Negro Poets and Their Poems/Chapter 4

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I. Edward Smythe Jones

It has not frequently happened in these times that a poet has dated a poem from a prison cell, or dedicated a book Edward Smythe Jones of poems to the judge of a police court. Mr. Edward Smythe Jones, however, has done this, and there is an interesting story by way of explanation. From the poem alluded to it seems that Mr. Jones in his over-mastering desire to drink at the Harvard fountain of learning tramped out of the Southland up to Cambridge. Arriving travel-worn, friendless, moneyless, hungry, he was preparing to bivouac on the Harvard campus his first night in the University city, when, being misunderstood, and not believed, he was apprehended as a vagabond and thrown into jail. A poem, however, the poem which tells this story, delivered him. The judge was convinced by it, kindly entreated the prisoner, and set him free to return to the academic shades. Ad astra per aspera.

It was in “Cell No. 40, East Cambridge Jail, Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 26, 1910,” that the unlucky bard committed to verse this story, transmuting harsh experience to the joy of artistic production. The last half of his version runs as follows:

As soon as locked within the jail,
Deep in a ghastly cell,
Methought I heard the bitter wail
Of all the fiends of hell!
“O God, to Thee I humbly pray
No treacherous prison snare
Shall close my soul within for aye
From dear old Harvard Square.”

Just then I saw an holy Sprite
Shed all her radiant beams,
And round her shone the source of light
Of all the poets’ dreams!
I plied my pen in sober use,
And spent each moment spare
In sweet communion with the Muse
I met in Harvard Square!

I cried: “Fair Goddess, hear my tale
Of sorrow, grief and pain.”
That made her face an ashen pale,
But soon it glowed again!
“They placed me here; and this my crime,
Writ on their pages fair;—
‘He left his sunny native clime,
And came to Harvard Square!’”

“Weep not, my son, thy way is hard,
Thy weary journey long—
But thus I choose my favorite bard
To sing my sweetest song.
I’ll strike the key-note of my art
And guide with tend’rest care,
And breathe a song into thy heart
To honor Harvard Square.

“I called old Homer long ago,
And made him beg his bread
Through seven cities, ye all know,
His body fought for, dead.
Spurn not oppression’s blighting sting,
Nor scorn thy lowly fare;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
The songs of Harvard Square.

“I placed great Dante in exile,
And Byron had his turns;
Then Keats and Shelley smote the while,
And my immortal Burns!
But thee I’ll build a sacred shrine,
A store of all my ware;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
‘A place in Harvard Square.’

“To some a store of mystic lore,
To some to shine a star:
The first I gave to Allan Poe,
The last to Paul Dunbar.
Since thou hast waited patient, long,
Now by my throne I swear
To give to thee my sweetest song
To sing in Harvard Square.”

And when she gave her parting kiss
And bade a long farewell,
I sat serene in perfect bliss
As she forsook my cell.
Upon the altar-fire she poured
Some incense very rare;
Its fragrance sweet my soul assured
I’d enter Harvard Square.

Declining on my couch, I slept
A sleep sweet and profound;
O’er me the blessed angels kept
Their vigil close around.
With dawning’s smile, my fondest hope
Shone radiant and fair:
The Justice cut each chain and rope
’Tween me and Harvard Square!

Of all the Negro poets whose writings I have perused, Edward Smythe Jones is the most difficult to estimate with certainty. There is an eloquence and luxuriance of language and imagery in his stanzas which perplexes the critic and yet persuades him to repeated readings. The result, however, fails to become clear. If, with his copiousness, the reserve of disciplined art ever becomes his, and his critical faculty is trained to match his creative, then poetry of noteworthy merit may be expected from him. His deeply religious bent, his aspiration after the best things of the mind, his ambition to treat lofty themes, augur well for him.

Mr. Jones’s two best poems, The Sylvan Cabin: A Centenary Ode on the Birth of Abraham Lincoln and An Ode to Ethiopia: to the Aspiring Negro Youth, are too long for insertion here. I will give a shorter patriotic ode, not included in his book, but written, I believe, during the World War:


Flag of the free, our sable sires
First bore thee long ago
Into hot battles’ hell-lit fires,
Against the fiercest foe.
And when he shook his shaggy mien,
And made the death-knell ring,
Brave Attucks fell upon the Green,
Thy stripes first crimsoning.

Thy might and majesty we hurl,
Against the bolts of Mars;
And from thy ample folds unfurl
Thy field of flaming stars!
Fond hope to nations in distress,
Thy starry gleam shall give;
The stricken in the wilderness
Shall look to thee and live.

What matter if where Boreas roars,
Or where sweet Zephyr smiles?
What matter if where eagle soars,
Or in the sunlit isles?
Thy flowing crimson stripes shall wave
Above the bluish brine,
Emblazoned ensign of the brave,
And Liberty enshrine!

Flag of the Free, still float on high
Through every age to come;
Bright beacon of the azure sky,
True light of Freedom’s dome.
Till nations all shall cease to grope
In vain for liberty,
Oh, shine, last lingering star of hope
Of all humanity!

Is there, in all our American poetry, a more eloquent apostrophe to our flag than that, not excepting even Joseph Rodman Drake’s? Perhaps the allusion to Attucks in the first stanza will require a note for the white reader. Every colored school-child, however, knows that Crispus Attucks was a brave and stalwart Negro, who, in the van of the patriots of Boston that resisted the British soldiers in the so-called “Boston Massacre,” March 5, 1770, fell with two British bullets in his breast, among the first martyrs for independence:

Thus Attucks brave, without a moment’s pause,
Full bared his breast in Freedom’s holy cause,
First fell and tore the code of Tyranny’s cruel laws—

so writes of him this same poet in his Ode to Ethiopia.

II. Raymond Garfield Dandridge

Twelve years ago a young house-decorator in Cincinnati was stricken down with partial paralysis, since which time he has been bedfast and all but helpless. On this Raymond G. Dandridge bed of distress he learned what resources were within himself, powers that in health he knew not of. The fountain of poetry sprang up in what threatened to be a desert life.—The artist-nature within manifested itself in a new realm, the realm of words set to tuneful measures. This artisan, turned by affliction into a poet, is Raymond Garfield Dandridge. Again, ad astra per aspera.

It is not great poetry that Dandridge is giving to the world, but it is poetry. His musings shaped into rhyme reach the heart. They have sweetness and light—“the two most precious things in the world.” All the art he has acquired, untaught, from his reading and unaided thinking. Naturally one would not expect that art to be flawless. His initial poem, while not literally a self-description, will serve to introduce this adopted son of the lyric Muse:


The poet sits and dreams and dreams;
He scans his verse; he probes his themes.

Then turns to stretch or stir about,
Lest, like his thoughts, his strength give out.

Then off to bed, for he must rise
And cord some wood, or tamp some ties,

Or break a field of fertile soil,
Or do some other manual toil.

He dare not live by wage of pen,
Most poorly paid of poor paid men,

With shoes o’er-run, and threadbare clothes,—
And editors among the foes

Who mock his song, deny him bread,
Then sing his praise when he is dead.

A secret consolation is intimated in the following lines:


Though many are the dreams I dream,
They're born within a single theme.
The same kind voice I ever hear,
Instilling faith, upbraiding fear:
The same consoling smile appears
To snuff my sighs and dry my tears:
And fondest heart, of purest gold,
Is hers whose name I here withhold,
And pray naught ever change my theme,
Or wake me from my dream.

Reflections upon the deeper meanings of life and death are inevitable to one situated as Mr. Dandridge is, provided he is given to serious reflections at all. And the thoughts of such a person are apt to have value for their sincerity. Two brief meditations in rhyme, as we may call them, will represent his thinking on such themes:


Black Brother, think you life so sweet
That you would live at any price?
Does mere existence balance with
The weight of your great sacrifice?
Or, can it be you fear the grave
Enough to live and die a slave?
O, Brother! be it better said,
When you are gone and tears are shed,
That your death was the stepping stone
Your children’s children cross’d upon.
Men have died that men might live:
Look every foeman in the eye!
If necessary, your life give
For something, ere in vain you die.


Vast realm beyond the gate of death,
Where craven scavengers and kings,
Alike, with passing final breath,
Relinquish claim to earthly things:

Endless, unexplored expanse,
Where souls, bereft of mortal clay,
Wander at will, in peace, perchance—
Perchance in strife, who dare would say?

Even in the confinement to which his affliction has subjected him, Mr. Dandridge has felt the strong pulse-throbs of his people’s new kindled aspirations. The strength of the soul may indeed increase with the weakness of the body. These lines are surely not wanting in the passion without which “facts” are cold:


Triumphant Sable Heroes homeward turning,
Arrayed in medals bright, and half-healed scars,
Have service, life, and limb been given earning
Trophies issued at the hand of Mars?

If your sole gain has been these “marks of battle,”
If valiant deeds insure no greater claim,
If you are still to be the herder’s cattle,
Then ill spilt blood fell short of Freedom’s aim.

Democracy means more than empty letters,
And Liberty far more than partly free;
Yet, both are void as long as men in fetters
Are at eclipse with Opportunity.

III. George Marion McClellan

Aptly has Mr. McClellan entitled his book of poems The Path of Dreams. A dreamer is he and the home of his spirit is dreamland:

Sweet-scented winds move inward from the shore,
Blythe is the air of June with silken gleams,
My roving fancy treads at will once more
The golden path of dreams.

And that path leads the poet ever back to the golden days of his youth, when Southern suns and Southern moons George Marion McClellan steeped his very being in dreams and Southern birds gave him their melodies and Southern mountains lifted his soul heavenward. A wanderer upon the earth he appears to have been, and as all wanderers’ hearts turn back to some loved region or spot so his to Dixie. Seldom has the longing for distant, remembered scenes, for spring’s returning and for summer’s glow, been more sweetly expressed in rhyme than in the various poems of The Path of Dreams. And yet, sweeter songs than those are locked up in his breast, not to be sung:

The summer sweetness fills my heart with songs
I cannot sing, with loves I cannot speak.

When harsh necessity imprisons him in the city he sighs:

I think the sight of fields and shady lanes
Would ease my heart of pains.

But what contradictions poets have ever found in their experiences! The ministrants of joy but wring the cry of pain from the yearning heart. Lovely May is harder to endure, in exile, than gloomy December. The city’s discordant cries may be endured, bringing neither grief nor joy, while a bird’s carol may be exquisite torture:

The woodlark’s tender warbling lay,
Which flows with melting art,
Is but a trembling song of love
That serves to break my heart.

Musing on whatever scene, the poet’s thoughts are tinged with that sadness which to every sensitive nature has a sweetness in it:

The sun went down in beauty,
While I stood musing alone,
Stood watching the rushing river
And heard its restless moan;
Longings, vague, intenable,
So far from speech apart,
Like the endless rush of the river,
Went surging through my heart.

With no less sadness or beauty, and with that philosophy towards which poetry ever has a bias, our poet of dreams thus reflects, on watching the ephemera that dart with glimmering wings in keen delight where the breezes fling the sweets of May:

Creatures of gauze and velvet wings,
With a day of gleams and flowers,
Who knows—in the light of eternal things—
Your life is less than ours?

Weary at last, it is ours, like you,
When our brief day is done,
Folding our hands, to say adieu,
And pass with the setting sun.

One must say of George Marion McClellan: “Here is a finely touched spirit that responds deeply to the mystery and charm of mountains and starry skies, and that charm and mystery he is capable of expressing in stanzas of lyric beauty.” Every page of his book will confirm for the reader the estimate he may have formed from the quotations already given. Without rifling it of its choicest treasures I will put before the reader a few entire poems which I am sure will give increased delight on repeated readings:


Gay hollyhocks with flaming bells
And waving plumes, as gently swells
The breeze upon the Summer air,
You bind me still with magic spells
When to the wind, in grave farewells,
You bow in all your graces fair.

You bring me back the childhood view,
Where arching skies and deepest blue
Stretch on in endless lengths above;
To see you so awakes anew
Long past emotions, from which grew
My wild and first heart-throbs of love.

There is in all your brilliant dyes,
Your gorgeousness and azure skies,
A joy like soothing summer rain;
Yet in the scene there vaguely lies
A something half akin to sighs,
Along the borderland of pain.


Sewanee Hills of dear delight,
Prompting my dreams that used to be,
I know you are waiting me still to-night
By the Unika Range of Tennessee.

The blinking stars in endless space,
The broad moonlight and silvery gleams,
To-night caress your wind-swept face,
And fold you in a thousand dreams.
Your far outlines, less seen than felt,
Which wind with hill propensities,
In moonlight dreams I see you melt
Away in vague immensities.

And, far away, I still can feel
Your mystery that ever speaks
Of vanished things, as shadows steal
Across your breast and rugged peaks.

O dear blue hills, that lie apart,
And wait so patiently down there,
Your peace takes hold upon my heart
And makes its burden less to bear.


Christ washed the feet of Judas!
The dark and evil passions of his soul,
His secret plot, and sordidness complete,
His hate, his purposing, Christ knew the whole,
And still in love he stooped and washed his feet.

Christ washed the feet of Judas!
Yet all his lurking sin was bare to him,
His bargain with the priest, and more than this,
In Olivet, beneath the moonlight dim,
Aforehand knew and felt his treacherous kiss.

Christ washed the feet of Judas!
And so ineffable his love ’twas meet,
That pity fill his great forgiving heart,
And tenderly he wash the traitor’s feet,
Who in his Lord had basely sold his part.

Christ washed the feet of Judas!
And thus a girded servant, self-abased,
Taught that no wrong this side the gate of heaven
Was ever too great to wholly be effaced,
And, though unasked, in spirit be forgiven.

And so if we have ever felt the wrong
Of trampled rights, of caste, it matters not,
What e’er the soul has felt or suffered long,
Oh, heart! this one thing should not be forgot:
Christ washed the feet of Judas.


O Death!
If thou hast aught of tenderness,
Be kindly in thy touch
Of her whose fragile slenderness
Was overburdened much
With life. And let her seem to go to sleep,
As often does a tired child, when it has grown
Too tired to longer weep.

A rose but half in bloom—
She is too young and beautiful to die,
But yet, if she must go,
Let her go out as goes a sigh
From tired life and woe.
And let her keep, in death’s brief space
This side the grave, the dusky beauty still
Belonging to her face.

She must have been
Of those upon the trembling lyre
Of whom the poets sung:
“Whom the gods love” and desire
Fade and “die young.”
Her life so loved on earth was brief,
But yet withal so beautiful there is no cause,
But in our loss, for grief.

This poet, formerly a school principal in Louisville, Kentucky, is now in Los Angeles, California, whither he took his tubercular son—in vain—endeavoring to establish there a sanitarium for persons of his race afflicted as his son was. For the third time: ad astra per aspera.

IV. Charles P. Wilson

The following verses were written by a man in the Missouri State Penitentiary. He might prefer that his name be withheld. He will shortly go forth a free man and a better one—so resolved to be—with verses enough composed during his period of incarceration to make a small book:


Don’t be too quick to condemn me,
Because I have made a bad start;
Remember you see but the surface,
And know not what’s in the heart.
I may bear the marks of a sinful life,
And I may have been a bit wild;
But back of all remains this fact,
That I am somebody’s child.

My cheeks by tears may be polished,
And my heart is no stranger to pain;
I know what it is to be friendless,
And to learn each affliction means gain.
I may be out in life’s storm,
And misfortune around me has piled;
But kindly remember this little fact,
That I am somebody’s child.

Probably to-night you’ll be happy,
In some joys or pleasures you’ll share:
And that very same moment may find me,
Tearfully pleading in prayer.
So don’t be too harsh when you judge me,
For your judgment with God will be filed;
You would know—could you see past the surface—
That I am somebody’s child.

And so a fourth time the motto—or is it a proverb?—ad astra per aspera.

V. Leon R. Harris

Now editor of the Richmond (Indiana) Blade, contributor of short-stories to The Century Magazine, an honored citizen and the head of a respected family, Leon R. Harris was an orphan asylum’s ward. Most splendidly has he, yet in his early thirties, illustrated the old adage chosen as a heading for this chapter. His father, a roving musician, took no interest in the future poet. His mother died and left him almost in the cradle. The orphanage which became his refuge gave him at least food, shelter, and schooling to the fourth grade. Then he was given to a Kentucky family to be reared. It was Leon R. Harris virtual slavery, and the boy ran away from over-work and beatings. Making his escape to Cincinnati he was befriended by a traveling salesman and began to find himself. At eleven years of age, some of his verses were printed in a Cincinnati daily with “Author Unknown” attached. He now made his way to Berea and worked his way for two years in that good old college. Then for three years he worked his way in Tuskegee.

We next find him in Iowa, married; then in North Carolina, teaching school; then in Ohio, working in steel mills. This last was his employment until about two years ago. His short stories and poems are right out of his life. In the former the peonage system, prevalent in some sections of the South, and the cruelties of the convict labor camps are more powerfully portrayed than anywhere else in American literature. The following poem will represent his writings in verse:


Filled with the vigor such jobs demand,
Strong of muscle and steady of hand,
Before the flaming furnaces stand
The men who make the steel.
’Midst the sudden sounds of falling bars,
’Midst the clang and bang of cranes and cars,
Where the earth beneath them jerks and jars,
They work with willing zeal.

They meet each task as they meet each day,
Ready to labor and full of play;
Their faces are grimy, their hearts are gay,
There is sense in the songs they sing;
While stooped like priests at the holy mass,
In the beaming light of the lurid gas,
Their jet black shadows each other pass,
And their hammers loudly ring.

What do they see through the furnace door,
From which the dazzling white lights pour?
Ah, more than the sizzling liquid ore
They see as they gaze within!
For a band of steel engirdles the earth,
Binds men to men from their very birth,
Through all that exists of any worth
There courses a steely vein.

Steamers that ply o’er the ocean deep,
Trains which over the mountains creep,
The ships of the air that dart and leap
Where the screaming eagles soar;
The plow which produces the nation’s food,
The bars that keep the bad from the good,
Skyscrapers standing where forests stood,
They see through their furnace door.

They see the secretive submarines,
And the noisy, whirring big machines,
Grinding steel into numberless things
The people know and need;
The scissors that fashion wee babies’ clothes,
The beds where the pallid sick repose,
The knife that the nervy surgeon holds
O’er the wounds that gape and bleed.

Yet more they see through the furnace door!
They see the bursting hot shells pour
On the battle-fields as in days of yore
The Deluge waters fell.
They see the bloody bayonet blade,
The unsheathed sword and the hand grenade,
The havoc, the wreck and the ruin made
By the steel they roll and sell.

All this through the furnace door they see
As they work and laugh—they are full and free;
Their steel has purchased their liberty
From want and the tyrant’s sway.
And just as long as their gas shall burn,
In times of need will the people turn
To them for their product and they shall learn
Its value endures for aye.

For of what they make we are servants all,
They have bound our lives in an iron thrall,
We do their bidding, we heed their call,
As they work with willing zeal.
So tap your heats with a courage bold,
You’re worth to your world a thousand fold
More than the men who mine her gold,
You men who make her steel!

Intrinsic merit is in that poem, apart from the circumstance of its being written by a workman himself. As an interpretation of the life of his fellow-workmen—their imaginative, inner life—it is a human document to be reflected upon. As for the artistic quality of the verses they place you in imagination amid the sights and sounds described and they have something in them suggestive of the steel bars the men are making.

VI. Irvin W. Underhill

In what strange disguises comes ofttimes the call to nobler things! Our happiness not seldom springs out of seeming misfortune. An illustration is afforded by Mr. Irvin W. Underhill, of Philadelphia, to whom blindness brought a more glorious seeing—the seeing of truth, of greater meaning in life, of greater beauty in the world. Out of this new vision springs a corresponding message in verse, a message not of bitterness for what might to another man, in the middle years of his life, have seemed a bitter loss, but of love, and exhortation, Irvin W. Underhill and encouragement. Blind, he lives in the Light. In his little book, entitled Daddy’s Love and Other Poems, are poems witnessing to a beautiful spirit, poems of beauty. Because of its sage counsel, however, I pass over some of these lovelier expressions of sentiment and choose a didactic piece:


I speak to you, my Colored boys,
I bid you to be men,
Don’t put yourselves upon the rack
Like pigeons in a pen.
Come out and face life’s problem, boys,
With faith and courage too,
And justify that wondrous faith,
Abe Lincoln had in you.

Don’t treat life as a little toy,
A dance or a game of ball;
Those things are all right in their place,
But they are not life’s all.
Life is a problem serious,
Give it the best you have,
Succeed in all you undertake
And help your brother live.

If farming seems to be your call,
Then take hold of the plough,
And stick it down into the soil
Till sweat runs down your brow.
Then make this resolution firm:
“I’m going to do my best,
And stick this good old plough of mine
Down deeper than the rest.”

If you’re to be a carpenter
Then train your hand and eye
To work out angles, clean and clear
As any metal die.
Then read up on materials,
On beauty and on style,
And prove to all, the house you build
Is sure to be worth while.

Why sure, a banker, you can be,
A lawyer or a priest;
Or you can be a merchant prince,
Their work is not the least.
It makes no difference what you try
If you would get the best,
You’ll have to stick that plough of yours
Down deeper than the rest.

Don’t fawn up to another man
And beg him for a job;
Remember that your brain and his
Were made by the same God.
So use it boys, with all your might,
With faith and courage too,
And justify that wondrous faith
Abe Lincoln had in you.


I. James C. Hughes

There are tragic stories of Negro aspirants for poetic fame that read like the old stories of English poets in London in the days when the children of genius starved and died young. As typical of not a few there is the story of James C. Hughes, of Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville Times, March 10, 1905, contained his picture and an article by Joseph S. Cotter in appreciation of his compositions. “This young man,” writes Cotter, speaking of a collection of verses and prose sketches which Hughes then had ready for publication, “this young man has the essentials of the poet, and to me his work is interesting. It is serious, and preaches while it sings.”

To illustrate the range and quality of Hughes I will quote from this article two selections, one in prose and one in dialect verse:


“True love is the same to-day as when the vestal virgins held their mystic lights along the path of virtue. Virtue wears the same vesture that she wore upon the ancient plain that led to fame immortal. Now the royal gates of honor stand ajar for men of courage, souls who will not time their spirit-lyre to suit the common chord. Our nation has known men who held within their palms our country’s destiny: and, smiling in the armor of a fearless truth, have thrown away their lives. Awake, O countrymen, awake, this noble flame. The gods will fan it, and the world shall burn with honor and pure love.”

The bit of dialect verse follows, taken from a poem entitled Apology for Wayward Jim:

“You has often tole us, Massy,
We’s as free as we kin be;
But we needs some kind o’ check, suh,
So’s we’d keep on bein’ free.

“Please do’ whip ole Jim dis time, suh;
Marse, I ’no’s you’s good an’ kind;
Ain’t no slabery on dis ’arth, suh,
Like de slabery ob de mind.

“You has often said obejence
Wuz de key to freedom’s do’—
When we l’arned dis golden lesson
We wuz free foreber mo’.

“But you see dese darkies’ minds, suh,
Ain’t so flexerbul as dat,
Dey can’t zackly understand, suh,
What you means by saying dat.

’Hain’t but one compound solution
To dis problem, as I see;
Long’s a human soul’s a slabe, suh,
Ain’t no way to make it free.”

The young author of these selections, failing to get his book published, lost his mind and “disappeared from view.” So ends his story.

II. Leland Milton Fisher

Another sad story, more frequently repeated in the lives of the writers represented in this book, is that of Leland Milton Fisher. First I shall give one of his poems, as passionately sweet a lyric as can be found in American literature:


For you, sweetheart, I’d have your skies
As bright as are your own bright eyes,
And all your day-dreams warm and fair
As is the sunshine in your hair.
The Fates to you should be as kind
As are the thoughts in your pure mind,
And every bird I’d have impart
Its sweetest song to you, sweetheart.

For you, sweetheart, I’d have each dart
Sorrow fashions for your tender heart,
Thrust in my own thrice happy breast,
That yours might have unbroken rest.

If you should fall asleep and lie
So very still and quiet that I
Would know your soul had slipped away
From your divinely molded clay,
Then, looking in your fair, sweet face
I’d pray to God: “In thy good grace,
O, Father, let me sleep, nor wake
Again on earth, for her dear sake.”

Born in Humbolt, Tennessee, in 1875, Fisher died of tuberculosis, ere yet thirty years of age, leaving behind an unpublished volume of poems.

III. W. Clarence Jordan

In another chapter I have written of a poet whose birthplace was Bardstown, Kentucky. W. Clarence Jordan, a Negro schoolmaster of Bardstown, now dead, wrote the following lines in answer to the questions, so frequently asked in derision, which stands as its title:


As we pass along life’s highway,
Day by day,
Thousands daily ask the question,
“What, I pray,
Tell me what’s the Negro doing?
And what course is he pursuing?
What achievements is he strewing
By the way?”

Many say he’s retrograding
Very fast;
Others say his glory’s fading,—
Cannot last;
That his prospects now are blighted,
That his chances have been slighted,
This his wrongs cannot be righted.
Time has passed.

Friends, lift up your eyes; look higher;
Higher still.
There’s the vanguard of our army
On the hill.
You’ve been looking at the rear guard.
Lift your eyes, look farther forward;
Thousands are still pressing starward—
Ever will.

IV. Roscoe C. Jamison

Roscoe C. Jamison was fortunate in leaving behind him a friend at his early death, some three years since, who treasured his fugitive verses sufficiently to gather them together, though but a handful, and send them out to the world in a little pamphlet. Fortunate also was he in another friend able to write his elegy:

Too soon is hushed his silver speech,
The music dies upon his lute,
The cadence falls beyond our reach;
Too soon the Poet’s lips are mute.

So wrote in this elegy, Lacrimae Aethiopiae, Charles Bertram Johnson, of this untimely dead singer. Hardly a score of poems are in this Roscoe C. Jamison pamphlet, yet enough are here to reveal a poet in the making. Jamison was a better poet, even in these imperfect pieces, than many a writer of better verses. Here are the ardent impulses and here are the glowing ideas from which poetry of the higher order springs. The art, however, is undisciplined, grammar, metre, and rhymes are sometimes at fault. However, bold strokes of poetry atone, the effects are the effects of a real poet. Sometimes one finds in the small collection a poem that is all but perfect, a production that might have come from a maturer craftsman. I venture to put him to the test in the following poem:


I build my castles in the air.
How beautiful they seem to me,
Standing in all their glory there,
Like stars above the sea!

I watch them with admiring eyes,
For in them dwells life’s fondest hope:
If they be swept from out the skies,
In darkness I must grope.

They hold life’s joys, life’s sweetest dreams;
They make the weary years seem bright.
As one guided by bright starbeams
I struggle through the night.

Sometimes from out the skies they fall,
And my soul shrieks in its pain;
But from the heights I hear Hope’s call,
“Arise and build again.”

What though life be with sorrow filled
And each day brings its load of care,
I’m happy still while I can build
My castles in the air!

Who but will say, despite the metrical defects, this is a real poem? Another poem will show his art at a better advantage, while the pathos is of another kind, very touching pathos it is, too;


I loved you, Dear. I did not know how much,
Until the silence of the Grave lay cold
Between us, and your hand I could not touch,
And your sweet face, oh! never more behold.

I loved you, Dear. I did not know how true,
Until in other eyes I found no light;
I know—alas!—my Spirit without you
Must drift forever in a starless night!

A different kind of merit, the merit of intense reprobation of cruel arrogancy in the one race and of treacherous cowardice in the other, is exemplified in The Edict. Triumphant faith, which is the Negro’s peculiar heritage, asserts itself in such a way, in the final stanza, as to lift the poem to the heights of moral feeling.


All these must die before the Morning break:
They who at God an angry finger shake,
Declaring that because He made them White,
Their race should rule the world by sacred right.
They who deny a common Brotherhood—
Who cry aloud, and think no Blackman good—
The blood-cursed mob always eager to take
The rope in hand or light the flaming stake,
Jeering the wretch while he in death pain quakes—
All these must die before the Morning breaks.

All these must die before the Morning breaks:
The Blackmen, faithless, whose loud laughter wakes
Harsh echoes in the most unbiased places.
They who choose vice, and scorn the gentle graces—
Who by their manners breed contemptuous hate,
Suggesting jim-crow laws from state to state—
They who think on earth they may not find
An ideal man nor woman of their kind.
But from some other Race that ideal take—
All these must die before the Morning break!

We know, O Lord, that there will come a time,
When o’er the World will dawn the Age Sublime,
When Truth shall call to all mankind to stand
Before Thy throne as Brothers, hand in hand,
Be not displeased with him who this song makes—
All these must die before the Morning breaks!

If lyric poetry be self-revealment—and such it is, or it is nothing—we can learn from the following poem how deep a sorrow at some time in his life this poet must have experienced:


Had you called from the fire, or from the sea,
From ’mid the roaring flames, or dark’ning wave.
With eagerness I then had come to thee,
To perish with thee if I could not save.

But now helpless I sit and watch you die,
There is no power can save, the doctors say;
I lift my eyes unto the silent sky,
And wonder why it is that mortals pray.

The title-poem of the booklet, Negro Soldiers, is no doubt Jamison’s masterpiece. It is worthy of the universal admiration it has won from those who know it.