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. Following is a selection of her later poems, post-dating her early collection Violets and Other Tales (1895)

In her writings, Dunbar-Nelson advocated for women, African Americans, and those of mixed heritage, as she was.  was considered one of the premier poets of the Harlem Renaissance.

Perhaps even more than for her well-regarded poetry, Dunbar-Nelson 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 these themes in tandem with the varied and complex issues faced by women of color.

As her reputation grew, despite a brief and disastrous marriage to poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, she continued to explore sexism, racism, work, sexuality, and family in the various genres in which she wrote.

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Violets and Other Tales by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

See also: Early Poems of Alice Dunbar-Nelson
(from Violets and Other Tales)
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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, her writings were already flavored with feminism and social justice.


Poems in this selection:

  • I Sit and Sew
  • To Madame Curie
  • To the Negro Farmers of the United States
  • The Lights at Carney’s Point
  • You! Inez!
  • Sonnet


More about the life and poetry of Alice Dunbar-Nelson

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Learn more about Alice Dunbar-Nelson


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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 in 1918, “I Sit and Sew” is one of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s most anthologized poems. Here are several analyses of “I Sit and Sew”)

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Women writers of the Harlem Renaissance

Renaissance Women: 12 Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance
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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)


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To the Negro Farmers of the United States

God washes clean the souls and hearts of you,
His favored ones, whose backs bend o’er the soil,
Which grudging gives to them requite for toil
In sober graces and in vision true.
God places in your hands the pow’r to do
A service sweet. Your gift supreme to foil
The bare-fanged wolves of hunger in the moil
Of Life’s activities. Yet all too few
Your glorious band, clean sprung from Nature’s heart;
The hope of hungry thousands, in whose breast
Dwells fear that you should fail. God placed no dart
Of war within your hands, but pow’r to start
Tears, praise, love, joy, enwoven in a crest
To crown you glorious, brave ones of the soil.

(originally published in the Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, 1920)

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The Lights at Carney’s Point

O white little lights at Carney’s Point,
    You shine so clear o’er the Delaware;
When the moon rides high in the silver sky,
     Then you gleam, white gems on the Delaware.
Diamond circlet on a full white throat,
     You laugh your rays on a questioning boat;
Is it peace you dream in your flashing gleam,
      O’er the quiet flow of the Delaware?
And the lights grew dim at the water’s brim,
      For the smoke of the mills shredded slow between;
And the smoke was red, as is new bloodshed,
     And the lights went lurid ’neath the livid screen.
O red little lights at Carney’s Point,
      You glower so grim o’er the Delaware;
When the moon hides low sombrous clouds below,
      Then you glow like coals o’er the Delaware.
Blood red rubies on a throat of fire,
      You flash through the dusk of a funeral pyre;
And there hearth fires red whom you fear and dread
      O’er the turgid flow of the Delaware?
And the lights gleamed gold o’er the river cold,
      For the murk of the furnace shed a copper veil;
And the veil was grim at the great cloud’s brim,
     And the lights went molten, now hot, now pale.
O gold little lights at Carney’s Point,
      You gleam so proud o’er the Delaware;
When the moon grows wan in the eastering dawn,
      Then you sparkle gold points o’er the Delaware.
Aureate filagree on a Croesus’ brow,
      You hasten the dawn on a gray ship’s prow.
Light you streams of gold in the grim ship’s hold
      O’er the sullen flow of the Delaware?
And the lights went gray in the ash of day,
      For a quiet Aurora brought a halcyon balm;
And the sun laughed high in the infinite sky,
     And the lights were forgot in the sweet, sane calm.

(originally published in the Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer, 1920)



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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)

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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)

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

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


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