“Art vs. Trade” by James Weldon Johnson: AP analysis

prompt: (AP 1976) Write an essay in which you discuss how the poem’s diction (choice of words) reveals his attitude toward the two ways of living mentioned in the poem.

In his poem “Art vs. Trade,” James Weldon Johnson, through his use of diction, is able to express his view on the reality of life dominated by “Trade” and a world he envisions in which “Art” takes its place. These are two very distinct concepts that entail different actions and behaviour from mankind — who has the power to choose what life is worth living. Diction, in the forms of metaphor, pronoun use, and development of rhyme, allows Johnson to describe both ways of life and convey his own understanding and beliefs about each. He, however, does place emphasis on which life he believes should be led — one that has “less of Trade and more of Art.”

Through metaphor, Johnson is able to differentiate both ways of life by associating each with distinct and contrasting images. The first comparisons are of “Trade” with “Brain” and “Art” with “Heart.” This establishes the difference between each with one concept being more analytical and the other more emotional using the meanings held in accordance with each body part; two ways of looking at the world are introduced in conjunction with ways of life. The second stanza describes “Trade” in further depth with more animalistic qualities being associated with it. “Octopus” is the first image provided of this way of life which establishes “Trade” as being something that can do more than focus on its own self-progression; however, it makes the choice to act in accordance with greed and nothing else. With the inclusion of “claw” and “maw”, the unforgiving and harsh nature of “Trade” is developed. Both word choices further develop it as a creature thus dehumanizing what dehumanizes the world. In contrast, the image and descriptions of “Art” are created in a manner that reflects humanity. Instead of the animal-like body that is associated with “Trade,” “Art” has more gentle features like “her snowy throat.” This establishes purity in conjunction with it and depicts a way of life that is more closely related to humanity — and should be the one mankind identifies with. Personification is further developed with the actions of both establishing the battle introduced in the title “Art vs. Trade.” “Art” is being “strangled” by “Trade” which shows the vulnerability of the former and the power of the latter. As “He locks his grimy fingers ‘bout her snowy throat,” makes it is evident how “Trade” is tainting and hurting “Art.” There is a clear power imbalance between the two with the force of “Trade” winning. By attributing different traits through metaphor to both “Art” and “Trade,” Johnson is able to effectively villainize the latter similar to the role he perceives it to have in the world. Diction in the form of metaphor allows Johnson to remark on both forms of life and depict which he believes is winning, even if it is not the life he wants to succeed.

The stark contrast present between the differing ideas of “Trade” and “Art” is further accentuated with the conflict that occurs between the femininity assigned to “Art” and the masculinity to “Trade.” By personifying abstract ideas and attributing contrasting aspects of gender to them, Johnson is able to further develop the incongruity of genders that allows for the exploration of the centralized theme: “Trade vs. Art.” With the use of pronouns, there is the implication that masculinity is the driving force behind all the corruption of the world. In the second stanza, Johnson implements gender pronouns to describe the “Octopus” in “That all the world was made to serve his greed” and “Trade” in how it “spread out his mighty myriad claw,” further establishing a villainized outlook on the nature of the “Octopus” and representing “Trade” and men altogether as having an oppressive and negative role in society. “Art,” on the other hand, is referred to as a feminine figure; there is a human quality in the words used to portray “Art.” For example, in the lines, “He locks his grimy fingers ’bout her snowy throat so tender. / Is there no power to rescue her, protect, defend her,” Johnson brings forth an implication that “Art” needs to be protected against “Trade, depicting her vulnerability while developing Trade’s crude villainization. Further, Johnson directly asking the reader if there is any power left to “rescue her” places a responsibility on the reader and the world as a whole — the responsibility to ensure “Trade” does not corrupt “Art.” The gender association also alludes to looking at these ways of life in accordance with societal realities throughout history: men have been stereotyped as being the oppressors while women have had to succumb to their dominant ways. By using different pronouns with each way of life, Johnson is able to convey his beliefs by attributing the qualities of both genders to each alongside the historical context.

The development of rhyme is utilized to establish the progression of the corruption in “Trade” and the defencelessness of “Art.” In this piece, rhyme is developed quite deliberately, thus is reflective of Johnson’s attitude towards both ways of living. For instance, while describing “Trade,” the rhyme between “claw” and “maw” is an example in which Johnson’s intentional pairing of words with foreboding connotations aids his stress on Trade’s sinister nature. However, a greater significance comes with the lines that depart from this the pattern of rhyming couplets. The last lines of the first three stanzas and the line “The brightest and the best,” do not follow the pattern established throughout each stanza they are found in. This places a clear emphasis on these lines which are attributed with “Art” and the effect of “Trade” on it. By not following the rhymes, especially those in the second stanza that describe “Trade,” a distinction can be made between both. These breaks, in association with the “struggling gasp[s]” taken while being “strangled,” reflect how despite the overwhelming and overpowering nature of “Trade,” “Art” still fights to remain alive — highlighting its important role in society. And by leaving the rhyme pattern in each stanza, except the last, there is a longing and incompletion which correlates with the dissatisfaction that comes with Trade’s way of life. Finally, in the last stanza, the rhyme is completed with four couplets; a sense of perfection is created in contrast to the previous verses. This is attributed to the idea established at the beginning of a life with “less of Trade and more of Art” and how the poet believes this to be the ideal life that should be led. Johnson, by manipulating his diction in accordance with rhyme — or the lack thereof — conveys his beliefs in regards to both ways of life with one leaving something to be desired and the other perfection.

Johnson portrays his negative attitude toward the role of “Trade” in society through the use of diction: specifically the use of metaphor, pronouns, and development of rhyme. This enables him to explore the conflict between both ways of living: “Art” and “Trade” by attributing contrasting descriptions to each and developing the perception of both utilizing femininity and masculinity in association with each concept. His development of rhyme reflects what he believes leaves something to be sought in life and what would be best for humanity. Johnson provides insight on both ways of living while emphasizing which he believes is best; the life that reflects “Heart” over “Brain” — “Art.”


featured image

painting: Douglas, Aaron. Aspects of Negro Life.

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