Early Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson (from Violets and Other Tales)

Violets and Other Tales by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875 – 1935; also known as Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson) was a poet, short story writer, essayist, and journalist associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Presented here are poems from Violets and Other Tales (1895), her first collection, when she was still Alice Ruth Moore, her original name.

Published when she was just twenty, Violets and Other Tales includes short stories interspersed with the poems. Some of this early work hints at feminism and social justice, in a preview of the kind of writing that would become her hallmark.

Dunbar-Nelson would later become at least as well known for her short stories and searingly honest essays as for her poetry, if not more so. More of her short stories, which have come to be known as the Creole stories, have recently come to light.

Her mixed heritage of Black, Creole, European, and Native American gave her a broad perspective on race. She explored racial issues 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, women’s work, and sexuality in the various genres in which she wrote.

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Alice Dunbar-Nelson

A Selection of Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson
highlights some of her later poetry

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Three Thoughts

How few of us
In all the world’s great, ceaseless struggling strife,
Go to our work with gladsome, buoyant step,
And love it for its sake, whate’er it be.
Because it is a labor, or, mayhap,
Some sweet, peculiar art of God’s own gift;
And not the promise of the world’s slow smile
of recognition, or of mammon’s gilded grasp.
Alas, how few, in inspiration’s dazzling flash,
Or spiritual sense of world’s beyond the dome
Of circling blue around this weary earth,
Can bask, and know the God-given grace
Of genius’ fire that flows and permeates
The virgin mind alone; the soul in which
The love of earth hath tainted not.
The love of art and art alone.

“Who dares stand forth?” the monarch cried,
“Amid the throng, and dare to give
Their aid, and bid this wretch to live?
I pledge my faith and crown beside,
A woeful plight, a sorry sight,
This outcast from all God-given grace.

What, ho! in all, no friendly face,
No helping hand to stay his plight?
St. Peter’s name be pledged for aye,
The man’s accursed, that is true;
But ho, he suffers. None of you
Will mercy show, or pity sigh?”

Strong men drew back, and lordly train
Did slowly file from monarch’s look,
Whose lips curled scorn. But from a nook
A voice cried out, “Though he has slain
That which I loved the best on earth,
Yet will I tend him till he dies,
I can be brave.” A woman’s eyes
Gazed fearlessly into his own.

When all the world has grown full cold to thee,
And man—proud pygmy—shrugs all scornfully,
And bitter, blinding tears flow gushing forth,
Because of thine own sorrows and poor plight,
Then turn ye swift to nature’s page,
And read there passions, immeasurably far
Greater than thine own in all their littleness.
For nature has her sorrows and her joys,
As all the piled-up mountains and low vales
Will silently attest—and hang thy head
In dire confusion, for having dared
To moan at thine own miseries
When God and nature suffer silently.


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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.

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A swift, successive chain of things,
That flash, kaleidoscope-like, now in, now out,
Now straight, now eddying in wild rings,
No order, neither law, compels their moves,
But endless, constant, always swiftly roves.

Wild seas of tossing, writhing waves,
A wreck half-sinking in the tortuous gloom;
One man clings desperately, while Boreas raves,
And helps to blot the rays of moon and star,
Then comes a sudden flash of light, which gleams on shores afar.

A bed of roses, pleasing to the eye,
Flowers of heaven, passionate and pure,
Upon this bed the youthful often lie,
And pressing hard upon its sweet delight,
The cruel thorns pierce soul and heart, and cause a woeful blight.

A traveller who has always heard
That on this journey he some day must go,
Yet shudders now, when at the fatal word
He starts upon the lonesome, dreary way.
The past, a page of joy and woe,—the future, none can say.

Blind clinging to a stern, stone cross,
Or it may be of frailer make;
Eyes shut, ears closed to earth’s drear dross,
Immovable, serene, the world away
From thoughts—the mind uncaring for another day.

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alice dunbar-nelson

Learn more about Alice Dunbar-Nelson
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Legend of the Newspaper

Poets sing and fables tell us,
Or old folk lore whispers low,
Of the origin of all things,
Of the spring from whence they came,
Kalevala, old and hoary,
Æneid, Iliad, Æsop, too,
All are filled with strange quaint legends,
All replete with ancient tales,—

How love came, and how old earth,
Freed from chaos, grew for us,
To a green and wondrous spheroid,
To a home for things alive;
How fierce fire and iron cold,
How the snow and how the frost,—
All these things the old rhymes ring,
All these things the old tales tell.

Yet they ne’er sang of the beginning,
Of that great unbreathing angel,
Of that soul without a haven,
Of that gracious Lady Bountiful,
Yet they ne’er told how it came here;

Ne’er said why we read it daily,
Nor did they even let us guess why
We were left to tell the tale.

Came one day into the wood-land,
Muckintosh, the great and mighty,
Muckintosh, the famous thinker,
He whose brain was all his weapons,
As against his rival’s soarings,
High unto the vaulted heavens,
Low adown the swarded earth,
Rolled he round his gaze all steely,
And his voice like music prayed:
“Oh, Creator, wondrous Spirit,
Thou who hast for us descended
In the guise of knowledge mighty,
And our brains with truth o’er-flooded;
In the greatness of thy wisdom,
Knowest not our limitations?
Wondrous thoughts have we, thy servants,
Wondrous things we see each day,
Yet we cannot tell our brethren,
Yet we cannot let them know,
Of our doings and our happenings,
Should they parted be from us?

Help us, oh, Thou Wise Creator,
From the fulness of thy wisdom,
Show us how to spread our knowledge,
And disseminate our actions,
Such as we find worthy, truly.”

Quick the answer came from heaven;
Muckintosh, the famous thinker,
Muckintosh, the great and mighty,
Felt a trembling, felt a quaking,
Saw the earth about him open,
Saw the iron from the mountains
Form a quaint and queer machine,
Saw the lead from out the lead mines
Roll into small lettered forms,
Saw the fibres from the flax-plant,
Spread into great sheets of paper,
Saw the ink galls from the green trees
Crushed upon the leaden forms;
Muckintosh, the famous thinker,
Muckintosh, the great and mighty,
Felt a trembling, felt a quaking,
Saw the earth about him open,
Saw the flame and sulphur smoking,
Came the printer’s little devil,
Far from distant lands the printer,

Man of unions, man of cuss-words,
From the depths of sooty blackness;
Came the towel of the printer;
Many things that Muckintosh saw,—
Galleys, type, and leads and rules,
Presses, press-men, quoins and spaces,
Quads and caps and lower cases.

But to Muckintosh bewildered,
All this passed as in a dream,
Till within his nervous hand,
Hand with joy and fear a-quaking,
Muckintosh, the great and mighty,
Muckintosh, the famous thinker,
Held the first of our newspapers.


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Paul to Virginia

I really must confess, my dear,
I cannot help but love you,
For of all girls I ever knew,
There’s none I place above you;
But then you know it’s rather hard,
To dangle aimless at your skirt,
And watch your every movement so,
For I am jealous, and you’re a flirt.

There’s half a score of fellows round,
You smile at every one,
And as I think to pride myself for basking in the sun
Of your sweet smiles, you laugh at me,
And treat me like a lump of dirt,
Until I wish that I were dead,
For I am jealous, and you’re a flirt.

I’m sorry that I’ve ever known
Your loveliness entrancing,
Or ever saw your laughing eyes,
With girlish mischief dancing;

‘Tis agony supreme and rare
To see your slender waist a-girt
With other fellows’ arms, you see,
For I am jealous, and you’re a flirt.

Now, girlie, if you’ll promise me,
To never, never treat me mean,
I’ll show you in a little while,
The best sweetheart you’ve ever seen;
You do not seem to know or care,
How often you’ve my feelings hurt,
While flying round with other boys,
For I am jealous, and you’re a flirt.

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In Memoriam

The light streams through the windows arched high,
And o’er the stern, stone carvings breaks
In warm rich gold and crimson waves,
Then steals away in corners dark to die.

And all the grand cathedral silence falls
Into the hearts of those that worship low,
Like tender waves of hushed nothingness,
Confined nor kept by human earthly walls.

Deep music in its thundering organ sounds,
Grows diffuse through the echoing space,
Till hearts grow still in sadness’ mighty joy,

Or leap aloft in swift ecstatic bounds.

Mayhap ’twas but a dream that came to me,
Or but a vision of the soul’s desire,
To see the nation in one mighty whole,
Do homage on its bended, worshipping knee.

Through time’s heroic actions, the soul of man,
Alone proves what that soul without earth’s dross
Could be, and this, through time’s far-searching fire,
Hath proved thine white beneath the deepest scan.

A woman’s tribute, ’tis a tiny dot,
A merest flower from a frail, small hand,
To lay among the many petaled wreaths
About thy form,—a tribute soon forgot.

But if in all the incense to arise

In fragrance to the blue empyrean
The blended sweetness of the womens’ love
Goes pouring too, in all their heartfelt sighs.

And if one woman’s sorrow be among them too,
One woman’s joy for labor past
Be reckoned in the mighty teeming whole,
It is enough, there is not more to do.

Within the hearts of heroes small and great
There ‘bides a tenderness for weakling things
Within thy heart, the sorrowing country knows
These passions, bravest and the tenderest mate.

When man is dust, before the gazing eyes
Of all the gaping throng, his life lies wide

For all to see and whisper low about
Or let their thoughts in discord’s clatter rise.

But thine was pure and undefiled,
A record of long brilliant, teeming days,
Each thought did tend to further things,
But pure as the proverbial child.

Oh, people, that thy grief might find express
To gather in some vast cathedral’s hall,
That then in unity we might kneel and hear
Sublimity in sounds, voice our distress.

Peace, peace, the men of God cry, ye be bold,
The world hath known, ’tis Heaven who claims him now,
And in our railings we but cast aside
The noble traits he bid us hold.

So though divided through the land, in dreams

We see a people kneeling low,
Bowed down in heart and soul to see
This fearful sorrow, crushing as it seems.

And all the grand cathedral silence falls
Into the hearts of these that worship low,
Like tender waves of hushed nothingness,
Confined, nor kept by human earthly walls.


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At Bay St. Louis

Soft breezes blow and swiftly show
Through fragrant orange branches parted,
A maiden fair, with sun-flecked hair,
Caressed by arrows, golden darted.
The vine-clad tree holds forth to me
A promise sweet of purple blooms,
And chirping bird, scarce seen but heard
Sings dreamily, and sweetly croons
At Bay St. Louis.

The hammock swinging, idly singing,
Lissome nut-brown maid
Swings gaily, freely, to-and-fro;
The curling, green-white waters casting cool, clear shade,
Rock small, shell boats that go
In circles wide, or tug at anchor’s chain,
As though to skim the sea with cargo vain,

At Bay St. Louis.

The maid swings slower, slower to-and-fro,
And sunbeams kiss gray, dreamy half-closed eyes;
Fond lover creeping on with foot steps slow,
Gives gentle kiss, and smiles at sweet surprise.

The lengthening shadows tell that eve is nigh,
And fragrant zephyrs cool and calmer grow,
Yet still the lover lingers, and scarce breathed sigh,
Bids the swift hours to pause, nor go,
At Bay St. Louis.

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New Year’s Day

The poor old year died hard; for all the earth lay cold
And bare beneath the wintry sky;
While grey clouds scurried madly to the west,
And hid the chill young moon from mortal sight.
Deep, dying groans the aged year breathed forth,
In soughing winds that wailed a requiem sad
In dull crescendo through the mournful air.

The new year now is welcomed noisily
With din and song and shout and clanging bell,
And all the glare and blare of fiery fun.
Sing high the welcome to the New Year’s morn!
Le roi est mort. Vive, vive le roi! cry out,
And hail the new-born king of coming days.

Alas! the day is spent and eve draws nigh;
The king’s first subject dies—for naught,
And wasted moments by the hundred score
Of past years rise like spectres grim
To warn, that these days may not idly glide away.
Oh, New Year, youth of promise fair!
What dost thou hold for me? An aching heart?
Or eyes burnt blind by unshed tears? Or stabs,
More keen because unseen?
Nay, nay, dear youth, I’ve had surfeit
Of sorrow’s feast. The monarch dead
Did rule me with an iron hand. Be thou a friend,
A tender, loving king—and let me know
The ripe, full sweetness of a happy year.


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Farewell, sweetheart, and again farewell;
To day we part, and who can tell
If we shall e’er again
Meet, and with clasped hands
Renew our vows of love, and forget
The sad, dull pain.

Dear heart, ’tis bitter thus to lose thee
And think mayhap, you will forget me;
And yet, I thrill
As I remember long and happy days
Fraught with sweet love and pleasant memories
That linger still

You go to loved ones who will smile
And clasp you in their arms, and all the while
I stay and moan
For you, my love, my heart and strive
To gather up life’s dull, gray thread
And walk alone.

Aye, with you love the red and gold
Goes from my life, and leaves it cold
And dull and bare,
Why should I strive to live and learn
And smile and jest, and daily try
You from my heart to tare?

Nay, sweetheart, rather would I lie
Me down, and sleep for aye; or fly
To regions far
Where cruel Fate is not and lovers live
Nor feel the grim, cold hand of Destiny
Their way to bar.

I murmur not, dear love, I only say
Again farewell. God bless the day
On which we met,
And bless you too, my love, and be with you
In sorrow or in happiness, nor let you
E’er me forget.

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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.


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Wreaths of lilies and immortelles,
Scattered upon each silent mound,
Voices in loving remembrance swell,
Chanting to heaven the solemn sound.
Glad skies above, and glad earth beneath;
And grateful hearts who silently

Gather earth’s flowers, and tenderly wreath
Woman’s sweet token of fragility.

Ah, the noble forms who fought so well
Lie, some unnamed, ‘neath the grassy mound;
Heroes, brave heroes, the stories tell,
Silently too, the unmarked mounds,
Tenderly wreath them about with flowers,
Joyously pour out your praises loud;
For every joy beat in these hearts of ours
Is only a drawing us nearer to God.

Little enough is the song we sing,
Little enough is the tale we tell,
When we think of the voices who erst did ring
Ere their owners in smoke of battle fell.
Little enough are the flowers we cull
To scatter afar on the grass-grown graves,
When we think of bright eyes, now dimmed and dull
For the cause they loyally strove to save.

And they fought right well, did these brave men,
For their banner still floats unto the breeze,
And the pæans of ages forever shall tell
Their glorious tale beyond the seas.
Ring out your voices in praises loud,
Sing sweet your notes of music gay,
Tell me in all you loyal crowd
Throbs there a heart unmoved to-day?

Meeting together again this year,
As met we in fealty and love before;
Men, maids, and matrons to reverently hear
Praises of brave men who fought of yore.
Tell to the little ones with wondering eyes,
The tale of the flag that floats so free;
Till their tiny voices shall merrily rise
In hymns of rejoicing and praises to Thee.

Many a pure and noble heart
Lies under the sod, all covered with green;
Many a soul that had felt the smart

Of life’s sad torture, or mayhap had seen
The faint hope of love pass afar from the sight,
Like swift flight of bird to a rarer clime
Many a youth whose death caused the blight
Of tender hearts in that long, sad time.

Nay, but this is no hour for sorrow;
They died at their duty, shall we repine?
Let us gaze hopefully on to the morrow
Praying that our lives thus shall shine.
Ring out your bugles, sound out your cheers!
Man has been God-like so may we be.
Give cheering thanks, there dry up those tears,
Widowed and orphaned, the country is free!

Wreathes of lillies and immortelles,
Scattered upon each silent mound,
Voices in loving remembrance swell,
Chanting to heaven the solemn sound,
Glad skies above, and glad earth beneath,
And grateful hearts who silently
Gather earth’s flowers, and tenderly wreath
Woman’s sweet token of fragility.


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The Idler

An idle lingerer on the wayside’s road,
He gathers up his work and yawns away;
A little longer, ere the tiresome load
Shall be reduced to ashes or to clay.

No matter if the world has marched along,
And scorned his slowness as it quickly passed;
No matter, if amid the busy throng,

He greets some face, infantile at the last.

His mission? Well, there is but one,
And if it is a mission he knows it, nay,
To be a happy idler, to lounge and sun,
And dreaming, pass his long-drawn days away.

So dreams he on, his happy life to pass
Content, without ambitions painful sighs,
Until the sands run down into the glass;
He smiles—content—unmoved and dies.

And yet, with all the pity that you feel
For this poor mothling of that flame, the world;
Are you the better for your desperate deal,
When you, like him, into infinitude are hurled?

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Love and the Butterfly

I heard a merry voice one day
And glancing at my side,
Fair Love, all breathless, flushed with play,
A butterfly did ride.
“Whither away, oh sportive boy?”
I asked, he tossed his head;
Laughing aloud for purest joy,
And past me swiftly sped.

Next day I heard a plaintive cry
And Love crept in my arms;
Weeping he held the butterfly,
Devoid of all its charms.
Sweet words of comfort, whispered I
Into his dainty ears,
But Love still hugged the butterfly,
And bathed its wounds with tears.

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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.


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