My Song

- 1861-1949

I sang me a song, a tiny song, 
   A song that was sweet to my soul,
And set it a-float on the sea of chance
   In search of a happy goal.

I said to my song: “Go on, go on
   And lodge in a tender spot
Of some human soul where the fires of hate
   And selfishness are not.”

My song went on but a little space
   And hied it back to me;
And fell at my feet in a sorry plight—
   The victim of cruelty.

I gazed a moment and quickly saw
   Just how it had come about,
A cruel critic had caught my song
   And probed the soul of it out.

O, poor indeed is the human mind
   (And why was it ever wrought?)
That can thrive on husk in the form of words,
   And not on a sturdy thought.

Dr. Booker T. Washington to the National Negro Business League

’Tis strange indeed to hear us plead
   For selling and for buying
When yesterday we said: “Away
   With all good things but dying.”

The world’s ago, and we’re agog
   To have our first brief inning;
So let’s away through surge and fog
   However slight the winning.

What deeds have sprung from plow and pick!
   What bank-rolls from tomatoes!
No dainty crop of rhetoric 
   Can match one of potatoes.

Ye orators of point and pith,
   Who force the world to heed you,
What skeletons you’ll journey with
   Ere it is forced to feed you.

A little gold won’t mar our grace,
   A little ease our glory.
This world’s a better biding place 
   When money clinks its story. 

The Tragedy of Pete

There was a man
   Whose name was Pete,
And he was a buck
   From his head to his feet.

He loved a dollar,
   But hated a dime;
And so was poor
   Nine-tenths of the time.

The Judge said “Pete,
   What of your wife?”
And Pete replied
   “She lost her life.”

“Pete,” said the Judge,
   “Was it lost in a row?
Tell me quick,
   And tell me how.”

Pete straightened up
   With a hic and a sigh,
Then looked the Judge
   Full in the eye.

“O, Judge, my wife
   Would never go
To a Sunday dance
   Or a movie show.

“But I went, Judge,
   Both day and night,
And came home broke
   And also tight.

“The moon was up,
   My purse was down,
And I was the bully
   Of the bootleg town.

“I was crooning a lilt
   To corn and rye
For the loop in my legs
   And the fight in my eye.

“I met my wife;
   She was wearing a frown,
And catechising
   Her Sunday gown.

‘O Pete, O Pete’
   She cried aloud,
‘The Devil is falling
   Right out of a cloud.’

“I looked straight up
   And fell flat down
And a Ford machine
   Pinned my head to the ground.

“The Ford moved on,
   And my wife was in it;
And I was sober,
   That very minute.

“For my head was bleeding,
   My heart was a-flutter;
And the moonshine within me
   Was tipping the gutter.

“The Ford, it faster
   And faster sped
Till it dipped and swerved
   And my wife was dead.

“Two bruised men lay
   In a hospital ward   
One seeking vengeance,
   The other the Lord.

“He said to me:
   ‘Your wife was drunk,
You are crazy,
   And my Ford is junk.’

“I raised my knife
   And drove it in
At the top of his head
   And the point of his chin.

“O Judge, O Judge,
   If the State has a chair,
Please bind me in it
   And roast me there.”

There was a man
   Whose name was Pete,
And he welcomed death
   From his head to his feet.

The Way-Side Well

A fancy halts my feet at the way-side well.
It is not to drink, for they say the water is brackish.
It is not to tryst, for a heart at the mile’s end beckons me on.
It is not to rest, for what feet could be weary when a heart at the mile’s end keeps time with their tread?
It is not to muse for the heart at the mile’s end is food for my being.
I will question the well for my secret by dropping a pebble into it.
Ah, it is dry.
Strike lightning to the road, my feet, for hearts are like wells.
You may not know they are dry ’til you question their depths.
Fancies clog the way to heaven, and saints miss their crown.

Related Poems

The Spoilsport

My familiar ghost again
    Comes to see what he can see,
Critic, son of Conscious Brain,
    Spying on our privacy.

Slam the window, bolt the door,
    Yet he'll enter in and stay;
In to-morrow's book he'll score
    Indiscretions of to-day.

Whispered love and muttered fears,
    How their echoes fly about!
None escape his watchful ears,
    Every sigh might be a shout.

No kind words nor angry cries
    Turn away this grim spoilsport;
No fine lady's pleading eyes,
    Neither love, nor hate, nor...port.

Critic wears no smile of fun,
    Speaks no word of blame nor praise,
Counts our kisses one by one,
    Notes each gesture, every phrase.

My familiar ghost again
    Stands or squats where suits him best;
Critic, son of Conscious Brain,
    Listens, watches, takes no rest.

Dream and the Song

So oft our hearts, belovèd lute,
In blossomy haunts of song are mute;
So long we pore, ’mid murmurings dull,
O’er loveliness unutterable.
So vain is all our passion strong!
The dream is lovelier than the song.

The rose thought, touched by words, doth turn
Wan ashes. Still, from memory’s urn,
The lingering blossoms tenderly
Refute our wilding minstrelsy.
Alas! We work but beauty’s wrong!
The dream is lovelier than the song.

Yearned Shelley o’er the golden flame?
Left Keats for beauty’s lure, a name
But “writ in water”? Woe is me!
To grieve o’er flowerful faëry.
My Phasian doves are flown so long—
The dream is lovelier than the song!

Ah, though we build a bower of dawn,
The golden-wingèd bird is gone,
And morn may gild, through shimmering leaves,
Only the swallow-twittering eaves.
What art may house or gold prolong
A dream far lovelier than a song?

The lilting witchery, the unrest
Of wingèd dreams, is in our breast;
But ever dear Fulfilment’s eyes
Gaze otherward. The long-sought prize,
My lute, must to the gods belong.
The dream is lovelier than the song.

To the Critic

Of all my verses, say that one is good,
So shalt thou give more praise than Hope might claim;
And from my poet-grave, to vex thy soul,
No ghost shall rise, whose deeds demand a name.

A thousand loves, and only one shall stand
To show us what its counterfeits should be;
The blossoms of a spring-tide, and but one
Bears the world’s fruit,—the seed of History.

A thousand rhymes shall pass, and only one
Show, crystal-shod, the Muse’s twinkling feet;
A thousand pearls the haughty Ethiop spurned
Ere one could make her luxury complete.

In goodliest places, some meanest room
The owner’s smallness shields contentedly.
Nay, further: of the manifold we are,
But one pin’s point shall pass eternity.

Exalt, then, to the greatness of the throne
One only of these beggarlings of mine;
I with the rest will dwell in modest bounds:
The chosen one shall glorify the line.