A Selection of Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

alice dunbar-nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875 – 1935; also known as Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson) was a multitalented writer, poet, journalist, and teacher. She used her writings to advocate for the rights of women and African-Americans and was considered one of the premier poets of the Harlem Renaissance.

In addition to her highly regarded poetry, Alice was known for her short stories and searingly honest essays, in which she expressed the challenges of growing up mixed-race in Louisiana. Her heritage blended African-American, Creole, European, and Native American roots, which gave her a broad perspective on race. She explored theses in tandem with the varied and complex issues faced by women of color.

Violets and Other Tales, her first book, was a collection of poetry, essays, and short stories. Just twenty at the time of its publication in 1895, Alice’s writings were already flavored with feminism and social justice. As her reputation grew, she continued to explore sexism, racism, work, sexuality, and family in the various genres in which she wrote. Here is a selection of poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson, from Violets and Other Tales as well as publications and anthologies of the early 1920s.


A Plaint

Dear God, ’tis hard, so awful hard to lose
The one we love, and see him go afar,
With scarce one thought of aching hearts behind,
Nor wistful eyes, nor outstretched yearning hands.
Chide not, dear God, if surging thoughts arise.
And bitter questionings of love and fate,
But rather give my weary heart thy rest,
And turn the sad, dark memories into sweet.
Dear God, I fain my loved one were anear,
But since thou will’st that happy thence he’ll be,
I send him forth, and back I’ll choke the grief
Rebellious rises in my lonely heart.
I pray thee, God, my loved one joy to bring;
I dare not hope that joy will be with me,

But ah, dear God, one boon I crave of thee,
That he shall ne’er forget his hours with me.

(from Violets and Other Tales, 1895)


Alice Dunbar Nelson

See also: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance to Rediscover and Read


Amid the Roses

There is tropical warmth and languorous life
Where the roses lie
In a tempting drift
Of pink and red and golden light
Untouched as yet by the pruning knife.
And the still, warm life of the roses fair
That whisper “Come,”
With promises
Of sweet caresses, close and pure
Has a thorny whiff in the perfumed air.
There are thorns and love in the roses’ bed,
And Satan too
Must linger there;
So Satan’s wiles and the conscience stings,
Must now abide—the roses are dead.

(from Violets and Other Tales, 1895)


If I Had Known

If I had known
Two years ago how drear this life should be,
And crowd upon itself all strangely sad,
Mayhap another song would burst from out my lips,
Overflowing with the happiness of future hopes;
Mayhap another throb than that of joy.
Have stirred my soul into its inmost depths,
        If I had known.

If I had known,
Two years ago the impotence of love,
The vainness of a kiss, how barren a caress,
Mayhap my soul to higher things have soarn,
Nor clung to earthly loves and tender dreams,
But ever up aloft into the blue empyrean,
And there to master all the world of mind,
         If I had known.

(from Violets and Other Tales, 1895)


I Sit and Sew

I sit and sew—a useless task it seems,
The panoply of war, the martial tred of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams—
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath—
But—I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew—my heart aches with desire—
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe—
But—I must sit and sew.

The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?

(first published in the AME Church Review in1918, “I Sit and Sew” is one of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s most anthologized poems.
Here are several analyses of “I Sit and Sew”)


Women writers of the Harlem Renaissance

You might also enjoy
Renaissance Women: 12 Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance


To Madame Curie

Oft have I thrilled at deeds of high emprise,
And yearned to venture into realms unknown,
Thrice blessed she, I deemed, whom God had shown
How to achieve great deeds in woman’s guise.
Yet what discov’ry by expectant eyes
Of foreign shores, could vision half the throne
Full gained by her, whose power fully grown
Exceeds the conquerors of th’ uncharted skies?
So would I be this woman whom the world
Avows its benefactor; nobler far,
Than Sybil, Joan, Sappho, or Egypt’s queen.
In the alembic forged her shafts and hurled
At pain, diseases, waging a humane war;
Greater than this achievement, none, I ween.

(first published in The Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 21, 1921)


You! Inez!

Orange gleams athwart a crimson soul
Lambent flames; purple passion lurks
In your dusk eyes.
Red mouth; flower soft,
Your soul leaps up—and flashes
Star-like, white, flame-hot.
Curving arms, encircling a world of love,
You! Stirring the depths of passionate desire!

(from a Holograph manuscript, February 16, 1921)


Sonnet

I had not thought of violets late,
The wild, shy kind that spring beneath your feet
In wistful April days, when lovers mate
And wander through the fields in raptures sweet.
The thought of violets meant florists’ shops,
And bows and pins, and perfumed papers fine;
And garish lights, and mincing little fops
And cabarets and soaps, and deadening wines.
So far from sweet real things my thoughts had strayed,
I had forgot wide fields; and clear brown streams;
The perfect loveliness that God has made,—
Wild violets shy and Heaven-mounting dreams.
And now—unwittingly, you’ve made me dream
Of violets, and my soul’s forgotten gleam.

(from The Book of American Negro Poetry, 1922)


Shadowed Dreams - Women's Petry of the Harlem Renaissance edited by Maureen Honey

An excellent resource is Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance,
edited by Maureen Honey (Rutgers University Press, 1989)


*This post contains affiliate links. If the product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to The Literary Ladies Guide weekly newsletter

Celebrating women’s voices
with inspiration for readers and writers

  • Find your next great read
  • Get writing advice from authors you love
  • Enjoy fascinating facts and quotes
  • Discover women’s literary history

... and lots more (look for a bonus in your welcome letter!)
Email address
Secure and Spam free...