphor. For example, “Here bathe your soul in silence.” In this line, the “wood” is compared to a spring or river. 
  • Alliteration: It occurs when similar sounds are repeated in neighboring words; for example, “above, around,” “clear, they come.”, “swell in singing,” “God’s grand,” and “holy harmonies.”
  • Imagery: The poet uses descriptive language to paint a lasting image in the reader’s mind. For example, “clashing discords,” “peaceful wood,” “palpitating solitude,” “They bubble up in rippling notes and swell in singing tones,” “God’s grand cathedral organ,” and “Filling earth for you with heavenly peace.” 
  • Personification: Human characteristics given to non-living things; for example, “palpitating solitude.” 
  • Symbolism: This literary device occurs where specific terms are used to represent a thought, idea, or theme. In this poem, the “wood” symbolizes peace, tranquility, and an escape from the hustle of daily life. It could signify taking time off, being in solitude, and finding something soulful in life. 


Theme & Meaning

“Deep in the Quiet Wood” has a magical and mystical tone, which is elated by the writing style of Johnson. In a philosophical sense, this poem is an invitation from the poet to the woods. The poet starts the poem in a rhetorical sense. It shows that the speaker knows that the readers are downhearted because of the trials in life, and thus, the poet suggests an escape into the woods. This is to find solitude, peace, and to find silence.

In a literal sense, the poem is an extended metaphor for nature’s musical antidote used in spiritual healing. The poet draws upon contrasts like “din” and “silence” to show that life can be exhausting, and as humans, we all need to take time for ourselves.

The theme of the poem revolves around spirituality. The business of everyday life constricts our soul and does not let it run freely. In the “woods,” our soul will be for once greeted with peace, and so, it will travel freely and find a way to heaven. Johnson even goes on to say that our soul could touch the “diapason of God’s grand cathedral organ” that once in harmony, it will find bliss even on earth and hear “holy harmonies.”

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation 

Lines 1-4

Are you bowed down in heart?

Do you but hear the clashing discords and the din of life?

Then come away, come to the peaceful wood,

Here bathe your soul in silence. Listen! Now,

Johnson begins the poem “Deep in the Quiet Wood” with a rhetorical question, which evokes thought in the readers and grasps their attention. “Bowed down” means to feel weary at body and mind. A bowed head symbolizes lifelong burden, remorse, and pain.

In the second line, the addition of the conjunction “but” puts emphasis on the fact that the poet is aware that the reader can’t hear anything other than the noise of their life. The “clashing discords” and “din” evoke a cacophonic sound in the mind of the readers. These phrases are used to signify disharmony and clamor of life.

The third line is an invitation by the poet, a solution for the hectic life described above. The mythical “wood” signifies tranquility and peace found in nature’s abode. Johnson alludes to the fact that being in proximity with nature and away from the hustle of everyday life maintains peace of mind.

The tone changes at the end of the fourth line. Johnson uses metaphor to demonstrate just how peaceful the woods are that being there would be equivalent to bathing one’s soul in silence.

Lines 5-8

From out the palpitating solitude

Do you not catch, yet faint, elusive strains?

They are above, around, within you, everywhere.

Silently listen! Clear, and still more clear, they come.

In the fifth line of “Deep in the Quiet Wood,” “palpitating solitude” is used to conjure an image in the readers’ minds. By personifying “solitude” and giving it the characteristics of a human heart, Johnson makes readers feel it is alive. In the next line, he draws upon contrasts and asks the spectator to listen to the “faint, elusive strains” of silence originating from the “peaceful wood.” That silence encompasses an individual at all times, and he can only “hear” it when his mind is at ease. The poet says that once the silence of the woods is heard, it would be impossible to ignore it. If one listens to it carefully, he will notice the notes of silence becoming clearer with time.

Lines 9-14

They bubble up in rippling notes, and swell in singing tones.

Now let your soul run the whole gamut of the wondrous scale

Until, responsive to the tonic chord,

It touches the diapason of God’s grand cathedral organ,

Filling earth for you with heavenly peace

And holy harmonies.

In this line, Johnson portrays “silence” as something tangible, saying it bubbles up in rippling “notes.” Here, the speaker possibly refers to musical notes, which the poet alludes to throughout the poem. In the following line, “gamut” means range. By saying, “Now let your soul run the whole gamut of the wondrous scale,” the speaker means that the reader should let themselves be free in the woods and not be held back by worldly burdens and responsibilities.

A “tonic chord” is also known as a keynote in music. Here, the poet says that the reader should let their souls run wild until a keynote or a sound of harmony is heard. It means that until something strikes their hearts, they must wait and let their souls roam freely.

In the next line, Diapason is the main stop of a pipe organ. Here, the poet says that the reader’s soul will reach the “diapason of God’s grand cathedral organ,” meaning nature; the poet reimagines nature as a place with a beautiful symphony. He assures the readers that all of their worries will wither away once they hear the music from nature, which will set their souls in a ceaseless peace. Heavenly harmonies and peace will only be found by setting oneself free from the burdens, responsibilities, and delusions of daily life.

Historical Context

James Weldon Johnson was a lawyer, diplomat, and activist. He wrote several poems and was a music enthusiast. This part of his personality was wonderfully weaved into the poem “Deep in the Quiet Wood.” It shows a glimpse at the man himself. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual and cultural revival of African American music, dance, art, fashion, literature, theater, and politics centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, spanning the 1920s and 1930s.

Questions & Answers

What is the poem “Deep in the Quiet Wood” about? 

James Weldon Johnson’s “Deep in the Quiet Wood” is about how the hustle of daily life restricts the soul and how the soul finds true solitude in the woods (i.e., in nature or solitude).

What does the poet mean by the term “wood”? 

The poet refers to solitude, nature, peace, and tranquility as the “woods.” It is a place where “silence” can be heard, and your soul can finally be in harmony.

What is the theme of the poem “Deep in the Quiet Wood”? 

The theme of the poem is the divine rhythm of nature and tranquility in solitude and nature.

What are the poetic devices used in “Deep in the Quiet Wood”? 

The poet paints a clear and long-lasting image by using a number of poetic devices such as alliteration, metaphor, symbolism, etc.

What does the line “Are you bowed down in heart?” mean?

The first line of Johnson’s poem “Deep in the Quiet Wood” is a clarion call to unplug oneself from the tiring routine of life and set the silencing music of the “peaceful wood” in a loop.


Similar Poems about Nature & Spirituality

  • “The Awakening” by James Weldon Johnson — This spiritual piece is about a speaker’s revelation about God’s presence in nature.
  • “What is Life?” by John Clare — Clare talks about several ideas related to life. These include time, happiness, hope, disappointment, trouble, and many more. 
  • “Across the Border” by Sophie Jewett — This poem implies the invisible border between the spiritual realm and the mundane. As one grows older, this border becomes impenetrable, and one must return to their mortal home.
  • “The Bird Sanctuary” by Sarojini Naidu — This poem is a disheartened speaker’s desperate attempt to find solace in a sanctuary of birds.


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