African American Poetry (1870-1926): A Digital Anthology

Countee Cullen, "Thoughts in a Zoo" (1926)

This poem won the second prize of $25 in The Crisis prize contest of 1926.

They in their cruel traps, and we in ours,   
Survey each other’s rage, and pass the hours   
Commiserating each the other’s woe,   
To mitigate his own pain’s fiery glow.   
Man could but little proffer in exchange   
Save that his cages have a larger range.   
That lion with his lordly, untamed heart   
Has in some man his human counterpart,
Some lofty soul in dreams and visions wrapped,   
But in the stifling flesh securely trapped.   
Gaunt eagle whose raw pinions stain the bars   
That prison you, so men cry for the stars!
Some delve down like the mole far underground,   
(Their nature is to burrow, not to bound),
Some, like the snake, with changeless slothful eye,   
Stir not, but sleep and smoulder where they lie.   

Who is most wretched, these caged ones, or we,   
Caught in a vastness beyond our sight to see?

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