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-Elsie DeWitt Johns

(circa 1873-1956)


Not much can be gleaned about the life of this poetic lady. She was born about 1873 in
Pennsylvania, the middle girl of three. Her parents were Ira DeWitt and Lucy G Smith and her sisters were named Francis (1869) and Grace Alice (1877). She married George Henry Johns (b circa 1875) and the couple had two sons, Ira and Henry, and a daughter, Shirley. It appears that she lived most of her adult life in the Pittsburgh, PA area, which is where she died in 1956 at age 83. (Any additional information or corrections would be greatly appreciated! poetess@gmx.com)

Pittsburgh, PA - late 19th Century

Elsie's little book, Incense, was published in 1936 when she was about 63 years of age. My copy has an inscription to Mildred D. Johns, who I believe to be her husband's sister, for Christmas 1936. There are thanks mentioned in the book to DeWitt Johns, which might have been meant to say Ira DeWitt Johns, her son, and Henry Johns, her father-in-law, for preparing the manuscript. The cover is noted as being designed by her sister Grace Alice DeWitt, and the "cover printing" is credited to her son Ira DeWitt Johns.

Incense 1939
by Elsie DeWitt Johns

 March Rain
(to Barbara)

Once more the earth is quickened
By the rushing of the rain,
The silver of its downpour
Descends upon the plain.
The bare wet branches glisten;
The streams are filled anew;
The grass comes up to listen;
The buds are bursting through;
And my heart awakes to gladness
At the old and loved refrain--
The falling and the calling
Of the rain!

Bull Frogs

From gathering dusk till dawning
The night moves slowly round,
And every hour revolving turns
On creaking wheels of sound.

How can so small a creature
Such hoarse complaints rehearse!
How can a dozen frogs or less
Distract a universe!

As if each sad amphibian
Some weight of gloom bespoke--
And all the balmy summer night
Responded, croak for croak; 

As if there were no trouble
Like dwelling in the bogs,
And souls, repentant, all too late,
Had found their voice in frogs!

 Call of The Sea

In each of us lives a sailor
Who answers the call of the sea;
It speaks to our home-locked spirits
With the voice of infinity:
The wild free winds that sweep it;
The roll of its waters wide;
The thunder of its breakers;
The rise and fall of its tide;
Its surface free to sunlight
And never withheld from rain;
Which blanches not at lightning,
And renders the whirlwind vain.
White are its curling fringes
On many an unknown shore,
How ceaselessly receding,
Yet turning forevermore!
Could I be like the ocean,
Akin to the ageless sea,
Throughout my life's commotion
At peace in my depths I'd be.


How sweet and deep the summer night!
The trees how shadowy and still!
When with a radiance of light
The moon appears above the hill!

She rises with a queenly grace,
The creek becomes a silver stream;
And each familiar day-time place
Assumes the semblance of a dream.

It is reward to those who wake,
From whom the gift of sleep is gone--
To see the gloom in glory break,
To know this presage of the dawn!
 Fall Fire

October seems to set the year ablaze,
It is the bonfire of our summer days! 
The woodbine bears aloft a scarlet torch,
Incendiary on a pillared porch--
The maples, kindling, hold a glow of heat
Where leaping yellow flames of beeches meet;
The oaks are brown before such holocaust;
The willows' slender leaves are scorched and lost,
While underneath, whichever way you turn,
The smouldering embers of the sumac burn.
See how the smoke of asters spreads and fills
The highways and the hollows of the hills,
And, disappearing even as we gaze,
Merges at last in blue autumnal haze!
The flames burn low and die in utter rout--
Summer is gone, and all her fires are out!

 Flight of Crows

My hearing is assailed by sudden sound!
Clicks as of metal shuttles fill the air--
Across the creek from the low marshy ground
A thousand wings are rising, pair on pair.
Up through the spreading branches of the trees
Like some dark hail of shot and sell reversed,
On the ascending current of the breeze
All follow in the pathway of the first.
An instant and the flight is close at hand,
The sombre wings are open to our view--
And then away beyond the farthest land,
Their blackness peppering the distant blue.
Now they are gone! and silence closes round.
Was it a dream, that rush of sight and sound?

It is not so dreadful
That this dust of mine
Should return to Mother Earth--
Thus go all our line.
It may be that some day
Grass will blithely blow
Where you choose to lay me
Quietly and low.
And this heart unruly,
Needing greater room,
Greet your future coming
In geranium bloom!
(To Mrs. B.S.J.)

I am a ship.
My sails are set to go.
The wind is freshening behind the slip
In this, the only harbor that I know.

No choice is mine.
To this end was I built.
What is a ship unless it breasts the brine?
Swords are not fashioned for the jeweled hilt.

I must not swerve.
Though I shall pass from sight
And disappear below the round earth's curve,
I shall be going still, on through the night! 

My port is far,
And I must go alone,
But the thick darkness holds a steadfast star,
And the deep silence has a welcoming tone.

For dear ones wait 
Within that distant port
To welcome me. And I must not be late.
Oh mourn me not, but follow. Life is short.

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