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About this Poem 

“The Mystery” was published in Dunbar’s book Lyrics of Lowly Life (Dodd, Mead, 1896).

The Mystery

I was not; now I am—a few days hence
I shall not be; I fain would look before
And after, but can neither do; some Power
Or lack of power says “no” to all I would.
I stand upon a wide and sunless plain,
Nor chart nor steel to guide my steps aright.
Whene’er, o’ercoming fear, I dare to move,
I grope without direction and by chance.
Some feign to hear a voice and feel a hand
That draws them ever upward thro’ the gloom.
But I—I hear no voice and touch no hand,
Tho’ oft thro’ silence infinite I list,
And strain my hearing to supernal sounds;
Tho’ oft thro’ fateful darkness do I reach,
And stretch my hand to find that other hand.
I question of th’ eternal bending skies
That seem to neighbor with the novice earth;
But they roll on, and daily shut their eyes
On me, as I one day shall do on them,
And tell me not the secret that I ask.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in 1872 and the author of numerous collections of poetry and prose, was one of the first African American poets to gain national recognition.

by this poet

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Temples he built and palaces of air,
   And, with the artist’s parent-pride aglow,
   His fancy saw his vague ideals grow
Into creations marvelously fair;
He set his foot upon Fame’s nether stair.
   But ah, his dream,—it had entranced him so
   He could not move. He could no farther go;
But paused in joy that he
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The snow lies deep upon the ground,
And winter's brightness all around
Decks bravely out the forest sere,
With jewels of the brave old year.
The coasting crowd upon the hill
With some new spirit seems to thrill;
And all the temple bells achime.
Ring out the glee of Christmas time.

In happy homes the brown oak-
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By the stream I dream in calm delight, and watch as in a glass,
How the clouds like crowds of snowy-hued and white-robed
      maidens pass,
And the water into ripples breaks and sparkles as it spreads,
Like a host of armored knights with silver helmets on their heads.
And I deem the stream