Wednesday, March 22, 2017

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

Source of book: I own this

I don’t read too many series books, in part because I could easily fill my reading schedule up with them alone, and never get to other stuff. However, there are arguably six series that I do follow. Two are kind of wobbly as to whether they fit the definition (Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barchester series and something by P. G. Wodehouse each year.), but the other four definitely qualify. Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series has long been one of my favorites. I am two books into C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series, and have greatly enjoyed it so far. My kids insist that we listen to Alexander McCall Smith's excellent Mma. Ramotswe series on audiobook when we travel - although we have done them completely out of order. The other series is the Flavia series by Alan Bradley, of which As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is the seventh. Here are the others:




As I noted in the very first review, Alan Bradley turned to writing fiction late in life. The first six books were part of his original contract, which has now been extended after the significant success of the first books. I strongly recommend reading both the books and my reviews in order, as the later ones assume the earlier ones.

Like all the books in the series, this one has its title taken from a line in an old book. The full quote, from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (one of the plays I haven’t seen) is a song for a dead character. (I didn’t read the entire play to figure out what was going on - maybe some day…)

FEAR no more the heat o’ the sun,
 Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
 Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o’ the great,
 Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
 To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
 Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
 Thou hast finish’d joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
 Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
 Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renown├Ęd be thy grave!

The choice of title also refers to the fact that the corpse that sets the plot in motion is discovered in a chimney.

The last few books have been significantly darker than the earlier books, which had more whimsy and fun. In part, what has happened is that Flavia herself is growing up, and having to deal with much more adult situations. But also, Bradley is taking the stories to a darker place in general. Whether this is a good development is debatable, and the Amazon reviews show a sharp split in opinion.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is also unusual in that it is not set in the sleepy village of Bishop’s Lacey, but in a strict girl’s academy in Canada. Thus, Flavia is adrift from her roots, and none of the familiar characters enters the story in any significant way. This is too bad, in my opinion, as the supporting cast was a lot of the fun. Dodger, and the semi-wicked step-sisters, and the vicar and his wife, and the inspector as Flavia’s frenemy. Most notably absent in this book is any comic relief. I think it could have used a bit of humor to relieve the tension.

On the other hand, I think the story itself works well, and Bradley keeps the reader as off guard as he does his protagonist. Nobody is who they seem to be, and everyone has secrets. Since this book continues the plot twist from the last book - that Flavia’s mother was involved in a secret quasi-government spy society - Flavia is now embroiled in that world, even if she doesn’t know who is in or out, or on her side or not. This is a definite change from the earlier books, which had a Miss Marple meets Nancy Drew sort of feel to them. I am curious to see where Bradley takes the series next. Will Flavia’s return to England mean a return the series’ roots, or has everything changed too much? I hope we at least get the old characters back, because the new ones in this book tended more toward the sinister than the likeable.

Still, not a bad book, and a nice diversion, as a murder mystery should be. Start this series at the beginning, and enjoy.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories by Mark Twain

Source of book: I own this.

This is one of the weirder book-reading situations I have had since I started blogging. We actually started reading this book last March, while we were camping in the Gold Country. I brought it along because we would start the trip at New Melones Lake, in Calaveras County, just a few miles south of Angels Camp, where the incident allegedly took place. I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were literally across the road from where Twain’s cabin stood - just up at the top of the hill overlooking the canyon which is now the lake. Angels Camp, by the way, has little going for it other than Twain, which is why frog imagery is everywhere. This story IS the identity of this town, and they milk it for all it is worth. And who can blame them? But, while you are there checking out the frogs, the museum is really very nice and worth the few bucks to get in. Plenty of history.

So why write this review now? Well, we got busy on other things, and have had difficulty finishing it. I feel bad that I don’t read to the kids as much as I used to - although we have done a lot of audiobooks. The problem is that we have ended up using our evenings while my wife works to focus on science, and that has left less time for reading. Too much to do, too little time.

But anyway, the kids loved this book.

This book comes from my Reader’s Digest World’s Best Reading collection. These are decent quality hardbacks that I have painstakingly collected at library sales, used bookstores, and online (with help from my lovely wife) over the last 20+ years. Since it contains a number of stories of various length, I am going to address each one separately.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”

This is the best known Twain short story - and one of the best known stories in literature. Thus, I think it is no spoiler to discuss the plot. This tall tale, supposedly heard by Twain from an old miner in Angel’s Camp, is a classic in the American tradition of “tall tales.” While I have run across a few stories in this vein from elsewhere, this is a predominantly American literary form, and reflects part of our national character. (One of the better parts, I would say.) The idea too of the rambling teller of tales that never comes to the point, no matter how much the listener tries to prod him is also an American archetype. Likewise, the idea of sandbagging a contest is quite American. We have always had a soft spot for the loveable cheater, the man sharp enough to rip off the Devil himself.

Twain was probably the best author of tall tales, but others arose at the same time. I would recommend, for example, Bret Harte (who, like Twain, lived in the Gold Country and wrote about its denizens) and Ring Lardner. The kids did find the story amusing, and it fit well with visiting the reconstructed cabin up on Gold Hill.

“The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”

My second daughter (the cynical and macabre one) really loved this story. To be honest, I liked it too when I first read it as a kid - and it seems darkly appropriate these days.

A stranger passes through Hadleyburg, a town renowned for its uprightness, where its citizens are trained from birth to be honest and upright. Something happens, though, and the stranger is offended - the story never tells us exactly how, but hints that Hadleyburg didn’t care about the opinion of others. I kind of presume that the offense was self-righteousness in some form. The stranger swears revenge, and hatches an elaborate plot to make the town destroy itself.

He sends a bag containing a fortune in money, and instructions that it is for the man who did him a kindness. The person who did the kindness, of course, must identify himself by naming the kindness - in fact the specific words he said to the stranger - in order to claim the money. After a delay, the stranger then sent a letter to each of the leading citizens in town supposedly giving them the secret key to the mystery. However, it is incomplete, and the townspeople are exposed as liars as they each claim to know the phrase. However that phrase is incomplete.

One couple, however, is not exposed, due to an accident of fate. Their consciences are torn, but they cannot bring themselves to confess that they too were lying. They get the money, but it gives them no pleasure, they become paranoid, and they die soon after finally confessing their guilt.

The phrase, by the way, is, “"You are far from being a bad man—go, and reform—or, mark my words—some day, for your sins you will die and go to hell or Hadleyburg—try and make it the former.”

There is another line in this story, however, that I really love. John & Mary Richards - the couple that will eventually be driven mad by their guilt - are discussing the potential windfall. They are poor, and really could use the money. They are, unlike most of the citizens of Hadleyburg, acutely self aware, and it is impossible to not pity them as they too succumb. Early on, they discuss the problem that the town faces: it has been trained in honesty, but are weak, unprepared to face real ethical temptation.

“But Mary, you know how we have been trained all our lives long, like the whole village, till it is absolutely second nature to us to stop not a single moment to think when there’s an honest thing to be done--”
“Oh, I know it, I know it -- it’s been one everlasting training and training and training in honesty -- honesty shielded, from the very cradle, against every possible temptation, and so it’s artificial honesty, and weak as water when temptation comes, as we have seen this night. God knows I never had shade nor shadow of a doubt of my petrified and indestructible honesty until now -- and now, under the very first big and real temptation, I -- Edward, it is my belief that this town’s honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours is. It is a mean town, a hard and stingy town, and hasn’t a virtue in the world but this honesty it is so celebrated for and so conceited about; and so help me, I do believe that if ever the day comes that its honesty falls under great temptation, its grand reputation will go to ruin like a house of cards.”

During my days in a certain cult group - and indeed in Homeschool culture as it later developed - it was obvious that Twain, like Hawthorne, was persona non grata for his skewering of religious hypocrisy. But Twain got what many of the religious of his day - and ours - did not. When Huck Finn struggles with his conscience as to whether to turn in his friend Jim, a runaway slave, his religion tells him to follow the law and betray Jim. Huck rejects this, and decides he would rather go to hell than betray his own compassionate values. And I think this is what Twain is getting at here. Hadleyburg has spent its years breeding self-righteous “honesty” at the expense of compassion. “A mean town, a hard and stingy town,” as Mary realizes.

And, as I also have noted over my years in this life, building walls around ourselves to keep from temptation doesn’t in fact make us strong. The more we try to protect ourselves - and our children - from contamination, the less truly moral we become. And the more we keep ourselves from the “undesireables,” the more we substitute self-righteousness for compassion. I would argue that this last election is merely the final step in that conversion.

This is definitely one of Twain’s finest stories, and one that stays with you forever after you read it.

“A Dog’s Tale”

Oh boy, this one is a doozy. I did not remember this one at all, and got part way in before realizing this story may or may not be appropriate for children. Twain was vehemently opposed to vivisection, and wrote this story in an attempt to expose the horrors. Basically, this is a mother dog’s viewpoint of her puppy having hits brains pulped while it is alive. Yes, we finished the story. My kids are pretty used to difficult topics, and I would rather they be aware that sheltered. But caution on this one, your kids might not handle it well.

“A Fable”

This short, well, fable in the vein of Aesop, is about the nature of perception and the way our own biases affect it. A group of animals discover a mirror lying on the ground, and think it is a hole. But they cannot agree about what is in the hole, because they see themselves reflected. As the cat, the only one crafty enough to understand what has happened, gives the moral, “You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination.”

As many have noted about the Bible, if you want to burn witches, you’ll find justification. If you want to feed the hungry and welcome the immigrant, that is there too. What you choose says more about yourself than anything else….


“The Story of the Good Little Boy” and “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”

These two are a matched set. To best understand them requires a knowledge of the popular moralist genre from the Victorian Era. Twain skewers the genre, while also satirizing the times in which he lived. The “Good Little Boy” is a Pharisee - he wants nothing more than to have his picture in a Sunday School book someday as a hero. And instead of rising, everything goes wrong, and bad things happen to him. That’s fairly typical Twain - goody-goody little brother Sid from Tom Sawyer is perhaps the best portrayal of that sort of person.

The Bad Little Boy is a bit more complex, however. Twain doesn’t appear to approve of him either, even though he succeeds. Rather, Twain takes an opportunity to point out that being a horrible person was a pretty good way to succeed in the Gilded Age. Corruption, dishonesty, bullying, and general atrocious behavior was a path to success, not censure. Sounds a bit familiar.

“The £1,000,000 Bank Note”

This is another of Twain’s humorous yet pointed tales. Two wealthy London brothers decide to make a bet as to what would happen if they gave a random person a million pound bank note with the instructions that he was to pay it back in 30 days. The note and instructions were handed to the narrator, and the agent for the brothers disappeared without a trace. Also in the instructions was the mention of the bet (but no clue as to what the bet was) and a promise that if the recipient caused the one brother to win the bet, then the recipient would be given a job of his choice.

With a gigantic bit of currency in his pocket - but no way of spending it - the narrator sets out to figure out how to leverage this bit of good or bad luck. After all, showing up with a single bill worth about $100 million in today’s money isn’t helpful. Nobody can give you change, and walking up to a bank with it may get you arrested.

How the narrator turns the bill to his advantage is both humorous and perceptive, as it is the leverage of human nature that will cause success or failure. To a degree, Twain is pointing out that appearing wealthy can get you almost as far as being wealthy - and that privilege itself is more of an advantage than we appreciate.

“Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn”

My kids (with the exception of the cynical child) liked this story best. Another tall tale, it has endured in various forms throughout our culture. (Most notable is the Chip and Dale cartoon.) A blue jay sees a knothole in some wood, and tries to fill it with acorns for the winter. But it never seems to get full. Because, of course, it is a hole in the side of a cabin - and even a hundred jays probably couldn’t fill that up.

A few years back, we actually saw something similar. Out here, we have Acorn Woodpeckers (among the dozen or so species of woodpeckers), who peck out holes in dead trees and store acorns in there. While camping, a bird kept filling up this hole in the side of a metal power pole. You could hear it rattle down to the bottom. Over and over. But filling a hollow pole a foot wide and 40 feet tall is tough.

“A Medieval Romance”

This is an unusual story, to say the least. It is a twist on the inheritance drama, and a statement on gender roles.

Two brothers wish to have their progeny inherit the throne. The older brother’s child will get the job, unless she is female and the younger brother’s child is male.

So, the younger brother names his daughter Conrad and raises her as a male. The two of them grow up, and things happen. Constance, the rightful heir to the throne, falls in love with a man who abandons her after impregnating her. Before this comes to light, Constance falls in love with Conrad, but Conrad spurns her for obvious reasons.

Then, when the illegitimate child comes to light, Constance will be subject to the death penalty. Unless, and only if the king pardons her. Conrad takes the risk of assuming the Ducal throne to pronounce judgment - it can only be done from there - knowing that if she is exposed as female, she will die. Conrad offers pardon if Constance will name the father. Constance, still smarting from her rejection by Conrad, names Conrad as the father.

Twain ends the story with Conrad fainting, and leaves it to the reader to extricate the parties from the mess Twain got them in.

“The $30,000 Bequest”

Twain was fascinated with money and its effects. Like Hadleyburg and the million pound note, this story explores the way money changes people. A hardworking middle class woman is told by a rich relative that he will leave them $30,000 on his death. Provided, however, that she could prove to the executors that she had not mentioned the gift to anyone, had not inquired about his health, and did not attend the funeral. This would be a boon to her and her family, and they are excited, but of course cannot tell anyone.

Unfortunately, this “wealth” changes them. They begin to build castles in the sky and imaginary investments that eventually build to an impossible sum. It is a stock market bubble in their own minds. And it crashes in their own minds too. But in real life, they begin to live as if they were rich, no longer living below their means, or content to be ordinary people.

When the bequest ultimately turns out to be a fraud, their world crashes down.

“The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm”

Another tall tale, about the burglar alarm from hell. After meeting a burglar in his house, the McWilliamses decide to get an alarm, which turns out to wake them up at night and yet literally allows the burglars to use the top floor as their base of operations.

This is Twain in his slapstick mode, taking things to a ridiculous extreme. But also, it is hilarious for another reason: the formal dialogue between Mr. McWilliams and the burglars.

“Then one night we smelled smoke, and I was advised to get up and see what the matter was. I lit a candle, and started toward the stairs, and met a burglar coming out of a room with a basket of tinware, which he had mistaken for solid silver in the dark. He was smoking a pipe. I said, 'My friend, we do not allow smoking in this room.' He said he was a stranger, and could not be expected to know the rules of the house: said he had been in many houses just as good as this one, and it had never been objected to before. He added that as far as his experience went, such rules had never been considered to apply to burglars, anyway.
"I said: 'Smoke along, then, if it is the custom, though I think that the conceding of a privilege to a burglar which is denied to a bishop is a conspicuous sign of the looseness of the times. But waiving all that, what business have you to be entering this house in this furtive and clandestine way, without ringing the burglar alarm?'
"He looked confused and ashamed, and said, with embarrassment: 'I beg a thousand pardons. I did not know you had a burglar alarm, else I would have rung it. I beg you will not mention it where my parents may hear of it, for they are old and feeble, and such a seemingly wanton breach of the hallowed conventionalities of our Christian civilization might all too rudely sunder the frail bridge which hangs darkling between the pale and evanescent present and the solemn great deeps of the eternities. May I trouble you for a match?'__
"I said: 'Your sentiments do you honor, but if you will allow me to say it, metaphor is not your best hold. Spare your thigh; this kind light only on the box, and seldom there, in fact, if my experience may be trusted. But to return to business: how did you get in here?'
"'Through a second-story window.'
“It was even so. I redeemed the tinware at pawnbroker's rates, less cost of advertising, bade the burglar good-night, closed the window after him, and retired to headquarters to report.”

“Was It Heaven or Hell?”

This is kind of a “The Lady or the Tiger” sort of story, and a bit moralizing to boot. Basically, daughter is raised by mom and the aunts who are insistent that she never, ever lie no matter what the circumstances. Then mother and daughter both fall ill, and each is counting on the other to live to continue their fight. A moral dilemma ensues, and there is the question of heaven or hell for the participants.

This wasn’t my favorite story, as I felt Twain handled it with a heavier touch than most of his satire. It felt clumsy.

“Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”

This one, on the other hand, is brilliant. It is a great takedown of common tropes about the afterlife, from the harps and clouds to the need of some to experience celebrity for their conversions. Twain is actually fairly respectful of religion in this one, but gently laughs at a lot of the silliness that it can inspire. Particularly perceptive is the distinction between those quietly good to others, such as a man who fed the poor without anyone knowing, and those whose ostentation of their virtue find themselves either disappointed in their reception or oblivious to the fact that others are laughing behind their backs at their silly pomp. Twain also makes the point - which I find quite good - is that you can’t escape yourself, even in heaven. Some can manage to make heaven itself their own hell.

Twain wrote a whole lot more stories than this - the complete collection would be a much bigger book. However, these are certainly among his best, and a good place to start. Mark Twain did a lot to shape my own thinking during my childhood. My mother read us Huckleberry Finn when we were pretty young, and we discussed the racial and religious issues as a result. If I were to trace my own views on many of these issues, they were inculcated by my parents at this time. A sense of justice, and the need for a Christian to have empathy for those outside of race and religion. Books by authors like Twain were an important part of developing empathy and seeing issues from the perspective of others. I also believe that Twain opened my eyes at a young age to the fact that those outside the Christian bubble see us differently. And, contrary to the “alternative facts” offered by the White Evangelical Persecution Industrial Complex, our poor reputation has nothing to do with our faith itself, but our tendency to be “mean, hard, and stingy” to those outside our tribe.

***

Pictures:


 Reconstructed Mark Twain cabin on Gold Hill

Water Wagon at the Angel's Camp Museum. 
Plenty of great vehicles and equipment on display.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

I Greet The Dawn - Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I picked this title up for Black History Month as well after posting a Langston Hughes poem on Inauguration Day as a protest against the election to office a White Supremacist who has done his best to make good on his promises to antagonize people of color, immigrants and refugees. I was going to get a Langston Hughes collection, but it was already taken, so I “settled” for Paul Laurence Dunbar. 



I Greet The Dawn is a collection selected by Ashley Bryan in 1978. I appreciate that Mr. Bryan chose to focus not on the dialect poems that Dunbar was most known for, and instead primarily chose his conventional poems. During his lifetime, Dunbar received the most money and praise for the dialect poems, as they fit comfortably with the idea of the quaint Negro (pat on the head…)

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1872, one of the first generation of African Americans born free. His father escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad, then returned to fight in the Union army during the Civil War. Raised in Ohio, Dunbar was the only black in his class. Wilbur and Orville Wright also attended his school at around the same time, and later helped him in a failed attempt to start a newspaper for the black community. His poems ended up in the school and local newspapers, and generally made a name for himself. He had hoped to attend college, but he tried to find a job instead to help support his widowed mother. Alas, despite his experience and talents, he couldn’t find a job in the writing profession. Newspapers and magazines didn’t want him. The want ads would simply state “no colored need apply.) For most of his short life, he worked as an elevator operator while writing on the side.

His poems found some success, but he wasn’t able to support himself with them alone. In addition, influential critics like William Dean Howells praised the dialect poems while panning his literary English poems. In an ironic touch, Dunbar himself didn’t speak in dialect any more than I do - he had to write by listening to others, not speak with his own voice.

Later, Dunbar travelled to England, which was a pleasant experience. However, his tour wasn’t organized well, and it didn’t make enough money to support him - or even get him back. He had to write a friend to get his return fare.

In 1898, he married Alice Ruth Moore, a schoolteacher with a similar literary mind. Their eight year marriage was of mixed result. On the one hand, she was a devoted wife and the two had much in common. On the other, as Dunbar slowly succumbed to the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1906, she and his mother tangled over how to care for him best, and they separated. Attempts at reconciliation failed, and he died at age 33 at his mother’s home. It’s kind of a sad end to what could have been a great partnership.

There are about 150 poems in the collection, most short. They are grouped by topic: love, life, time and death, transcendence, odes to inspirational people, and the song of the poet. Here are the ones I liked the most:

“Encouraged”

Because you love me I have much achieved,
Had you despised me then I must have failed,
But since I knew you trusted and believed,
I could not disappoint you and so prevailed.

I love this little quatrain because it really expresses a truth about my relationship with the lovely Amanda. Without her believing in me, I never would have taken the risk of opening my own law practice.

“Love’s Apotheosis”

Love me. I care not what the circling years
To me may do.
If, but in spite of time and tears,
You prove but true.

Love me--albeit grief shall dim mine eyes,
And tears bedew,
I shall not e'en complain, for then my skies
Shall still be blue.

Love me, and though the winter snow shall pile,
And leave me chill,
Thy passion's warmth shall make for me, meanwhile,
A sun-kissed hill.

And when the days have lengthened into years,
And I grow old,
Oh, spite of pains and griefs and cares and fears,
Grow thou not cold.

Then hand and hand we shall pass up the hill,
I say not down;
That twain go up, of love, who 've loved their fill,--
To gain love's crown.

Love me, and let my life take up thine own,
As sun the dew.
Come, sit, my queen, for in my heart a throne
Awaits for you!

Dunbar wrote in a delightful variety of meters and forms, and I was thrilled with his technical mastery. Like another of my favorite poets, Christina Rossetti, he puts the rigid forms to work and makes them seem so natural and clear and beautiful. It is a true skill indeed to express within form, and this poem is a great example of that. The long and short lines emphasize perfectly the important thoughts, and the cadence serves the ideas so transparently that you don’t labor to say the words out loud.

“Love Song”

If Death should claim me for her own to-day,
And softly I should falter from your side,
Oh, tell me, loved one, would my memory stay,
And would my image in your heart abide?
Or should I be as some forgotten dream,
That lives its little space, then fades entire?
Should Time send o'er you its relentless stream,
To cool your heart, and quench for aye love's fire?

I would not for the world, love, give you pain,
Or ever compass what would cause you grief;
And, oh, how well I know that tears are vain!
But love is sweet, my dear, and life is brief;
So if some day before you I should go
Beyond the sound and sight of song and sea,
'T would give my spirit stronger wings to know
That you remembered still and wept for me.

Twist the knife, will you? It’s skillful iambic pentameter, but what a poem. I fell in love with it when I first read it.

I can’t remember which of the next two I read first as a child or teen. Both are the ones that I think of when I think of Dunbar. “Sympathy” is the source for the name of Maya Angelou’s best known collection. But “We Wear The Mask” is one of my favorite poems from any author- I memorized it for an assignment in high school, and it has never entirely left me 25 years later. It is just that good. Anyway, read them both and choose for yourself.

“Sympathy”

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

“We Wear The Mask”

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
      We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
      We wear the mask!

The second in particular expresses how I feel some days - something I probably got from my dad, whose favorite song in his teens was “I Am A Rock.”

Dunbar could be humorous as well as serious. This little quatrain caught my eye.

“Theology”

There is a heaven, for ever, day by day,
The upward longing of my soul doth tell me so.
There is a hell, I'm quite as sure; for pray
If there were not, where would my neighbours go?

The whole section on death is quite good. Unfortunately, it was really hard to pick a favorite. Should I go with the incredibly dark “Behind the Arras”? Or the existentialist “Mortality”? Or one of his more conventional elegies? It was a hard call, but I am going with the more elliptical “Forever.”

“Forever”

I HAD not known before
Forever was so long a word.
The slow stroke of the clock of time
I had not heard.

'Tis hard to learn so late;
It seems no sad heart really learns,
But hopes and trusts and doubts and fears,
And bleeds and burns.

The night is not all dark,
Nor is the day all it seems,
But each may bring me this relief —
My dreams and dreams.

I had not known before
That Never was so sad a word,
So wrap me in forgetfulness —
I have not heard.  

It’s a haunting poem.

And speaking of haunting, how about this harrowing one, “The Haunted Oak”? Any time someone tries to gloss over the horror of lynching - and the terror exacted on African Americans - I think I might have to quote this one.

“The Haunted Oak”

Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
  Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
  Runs a shudder over me?

My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
  And sap ran free in my veins,
But I say in the moonlight dim and weird
  A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
  I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
  And left him here alone.

They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
  And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
  And why does the night wind wail?

He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
  And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
  And the steady tread drew nigh.

Who is it rides by night, by night,
  Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
  What is the galling goad?

And now they beat at the prison door,
  "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
  And we fain would take him away

"From those who ride fast on our heels
  With mind to do him wrong;
They have no care for his innocence,
  And the rope they bear is long."

They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
  They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
  And the great door open flies.

Now they have taken him from the jail,
  And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
  As they halt my trunk beside.

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
  And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
  Was curiously bedight.

Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
  'Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
  The mem'ry of your face.

I feel the rope against my bark,
  And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
  The touch of my own last pain.

And never more shall leaves come forth
  On the bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
  From the curse of a guiltless man.

And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
  And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
  In the guise of a mortal fear.

And ever the man he rides me hard,
  And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
  On the trunk of a haunted tree.

In the next poem, Dunbar praises Frederick Douglass, who was a mentor to him - in addition to being a civil rights icon. (Shh! Don’t tell The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named…)

“Douglass”

Ah, Douglass, we have fall'n on evil days,
Such days as thou, not even thou didst know,
When thee, the eyes of that harsh long ago
Saw, salient, at the cross of devious ways,
And all the country heard thee with amaze.
Not ended then, the passionate ebb and flow,
The awful tide that battled to and fro;
We ride amid a tempest of dispraise.

Now, when the waves of swift dissension swarm,
And Honour, the strong pilot, lieth stark,
Oh, for thy voice high-sounding o'er the storm,
For thy strong arm to guide the shivering bark,
The blast-defying power of thy form,
To give us comfort through the lonely dark.

I feel this poem is relevant today, in our time. I also want to note the form, which Dunbar uses in many of his poems to historical figures: the Italian Sonnet. Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, rhymed ABBAABBACDCDCD. I have always loved the sonnet, and this is a fine one.

How about another humorous and pointed quatrain?

“To A Captious Critic”

Dear critic, who my lightness so deplores,
Would I might study to be prince of bores,
Right wisely would I rule that dull estate--
But, sir, I may not, till you abdicate.

Oh snap.

I like this one both for its wonderful description of that drowsy, rainy day, and for the form, which is interesting. Iambic tetrameter throughout, with the unusual rhyme scheme ABAABA. It’s pairs of tercets that match in each stanza.

“A Drowsy Day”

The air is dark, the sky is gray,
The misty shadows come and go,
And here within my dusky room
Each chair looks ghostly in the gloom.
Outside the rain falls cold and slow —
Half-stinging drops, half-blinding spray.

Each slightest sound is magnified,
For drowsy quiet holds her reign;
The burnt stick in the fireplace breaks,
The nodding cat with start awakes,
And then to sleep drops off again,
Unheeding Towser at her side.

I look far out across the lawn,
Where huddled stand the silly sheep;
My work lies idle at my hands,
My thoughts fly out like scattered strands
Of thread, and on the verge of sleep—
Still half awake — I dream and yawn.

What spirits rise before my eyes!
How various of kind and form!
Sweet memories of days long past,
The dreams of youth that could not last,
Each smiling calm, each raging storm,
That swept across my early skies.

Half seen, the bare, gaunt-fingered boughs
Before my window sweep and sway,
And chafe in tortures of unrest.
My chin sinks down upon my breast;
I cannot work on such a day,
But only sit and dream and drowse.

I’ll end with this lovely quatrain, with an image that I think is particularly memorable and imaginative.

“Rain-Songs”

The rain streams down like harp-strings from the sky;
The wind, that world-old harpist, sitteth by;
And ever as he sings his low refrain,
He plays upon the harp-strings of the rain.