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Paul Laurence Dunbar

American Poet



Narrated by Jeffrey Gilbert

Download mp3 file: Selected Poems

This file is 5.7 MB; running time is 12 minutes
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I know what the caged bird feels.
Ah me, when the sun is bright on the upland slopes,
when the wind blows soft through the springing grass
and the river floats like a sheet of glass,
when the first bird sings and the first bud ops,
and the faint perfume from its chalice steals.
I know what the caged bird feels.
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
till its blood is red on the cruel bars,
for he must fly back to his perch and cling
when he fain would be on the bow aswing.
And the blood still throbs in the old, old scars
and they pulse again with a keener sting.
I know why he beats his wing.
I know why the caged bird sings.
Ah, me, when its wings are bruised and its bosom sore.
It beats its bars and would be free.
It's not a carol of joy or glee,
but a prayer that it sends from its heart's deep core,
a plea that upward to heaven it flings.
I know why the caged bird sings.


A SONG is but a little thing,
And yet what joy it is to sing!
In hours of toil it gives me zest,
And when at eve I long for rest;
When cows come home along the bars,
          And in the fold I hear the bell,
As Night, the shepherd, herds his stars,
          I sing my song, and all is well.

There are no ears to hear my lays,
No lips to lift a word of praise;
But still, with faith unfaltering,
I live and laugh and love and sing.
What matters yon unheeding throng?
          They cannot feel my spirit's spell,
Since life is sweet and love is long,
           I sing my song, and all is well.

My days are never days of ease;
I till my ground and prune my trees.
When ripened gold is all the plain,
I put my sickle to the grain.
I labor hard, and toil and sweat,
          While others dream within the dell;
But even while my brow is wet,
          I sing my song, and all is well.

Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot,
My garden makes a desert spot;
Sometimes a blight upon the tree
Takes all my fruit away from me;
And then with throes of bitter pain
          Rebellious passions rise and swell;
But — life is more than fruit or grain,
          And so I sing, and all is well.


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 saw in the moonlight dim and weird
    A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
            I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
            And left him here alone.

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.


SEEN you down at chu'ch las' night,
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
What I mean? oh, dat 's all right,
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
You was sma't ez sma't could be,
But you could n't hide f'om me.
Ain't I got two eyes to see!
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy.

Guess you thought you's awful keen;
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
Evahthing you done, I seen;
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
Seen him tek yo' ahm jes' so,
When he got outside de do'—
Oh, I know dat man's yo' beau!
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy.

Say now, honey, wha'd he say?—
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy!
Keep yo' secrets—dat's yo' way—
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy.
Won't tell me an' I'm yo' pal!—
I'm gwine tell his othah gal,—
Know huh, too, huh name is Sal;
     Nevah min', Miss Lucy!



I AM the mother of sorrows,
          I am the ender of grief;
I am the bud and the blossom,
          I am the late-falling leaf.

I am thy priest and thy poet,
          I am thy serf and thy king;
I cure the tears of the heartsick,
          When I come near they shall sing.

White are my hands as the snowdrop;
          Swart are my fingers as clay;
Dark is my frown as the midnight,
          Fair is my brow as the day.

Battle and war are my minions,
          Doing my will as divine;
I am the calmer of passions,
          Peace is a nursling of mine.

Speak to me gently or curse me,
          Seek me or fly from my sight;
I am thy fool in the morning,
          Thou art my slave in the night.

Down to the grave will I take thee,
          Out from the noise of the strife;
Then shalt thou see me and know me—
          Death, then, no longer, but life.

Then shalt thou sing at my coming,
          Kiss me with passionate breath,
Clasp me and smile to have thought me
          Aught save the foeman of Death.

Come to me, brother, when weary,
          Come when thy lonely heart swells;
I'll guide thy footsteps and lead thee
          Down where the Dream Woman dwells.


I HAVE no fancy for that ancient cant
That makes us masters of our destinies,
And not our lives, to hold or give them up
As will directs; I cannot, will not think
That men, the subtle worms, who plot and plan
And scheme and calculate with such shrewd wit,
Are such great blund'ring fools as not to know
When they have lived enough.
          Men court not death
When there are sweets still left in life to taste.
Nor will a brave man choose to live when he,
Full deeply drunk of life, has reached the dregs,
And knows that now but bitterness remains.
He is the coward who, outfaced in this,
Fears the false goblins of another life.
I honor him who being much harassed
Drinks of sweet courage until drunk of it,—
Then seizing Death, reluctant, by the hand,
Leaps with him, fearless, to eternal peace!

More information about Paul Laurence Dunbar from Wikipedia

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