In youth, gay scenes attract our eyes,
And not suspecting their decay
Life's flowery fields before us rise,
Regardless of its winter day.
But vain pursuits and joys as vain,
Convince us life is but a dream.
Death is to wake, to rise again
To that true life you best esteem.
So nightly on some shallow tide,
Oft have I seen a splendid show;
Reflected stars on either side,
And glittering moons were seen below.
But when the tide had ebbed away,
The scene fantastic with it fled,
A bank of mud around me lay,
And sea-weed on the river's bed.
This poem is in the public domain.
Ghastly, ghoulish, grinning skull,
Toothless, eyeless, hollow, dull,
Why your smirk and empty smile
As the hours away you wile?
Has the earth become such bore
That it pleases nevermore?
Whence your joy through sun and rain?
Is ’t because of loss of pain?
Have you learned what men learn not
That earth’s substance turns to rot?
After learning now you scan
Vain endeavors man by man?
Do you mind that you as they
Once was held by mystic sway;
Dreamed and struggled, hoped and prayed,
Lolled and with the minutes played?
Sighed for honors; battles planned;
Sipped of cups that wisdom banned
But would please the weak frail flesh;
Suffered, fell, ’rose, struggled fresh?
Now that you are but a skull
Glimpse you life as life is, full
Of beauties that we miss
Till time withers with his kiss?
Do you laugh in cynic vein
Since you cannot try again?
And you know that we, like you,
Will too late our failings rue?
Tell me, ghoulish, grinning skull
What deep broodings, o’er you mull?
Tell me why you smirk and smile
Ere I pass life’s sunset stile.
From The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922) edited by James Weldon Johnson. This poem is in the public domain.