Selected Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Table of Contents

header At the Tavern The Debt The Haunted Oak The Lawyers' Ways Little Brown Baby A Negro Love Song The Old Front Gate Ships that Pass in the Night Signs of the Times Song (Wintah, summah, snow er shine) We Wear the Mask When de Co'n Pone's Hot At the Tavern A lilt and a swing, And a ditty to sing, Or ever the night grow old; The wine is within, And I'm sure t'were a sin For a soldier to choose to be cold, my dear, For a soldier to choose to be cold. We're right for a spell, But the fever is -- well, No thing to be braved, at least; So bring me the wine; No low fever in mine, For a drink more kind than a priest, my dear, For a drink is more kind than a priest. The Debt This is the debt I pay Just for one riotous day, Years of regret and grief, Sorrow without relief. Pay it I will to the end -- Until the grave, my friend, Gives me a true release -- Gives me the clasp of peace. Slight was the thing I bought, Small was the debt I thought, Poor was the loan at best -- God! but the interest! The Haunted Oak 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 say in the moonlight dim and weird A guiltless victim's pains. 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 the 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. The Lawyers' Ways I've been list'nin' to them lawyers In the court house up the street, An' I've come to the conclusion That I'm most completely beat. Fust one feller riz to argy, An' he boldly waded in As he dressed the tremblin' pris'ner In a coat o' deep-dyed sin. Why, he painted him all over In a hue o' blackest crime, An' he smeared his reputation With the thickest kind o' grime, Tell I found myself a-wond'rin', In a misty way and dim, How the Lord had come to fashion Sich an awful man as him. Then the other lawyer started, An' with brimmin', tearful eyes, Said his client was a martyr That was brought to sacrifice. An' he give to that same pris'ner Every blessed human grace, Tell I saw the light o' virtue Fairly shinin' from his face. Then I own 'at I was puzzled How sich things could rightly be; An' this aggervatin' question Seems to keep a-puzzlin' me. So, will some one please inform me, An' this mystery unroll-- How an angel an' a devil Can persess the self-same soul? Little Brown Baby 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 es 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' play-mate an' joy. Come to you' pallet now -- go to yo' 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! A Negro Love Song Seen my lady home las' night, Jump back, honey, jump back. Hel' huh han' an' sque'z it tight, Jump back, honey, jump back. Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh, Seen a light gleam f'om huh eye, An' a smile go flittin' by -- Jump back, honey, jump back. Hyeahd de win' blow thoo de pine, Jump back, honey, jump back. Mockin'-bird was singin' fine, Jump back, honey, jump back. An' my hea't was beatin' so, When I reached my lady's do', Dat I could n't ba' to go -- Jump back, honey, jump back. Put my ahm aroun' huh wais', Jump back, honey, jump back. Raised huh lips an' took a tase, Jump back, honey, jump back. Love me, honey, love me true? Love me well ez I love you? An' she answe'd, "'Cose I do"-- Jump back, honey, jump back. The Old Front Gate W'en daih's chillun in de house, Dey keep on a-gittin' tall; But de folks don' seem to see Dat dey's growin' up at all, 'Twell dey fin' out some fine day Dat de gals has 'menced to grow, W'en dey notice as dey pass Dat de front gate's saggin' low. W'en de hinges creak an' cry, An' de bahs go slantin' down, You kin reckon dat hit's time Fu' to cas' yo' eye erroun', 'Cause daih ain't no 'sputin' dis, Hit's de trues' sign to show Dat daih's cou'tin goin' on W'en de ol' front gate sags low. Oh, you grumble an' complain, An' you prop dat gate up right; But you notice right nex' day Dat hit's in de same ol' plight. So you fin' dat hit's a rule, An' daih ain' no use to blow, W'en de gals is growin' up, Dat de front gate will sag low. Den you t'ink o' yo' young days, W'en you cou'ted Sally Jane, An' you so't o' feel ashamed Fu' to grumble an' complain, 'Cause yo' ricerlection says, An' you know hits wo'ds is so, Dat huh pappy had a time Wid his front gate saggin' low. So you jes' looks on an' smiles At 'em leanin' on de gate, Tryin' to t'ink whut he kin say Fu' to keep him daih so late, But you lets dat gate erlone, Fu' yo' 'sperunce goes to show, 'Twell de gals is ma'ied off, It gwine keep on saggin' low. Ships that Pass in the Night Out in the sky the great dark clouds are massing; I look far out into the pregnant night, Where I can hear the solemn booming gun And catch the gleaming of a random light, That tells me that the ship I seek is passing, passing. My tearful eyes my soul's deep hurt are glassing; For I would hail and check that ship of ships. I stretch my hands imploring, cry aloud, My voice falls dead a foot from mine own lips, And but its ghost doth reach that vessel, passing, passing. O Earth, O Sky, O Ocean, both surpassing, O heart of mine, O soul that dreads the dark! Is there no hope for me? Is there no way That I may sight and check that speeding bark Which out of sight and sound is passing, passing? Signs of the Times Air a-gittin' cool an' coolah, Frost a-comin' in de night, Hicka' nuts an' wa'nuts fallin', Possum keepin' out o' sight. Tu'key struttin' in de ba'nya'd, Nary a step so proud ez his; Keep on struttin', Mistah Tu'key, Yo' do' know whut time it is. Cidah press commence a-squeakin' Eatin' apples sto'ed away, Chillun swa'min' 'roun' lak ho'nets, Huntin' aigs ermung de hay. Mistah Tu'key keep on gobblin' At de geese a-flyin' souf, Oomph! dat bird do' know whut's comin'; Ef he did he'd shet his mouf. Pumpkin gittin' good an' yallah Mek me open up my eyes; Seems lak it's a-lookin' at me Jes' a-la'in' dah sayin' "Pies." Tu'key gobbler gwine 'roun' blowin', Gwine 'roun' gibbin' sass an' slack; Keep on talkin', Mistah Tu'key, You ain't seed no almanac. Fa'mer walkin' th'oo de ba'nya'd Seein' how things is comin' on, Sees ef all de fowls is fatt'nin' -- Good times comin' sho's you bo'n. Hyeahs dat tu'key gobbler braggin', Den his face break in a smile -- Nebbah min', you sassy rascal, He's gwine nab you atter while. Choppin' suet in de kitchen, Stonin' raisins in de hall, Beef a-cookin' fu' de mince meat, Spices groun' -- I smell 'em all. Look hyeah, Tu'key, stop dat gobblin', You ain' luned de sense ob feah, You ol' fool, yo' naik's in dangah, Do' you know Thanksgibbin's hyeah? Song (Wintah, summah, snow er shine) Wintah, summah, snow er shine, Hit's all de same to me, Ef only I kin call you mine, An' keep you by my knee. Ha'dship, frolic, grief er caih, Content by night an' day, Ef only I kin see you whaih You wait beside de way. Livin', dyin', smiles er teahs, My soul will still be free, Ef only thoo de comin' yeahs You walk de worl' wid me. Bird-song, breeze-wail, chune er moan, What puny t'ings dey'll be, Ef w'en I's seemin' all erlone, I knows yo' hea't's wid me. We Wear the Mask 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 overwise, 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! When de Co'n Pone's Hot Dey is times in life when Nature Seems to slip a cog an' go, Jes' a-rattlin' down creation, Lak an ocean's overflow; When de worl' jes' stahts a-spinnin' Lak a picaninny's top, An' yo' cup o' joy is brimmin' 'Twell it seems about to slop, An' you feel jes' lak a racah, Dat is trainin' fu' to trot-- When yo' mammy says de blessin' An' de co'n pone's hot. When you set down at de table, Kin' o' weary lak an' sad, An' you 'se jes' a little tiahed An' purhaps a little mad; How yo' gloom tu'ns into gladness, How yo' joy drives out de doubt When de oven do' is opened, An' de smell comes po'in' out; Why, de 'lectric light o' Heaven Seems to settle on de spot, When yo' mammy says de blessin' An' de co'n pone's hot. When de cabbage pot is steamin' An' de bacon good an' fat, When de chittlins is a-sputter'n' So's to show you whah dey's at; Tek away yo' sody biscuit, Tek away yo' cake an' pie, Fu' de glory time is comin', An' it's 'proachin' mighty nigh, An' you want to jump an' hollah, Dough you know you'd bettah not, When yo' mammy says de blessin' An' de co'n pone's hot. I have hyeahd a' lots o' sermons, An' I've hyeahd o' lots o' prayers, An I've listened to some singin' Dat has tuck me up de stairs Of de Glory-Lan' an' set me Jes' below de Mastah's th'one, An' have lef' my hea't a-singin' In a happy aftah tone; But dem wu'ds so sweetly murmured Seem to tech de softes' spot, When my mammy says de blessin', An' de co'n pone's hot.