Published on Academy of American Poets (

I Cannot Sing

I cannot sing, because when a child, 
   My mother often hushed me. 
The others she allowed to sing, 
   No matter what their melody. 

And since I’ve grown to manhood
   All music I applaud, 
But have no voice for singing, 
   So I write my songs to God. 

I have ears and know the measures, 
   And I’ll write a song for you, 
But the world must do the singing 
   Of my sonnets old and new. 

Now tell me, world of music, 
   Why I cannot sing one song? 
Is it because my mother hushed me
   And laughed when I was wrong?

Although I can write music, 
   And tell when harmony’s right, 
I will never sing better than when 
   My song was hushed one night. 

Fond mothers, always be careful; 
   Let the songs be poorly sung. 
To hush the child is cruel; 
   Let it sing while it is young. 


This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on January 26, 2020, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

“I Cannot Sing” was originally published in The Toiler’s Life: Poems (The Jenson Press, 1907).


Edward Nathaniel Harleston

Edward Nathaniel Harleston was born on June 1, 1869, in Charleston, South Carolina. His work was featured in the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the first African-American newspapers, which started out as a leaflet featuring Harleston’s work in 1907.

Date Published: 1907-01-01

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