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

Robert Kerlin, Chapter 2.2, James Corrothers



    So oft our hearts, beloved lute,
    In blossomy haunts of song are mute;
    So long we pore, ’mid murmurings dull,
    O’er loveliness unutterable;
    So vain is all our passion strong!
    The dream is lovelier than the song.

    The rose thought, touched by words, doth turn
    Wan ashes. Still, from memory’s urn,
    The lingering blossoms tenderly
    Refute our wilding minstrelsy.
    Alas! we work but beauty’s wrong!
    The dream is lovelier than the song.

    Yearned Shelley o’er the golden flame?
    Left Keats, for beauty’s lure, a name
    But “writ in water”? Woe is me!
    To grieve o’er floral faëry.
    My Phasian doves are flown so long--
    The dream is lovelier than the song!

    Ah, though we build a bower of dawn,
    The golden-winged bird is gone,
    And morn may gild, through shimmering leaves,
    Only the swallow-twittering eaves.
    What art may house or gold prolong
    A dream far lovelier than a song?

    The lilting witchery, the unrest
    Of wingèd dreams, is in our breast;
    But ever dear Fulfilment’s eyes
    Gaze otherward. The long-sought prize,
    My lute, must to the gods belong.
    The dream is lovelier than the song.

Cherokee-Indian, Scotch-Irish, French, and African blood in James David
Corrothers, the author of this poem, makes his complexion, he supposed,
“about that of the original man.” The reader has already had, at the
beginning of the discussion of Dunbar, a sonnet from this poet. The
sonnet, the above poem, and the others given here were published in _The
Century Magazine_. Not unworthy of _The Century’s_ standards, the reader
must say.

[Illustration: J. D. CORROTHERS]

James David Corrothers was born in Michigan, July 2, 1869. His mother in
giving him life surrendered her own. His father never cared for him.
Sheltered for a few years by maternal relatives, he was out on the world
in early boyhood, dependent on his own resources. Soon, because he was a
Negro, he was a wanderer for work through several states. Often without
money, friends, or food, he slept out of doors, sometimes in zero
weather. At nineteen years of age, as before stated, he was shining
shoes in a Chicago barber shop. There he was “discovered.”

Henry D. Lloyd was having his boots shined by young Corrothers when the
two fell into book talk. The distinguished writer was astonished at the
knowledge possessed by one engaged in such a menial occupation. Out of
this circumstance, it seems, the Negro boot-black became a student in
Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois. By mowing lawns and doing
whatever odd jobs he could find he worked his way for three years in the
university. Then, by the kindness of Frances E. Willard, he had a year
in Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina. Prior to his entrance at
Northwestern there had been but one brief opportunity in his life for
attending school. But the wandering youth, battling against the adverse
fates, or, concretely stated, the disadvantage of being a Negro, had
managed somehow to make great books his companions. Hence, he had
entered what Carlyle calls “the true modern university.” Hence, his
literary conversation with Mr. Lloyd.

Out of those early struggles, and perhaps also out of later bitter
experiences, came such poems as the following:


    To be a Negro in a day like this
    Demands forgiveness. Bruised with blow on blow,
    Betrayed, like him whose woe-dimmed eyes gave bliss,
    Still must one succor those who brought one low,
    To be a Negro in a day like this.

    To be a Negro in a day like this
    Demands rare patience--patience that can wait
    In utter darkness. ’Tis the path to miss,
    And knock, unheeded, at an iron gate,
    To be a Negro in a day like this.

    To be a Negro in a day like this
    Demands strange loyalty. We serve a flag
    Which is to us white freedom’s emphasis.
    Ah! one must love when truth and justice lag,
    To be a Negro in a day like this.

    To be a Negro in a day like this--
    Alas! Lord God, what evil have we done?
    Still shines the gate, all gold and amethyst
    But I pass by, the glorious goal unwon,
    “Merely a Negro”--in a day like _this_!

Even though his face be “red like Adam’s,” and even though his art be
noble like that of the masters of song, yet had Mr. Corrothers, even in
the republic of letters, felt the handicap of his complexion, as this
sonnet bears witness:


    O’er all my song the image of a face
    Lieth, like shadow on the wild, sweet flowers.
    The dream, the ecstasy that prompts my powers,
    The golden lyre’s delights, bring little grace
    To bless the singer of a lowly race.
    Long hath this mocked me: aye, in marvelous hours,
    When Hera’s gardens gleamed, or Cynthia’s bowers,
    Or Hope’s red pylons, in their far, hushed place!
    But I shall dig me deeper to the gold;
    Fetch water, dripping, over desert miles
    From clear Nyanzas and mysterious Niles
    Of love; and sing, nor one kind act withhold.
    So shall men know me, and remember long,
    Nor my dark face dishonor any song.

    Death has silenced the muse of this dark singer,
    one of the best hitherto. That his endowment was
    uncommon and that his achievement, as evinced by
    these poems, is one of distinction, to use Mr.
    Howells’s word, every reader equipped to judge
    of poetry must admit.

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