Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872-1906

(Page updated Aug 2021)

We compiled a brief biography of Dunbar for you. Click here to read it. Purchase AO's Volume 5 poetry collection which includes Kipling, Longfellow, Whittier, and Dunbar in paperback or Kindle ($amzn) (K) AmblesideOnline has a resource page about dialect poetry to help with poetry using regional dialect. Most of these poems are from Lyrics of a Lowly Life, 1896. Some are also from Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899 and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, 1901.

01. Whittier
02. Sympathy
03. The Lesson
04. The Master-Player
05. After the Quarrel
06. October
07. Dawn
08. We Wear the Mask
09. Lonesome
10. Opportunity
11. The Sparrow
12. Not They Who Soar
13. Dreams
14. A Choice
15. Compensation
16. Life
17. The Poet and his Song
18. Rain-Songs
19. Morning
20. Good-Night
21. Little Brown Baby
22. The Haunted Oak

01. Whittier 1896

Not o'er thy dust let there be spent
The gush of maudlin sentiment;
Such drift as that is not for thee,
Whose life and deeds and songs agree,
Sublime in their simplicity.

Nor shall the sorrowing tear be shed.
O singer sweet, thou art not dead!
In spite of time's malignant chill,
With living fire thy songs shall thrill,
And men shall say, "He liveth still!"

Great poets never die, for Earth
Doth count their lives of too great worth
To lose them from her treasured store;
So shalt thou live for evermore --
Though far thy form from mortal ken --
Deep in the hearts and minds of men.

02. Sympathy 1899

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
      When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
      When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass
And the river flows like a stream of glass
      When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals--
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
      Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
      For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
      And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And the pulse again with a keener sting--
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
      When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
      When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
      But a prayer he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings!

03. The Lesson 1896

My cot was down by a cypress grove,
      And I sat by my window the whole night long,
And heard well up from the deep dark wood
      A mocking-bird's passionate song.

And I thought of myself so sad and lone,
      And my life's cold winter that knew no spring;
Of my mind so weary and sick and wild,
      Of my heart too sad to sing.

But e'en as I listened the mock-bird's song,
      A thought stole into my saddened heart,
And I said, "I can cheer some other soul
      By a carol's simple art."

For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives
      Come songs that brim with joy and light,
As out of the gloom of the cypress grove
      The mocking-bird sings at night.

So I sang a lay for a brother's ear
      In a strain to soothe his bleeding heart,
And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre,
      Though mine was a feeble art.

But at his smile I smiled in turn,
      And into my soul there came a ray:
In trying to soothe another's woes
      Mine own had passed away.

04. The Master-Player 1896

An old worn harp that had been played
Till all its strings were loose and frayed,
Joy, Hate and Fear, each one essayed,
To play. But each in turn had found
No sweet responsiveness of sound.

Then Love the Master-Player came
With heaving breast and eyes aflame;
The harp he took all undismayed,
Smote on its strings, still strange to song,
And brought forth music sweet and strong.

05. After the Quarrel 1896

So we, who've supped the self-same cup,
      To-night must lay our friendship by;
Your wrath has burned your judgment up,
      Hot breath has blown the ashes high.
You say that you are wronged -- ah, well,
      I count that friendship poor, at best
A bauble, a mere bagatelle,
      That cannot stand so slight a test.

I fain would still have been your friend,
      And talked and laughed and loved with you
But since it must, why, let it end;
      The false but dies, 't is not the true.
So we are favored, you and I,
      Who only want the living truth.
It was not good to nurse the lie;
      'Tis well it died in harmless youth.

I go from you to-night to sleep.
      Why, what's the odds? why should I grieve?
I have no fund of tears to weep
      For happenings that undeceive.
The days shall come, the days shall go
      Just as they came and went before.
The sun shall shine, the streams shall flow
      Though you and I are friends no more.

And in the volume of my years,
      Where all my thoughts and acts shall be,
The page whereon your name appears
      Shall be forever sealed to me.
Not that I hate you over-much,
      'Tis less of hate than love defied;
Howe'er, our hands no more shall touch,
      We'll go our ways, the world is wide.

06. October 1896

October is the treasurer of the year,
      And all the months pay bounty to her store;
The fields and orchards still their tribute bear,
      And fill her brimming coffers more and more.
But she, with youthful lavishness,
Spends all her wealth in gaudy dress,
      And decks herself in garments bold
      Of scarlet, purple, red, and gold.

She heedeth not how swift the hours fly,
      But smiles and sings her happy life along;
She only sees above a shining sky;
      She only hears the breezes' voice in song.
Her garments trail the woodlands through,
And gather pearls of early dew
      That sparkle, till the roguish Sun
      Creeps up and steals them every one.

But what cares she that jewels should be lost,
      When all of Nature's bounteous wealth is hers?
Though princely fortunes may have been their cost,
      Not one regret her calm demeanor stirs.
Whole-hearted, happy, careless, free,
She lives her life out joyously,
      Nor cares when Frost stalks o'er her way
      And turns her auburn locks to gray.

07. Dawn 1896

An angel, robed in spotless white,
Bent down and kissed the sleeping Night.
Night woke to blush; the sprite was gone.
Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.

08. We Wear the Mask 1896

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
            We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
            We wear the mask!

09. Lonesome 1896

Mother's gone a-visitin' to spend a month er two,
An', oh, the house is lonesome ez a nest whose birds has flew
To other trees to build ag'in; the rooms seem jest so bare
That the echoes run like sperrits from the kitchen to the stair.
The shetters flap more lazy-like 'n what they used to do,
Sence mother's gone a-visitin' to spend a month er two.

We've killed the fattest chicken an' we've cooked her to a turn;
We've made the richest gravy, but I jest don't give a durn
Fur nothin' 'at I drink er eat, er nothin' 'at I see.
The food ain't got the pleasant taste it used to have to me.
They's somep'n' stickin' in my throat ez tight ez hardened glue,
Sence mother's gone a-visitin' to spend a month er two.

The hollyhocks air jest ez pink, they're double ones at that,
An' I wuz prouder of 'em than a baby of a cat.
But now I don't go near 'em, though they nod an' blush at me,
Fur they's somep'n' seems to gall me in their keerless sort o' glee
An' all their fren'ly noddin' an' their blushin' seems to say:
"You're putty lonesome, John, old boy, sence mother's gone away."

The neighbors ain't so fren'ly ez it seems they'd ort to be;
They seem to be a-lookin' kinder sideways like at me,
A-kinder feared they'd tech me off ez ef I wuz a match,
An' all because 'at mother's gone an' I'm a-keepin' batch!
I'm shore I don't do nothin' worse 'n what I used to do
'Fore mother went a-visitin' to spend a month er two.

The sparrers ac's more fearsome like an' won't hop quite so near,
The cricket's chirp is sadder, an' the sky ain't ha'f so clear;
When ev'nin' comes, I set an' smoke tell my eyes begin to swim,
An' things aroun' commence to look all blurred an' faint an' dim.
Well, I guess I'll have to own up 'at I'm feelin' purty blue
Sence mother's gone a-visitin' to spend a month er two.

10. Opportunity, 1901

Granny's gone a-visitin',
      Seen her git her shawl
When I was a-hidin' down
      'Hind the garden wall.
Seen her put her bonnet on,
      Seen her tie the strings,
An' I'se gone to dreamin' now
      'Bout them cakes an' things.

On the shelf be'hind the door --
      Mussy, what a feas'!
Soon ez she gits out o' sight,
      I kin eat in peace.
I bin watchin' fur a week
      Jes' fur this heah chance.
Mussy, when I gits in there,
      I'll jest sholy dance.

Lemon pie an' ginger-cake,
      Let me set an' think --
Vinegah an' sugah, too,
      That'll make a drink;
Ef they's one thing that I loves
      Mos' pu'ticlahly,
It is eatin' sweet things an'
      A-drinkin' Sangaree.

Lawdy, won't poor' granny rail
      When she see the shelf;
When I think about her face,
      I's mos' 'shamed myse'f.
Well, she gone, an' here I is,
      Back be'hind the door --
Look here! gran' 's done 'spected me,
      Dain't no sweets no mo'.

Ev'ry sweet is hid away,
      Job jest done up brown;
Person think that someone thought
      They was thieves aroun';
That jest breaks my heart in two,
      Oh how bad I feel!
Jest to think my own gramma
      B'lieved that I 'u'd steal!

11. The Sparrow 1896

A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Ten taps upon my window-pane,
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay,
Till, in neglect, it flies away.

So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above,
To settle on life's window-sills,
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic's rush and din
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.

12. Not They Who Soar 1896

Not they who soar, but they who plod
Their rugged way, unhelped, to God
Are heroes; they who higher fare,
And, flying, fan the upper air,
Miss all the toil that hugs the sod.
'Tis they whose backs have felt the rod,
Whose feet have pressed the path unshod,
May smile upon defeated care,
     Not they who soar.

High up there are no thorns to prod,
Nor boulders lurking 'neath the clod
To turn the keenness of the share,
For flight is ever free and rare;
But heroes they the soil who've trod,
     Not they who soar!

13. Dreams 1899

What dreams we have and how they fly
Like rosy clouds across the sky;
     Of wealth, of fame, of sure success,
     Of love that comes to cheer and bless;
And how they wither, how they fade,
The waning wealth, the jilting jade--
     The fame that for a moment gleams,
     Then flies forever,--dreams, ah--dreams!

O burning doubt and long regret
O tears with which our eyes are wet,
     Heart-throbs, heart-aches, the glut of pain,
     The somber cloud, the bitter rain,
You were not of those dreams--ah! well,
Your full fruition who can tell?
     Wealth, fame, and love, ah! love that beams
     Upon our souls, all dreams--ah! dreams.

14. A Choice 1899

They please me not--these solemn songs
That hint of sermons covered up.
'T is true the world should heed its wrongs,
     But in a poem let me sup,
Not simples brewed to cure or ease
Humanity's confessed disease,
But the spirit-wine of a singing line,
     Or a dew-drop in a honey cup!

15. Compensation 1901

Because I had loved so deeply,
     Because I had loved so long,
God in His great compassion
     Gave me the gift of song.

Because I have loved so vainly,
     And sung with such faltering breath,
The Master in infinite mercy
     Offers the boon of Death.

16. Life 1896

A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,
A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,
A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,
And never a laugh but the moans come double;
     And that is life!

A crust and a corner that love makes precious,
With a smile to warm and the tears to refresh us;
And joy seems sweeter when cares come after,
And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter;
     And that is life!

17. The Poet and his Song 1896

A song is but a little thing,
And yet what joy it is to sing!
In hours of toil it gives me zest,
And when at eve I long for rest;
When cows come home along the bars,
     And in the fold I hear the bell,
As Night, the shepherd, herds his stars,
     I sing my song, and all is well.

There are no ears to hear my lays,
No lips to lift a word of praise;
But still, with faith unfaltering,
I live and laugh and love and sing.
What matters yon unheeding throng?
     They cannot feel my spirit's spell,
Since life is sweet and love is long,
     I sing my song, and all is well.

My days are never days of ease;
I till my ground and prune my trees.
When ripened gold is all the plain,
I put my sickle to the grain.
I labor hard, and toil and sweat,
     While others dream within the dell;
But even while my brow is wet,
     I sing my song, and all is well.

Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot,
My garden makes a desert spot;
Sometimes a blight upon the tree
Takes all my fruit away from me;
And then with throes of bitter pain
     Rebellious passions rise and swell;
But--life is more than fruit or grain,
     And so I sing, and all is well.

18. Rain-Songs 1901

The rain streams down like harp-strings from the sky;
   The wind, that world-old harpist sitteth by;
And ever as he sings his low refrain,
   He plays upon the harp-strings of the rain.

19. Morning 1901

The mist has left the greening plain,
The dew-drops shine like fairy rain,
The coquette rose awakes again
     Her lovely self adorning.

The Wind is hiding in the trees,
A sighing, soothing, laughing tease,
Until the rose says "Kiss me, please,"
     'Tis morning, 'tis morning.

With staff in hand and careless-free,
The wanderer fares right jauntily,
For towns and houses are, thinks he,
     For scorning, for scorning.

My soul is swift upon the wing,
And in its deeps a song I bring;
Come, Love, and we together sing,
     "'Tis morning, 'tis morning."

20. Good-Night 1896

The lark is silent in his nest,
   The breeze is sighing in its flight,
Sleep, Love, and peaceful be thy rest.
   Good-night, my love, good-night, good-night.

Sweet dreams attend thee in thy sleep,
   To soothe thy rest till morning's light,
And angels round thee vigil keep.
   Good-night, my love, good-night, good-night.

Sleep well, my love, on night's dark breast,
   And ease thy soul with slumber bright;
Be joy but thine and I am blest.
   Good-night, my love, good-night, good-night.

21. Little Brown Baby
from The Book of American Negro Poetry, 1922

AmblesideOnline has a resource page about dialect poetry to help with poetry using regional dialect.

Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes,
   Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee.
What you been doin', suh--makin' san' pies?
   Look at dat bib--You's ez du'ty ez me.
Look at dat mouf--dat's merlasses, I bet;
   Come hyeah, Maria, an' wipe off his han's.
Bees gwine to ketch you an' eat you up yit,
   Bein' so sticky an' sweet--goodness lan's!

Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes
   Who's pappy's darlin' an' who's pappy's chile?
Who is it all de day nevah once tries
   Fu' to be cross, er once loses dat smile?
Whah did you git dem teef? My, you's a scamp!
   Whah did dat dimple come f'om in yo' chin?
Pappy do' know you--I b'lieves you's a tramp;
   Mammy, dis hyeah's some ol' straggler got in!

Let's th'ow him outen de do' in de san',
   We do' want stragglers a-layin' 'roun' hyeah;
Let's gin him 'way to de big buggah-man;
   I know he's hidin' erroun' hyeah right neah.
Buggah-man, buggah-man, come in de do',
   Hyeah's a bad boy you kin have fu' to eat.
Mammy an' pappy do' want him no mo',
   Swaller him down f'om his haid to his feet!

Dah, now, I t'ought dat you'd hug me up close.
   Go back, ol' buggah, you sha'n't have dis boy.
He ain't no tramp, ner no straggler, of co'se;
   He's pappy's pa'dner an' playmate an' joy.
Come to you' pallet now--go to you' res';
   Wisht you could allus know ease an' cleah skies;
Wisht you could stay jes' a chile on my breas'--
   Little brown baby wif spa'klin' eyes!

22. The Haunted Oak
Written in 1900 after Dunbar heard about a young Black man who was hanged on an oak tree by a white mob after he was falsely accused of a crime.

Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
      Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
      Runs a shudder over me?

My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
      And sap ran free in my veins,
But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
      A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
      I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
      And left him here alone.

They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
      And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
      And why does the night wind wail?

He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
      And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
      And the steady tread drew nigh.

Who is it rides by night, by night,
      Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
      What is the galling goad?

And now they beat at the prison door,
      "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
      And we fain would take him away

From those who ride fast on our heels
      With mind to do him wrong;
They have no care for his innocence,
      And the rope they bear is long."

They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
      They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
      And the great door open flies.

Now they have taken him from the jail,
      And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
      As they halt my trunk beside.

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
      And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
      Was curiously bedight.

Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
      'Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
      The mem'ry of your face.

I feel the rope against my bark,
      And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
      The touch of my own last pain.

And never more shall leaves come forth
      On a bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
      From the curse of a guiltless man.

And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
      And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
      In the guise of a mortal fear.

And ever the man he rides me hard,
      And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough
      On the trunk of a haunted tree.

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