African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

H. Cordelia Ray, "Sonnets" (1893)


 Copyright, 1893, 
 Press of J. J. Little & Co. 
 Astor Place, New York 

 The two musicians
 The poet's ministrants

 JANUARY I, 1891. 
Sweet Mother! rare in gifts of tenderness! 
   Thou who didst nurse my child-life into bloom, 
   And for each native grace made ample room 
To blossom in love's light, — how can we bless 
The Power that gave thee to us ! In the stress 
   Of life's great conflict, what could e'er illume 
   Its mystic shadows and its deepest gloom, 
Like smiles and loving words from thee ! No less 
Than widest sunshine is thy sympathy. 
   O precious Heart ! so rich in sacrifice. 
   And — boon beyond compare — supremest love, 
May Heaven's choicest blessings rest on thee. 
   Rarer than jewels of the costliest price ! 
   And Peace brood o'er thy path like calmest dove! 

Life! Ay, what is it? E'en a moment spun 
   From cycles of eternity. And yet, 
   What wrestHng 'mid the fever and the fret 
Of tangled purposes and hopes undone! 
What affluence of love ! What vict'ries won 
   In agonies of silence, ere trust met 
   A manifold fulfillment, and the wet, 
Beseeching eyes saw splendors past the sun! 
What struggle in the web of circumstance, 
   And yearning in the winged music! All, 
     One restless strife from fetters to be free; 
Till, gathered to eternity's expanse, 
   Is that brief moment at the Feather's call. 
     Life! Ay, at best, 'tis but a mystery! 

We climb the slopes of life with throbbing heart, 
   And eager pulse, like children toward a star. 
   Sweet siren music cometh from afar, 
To lure us on meanwhile. Responsive start 
The nightingales to richer song than Art 
   Can ever teach. No passing shadows mar 
   Awhile the dewy skies ; no inner jar 
Of conflict bids us with our quest to part. 
We see adown the distance, rainbow-arched, 
   What melting aisles of liquid light and bloom! 
We hasten, tremulous, with lips all parched. 
   And eyes wide-stretched, nor dream of coming gloom. 
Enough that something held almost divine 
Within us ever stirs. Can we repine? 

What soul hath struck Its meed of melody, 
   From life's strange instrument whereon it plays? 
   Are the aspiring strains of weary days 
E'er gathered in their full intensity, 
Swelling a psalm incomparable, free 
   To utter all their yearning ? Nay ! the lays 
   Moan on inadequately, for the ways 
Of God in shaping souls we may not see. 
Mid baffled hopes we cry out in our need, 
   And wrestle in the shadows, wond'ring when 
     Such dissonance can e'er be sweet, and how. 
But soon the watching Father will have freed 
   Our earthly ears to catch the music : then 
     The chrism of perfect peace shall bathe each brow. 

To catch the spirit in its wayward flight 
   Through mazes manifold, what task supreme! 
   For when to floods has grown the quiet stream, 
Much human skill must aid its rage to fight; 
And when wild winds invade the solemn night, 
   Seems not man's vaunted power but a dream? 
   And still more futile, ay, we e'en must deem 
This quest to tame the soul, and guide aright 
Its restless wanderings, — to lure it back 
   To shoals of calm. Full many a moan and sigh 
     Attend the strife: till, effort merged in prayer, 
Oft uttered, clung to — when of strength the lack 
   Seems direst — brings the answer to our cry: 
     A gift from Him who lifts our ev'ry care. 

O Mother-Heart! when fast the arrows flew, 
   Like blinding lightning, smiting as they fell, 
   One after one, one after one, what knell 
Could fitly voice thy anguish! Sorrow grew 
To throes intensest, when thy sad soul knew 
   Thy youngest, too, must go. Was it not well, 
   Avengers wroth, just one to spare? Ay, tell 
The ages of soul-struggle sterner? Through 
The flinty stone, O image of despair, 
   Sad Niobe, thy maddened grief did flow 
In bitt'rest tears, when all thy wailing prayer 
   Was so denied. Alas ! what weight of woe 
Is prisoned in thy melancholy eyes! 
What mother-love beneath the Stoic lies! 

Love plays a lute, and Thought an organ grand 
   These tones are stately, those a restless strain, 
   Seeming by cadenced joy to measure pain, 
And capture Fancy by the soft airs fanned. 
Thought sends his paeans thrilling through the land; 
   The worshipers that bow before his fane 
   Find rest in contemplation, spirit-gain 
In sweetest harmonies. Yon rapturous band, 
Kneeling to catch the music of the lute, 
   Have yearning in their eyes, yet something there 
     That baffles all our reas'ning ; is it peace, 
Or only glances with beseeching mute? 
   Sometimes it deepens into holy prayer. 
     Enchanted Love! thy music never cease! 

The smiling Dawn, with diadem of dew, 
   Brings sunrise odors to perfume his shrine; 
   Blithe Zephyr fans him, and soft moonbeams twine 
An aureole to crown him, of a hue 
Surpassing fair. The stately stars renew 
   Majestic measures, that he may incline 
   His soul unto their sweetness ; whispers fine 
From spirit-nymphs allure him ; not a few 
The gifts chaste Fancy and her sisters bring. 
   Rare is the lyre the Muses for him wrought, 
A different meaning thrills in ev'ry string, 
   With ev'ry changing mood of life so fraught. 
Invoked by him, when such the strains that flow, 
How can the poet eer his song forego! 

O Poet gifted with the sight divine! 
   To thee 'twas given Eden's groves to pace 
   With that first pair, in whom the human race 
Their kinship claim : and angels did incline — 
Great Michael, holy Gabriel — to twine 
   Their heavenly logic, through which thou couldst trace  
   The rich outpourings of celestial grace 
Mingled with argument, around the shrine 
Where thou didst linger, vision-rapt, intent 
   To catch the sacred mystery of Heaven. 
     Nor was thy longing vain: a soul resolved 
To ponder truth supreme to thee was lent; 
   For thy not sightless eyes the vail was riv'n. 
     Redemption's problem unto thee well solved. 

We wonder what the horoscope did show 
   When Shakespeare came to earth. Were planets there, 
   Grouped In unique arrangement ? Unaware 
His age of aught so marvelous, when lo ! 
He speaks! men listen ! what of joy or woe 
   Is not revealed! love, hatred, carking care, 
   All quiv'ring 'neath his magic touch. The air 
Is thick with beauteous elves, a dainty row. 
Anon, with droning witches, and e'en now 
   Stalks gloomy Hamlet, bent on vengeance dread. 
     One after one they come, smiling or scarred, 
Wrought by that mind prismatic to which bow 
   All lesser minds. They by thee would be fed, 
     Poet incomparable! Avon's Bard! 

Great Painter! to thy soul aglow with thought, 
   Celestial forms their glory did reveal. 
   Not unrewarded wast thou left to kneel 
At Beauty's sacred altar ; not for naught 
Thy gift of consecration hadst thou brought. 
   We see thee pensive, radiant, and there steal 
   Soft shadows, mystic lights ; th' angelic seal 
Is on thy dreamy brow ; thy soul hath caught 
The essence of the harmony it craved. 
   Behold the Mother and the Child Divine! 
     What rapt repose! what majesty serene! 
Thy spirit tuned to contemplation, laved 
   In founts of light. For thee we would entwine 
     The asphodel bright with celestial sheen. 

O Great tone-master! low thy massive head 
   Droops, heavy with the thoughts that fain would weave 
   Themselves in interlacing chords, that leave 
Sublimest music. Inspiration sped 
On dainty pinions to thy natal bed, 
   And warbling notes did all the silence cleave 
   As for a benediction ; well believe 
The votaries that hie where thou hast led, 
In thy supreme endowment. Who as well 
   Can wake the Orphic echoes? Thou dost muse. 
     And harmony, the sweetest, is evolved. 
In grave sonatas rich with surging swell. 
   In matchless symphonies — but thou couldst choose — 
     The mystery of music thou hast solved. 

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