-Elsie DeWitt Johns

1873 - 1956


Pittsburgh, PA - late 19th Century

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)

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.



by Elsie DeWitt Johns

March Rain

(to Barbara)

Bull Frogs

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!

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

Flight of Crows

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!

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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