Claude McKay was a Jamaican writer and poet, who was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance.
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Famous Claude Mckay Poems
Rest In Peace
No more for you the city’s thorny ways,
The ugly corners of the Negro belt;
The miseries and pains of these harsh days
By you will never, never again be felt.
No more, if still you wander, will you meet
With nights of unabating bitterness;
They cannot reach you in your safe retreat,
The city’s hate, the city’s prejudice!
‘Twas sudden–but your menial task is done,
The dawn now breaks on you, the dark is over,
The sea is crossed, the longed-for port is won;
Farewell, oh, fare you well! my friend and lover.
My spirit wails for water, water now!
My tongue is aching dry, my throat is hot
For water, fresh rain shaken from a bough,
Or dawn dews heavy in some leafy spot.
My hungry body’s burning for a swim
In sunlit water where the air is cool,
As in Trout Valley where upon a limb
The golden finch sings sweetly to the pool.
Oh water, water, when the night is done,
When day steals gray-white through the windowpane,
Clear silver water when I wake, alone,
All impotent of parts, of fevered brain;
Pure water from a forest fountain first,
To wash me, cleanse me, and to quench my thirst!
I must not gaze at them although
Your eyes are dawning day;
I must not watch you as you go
Your sun-illumined way;
I hear but I must never heed
The fascinating note,
Which, fluting like a river reed,
Comes from your trembing throat;
I must not see upon your face
Love’s softly glowing spark;
For there’s the barrier of race,
You’re fair and I am dark.
North And South
O sweet are tropic lands for waking dreams!
There time and life move lazily along.
There by the banks of blue-and-silver streams
Grass-sheltered crickets chirp incessant song,
Gay-colored lizards loll all through the day,
Their tongues outstretched for careless little flies,
And swarthy children in the fields at play,
Look upward laughing at the smiling skies.
A breath of idleness is in the air
That casts a subtle spell upon all things,
And love and mating-time are everywhere,
And wonder to life’s commonplaces clings.
The fluttering humming-bid darts through the trees
And dips his long beak in the big bell-flowers,
The leisured buzzard floats upon the breeze,
Riding a crescent cloud for endless hours,
The sea beats softly on the emerald strands–
O sweet for quiet dreams are tropic lands!
Your scent is in the room.
Swiftly it overwhelms and conquers me!
Jasmines, night jasmines, perfect of perfume,
Heavy with dew before the dawn of day!
Your face was in the mirror. I could see
You smile and vanish suddenly away,
Leaving behind the vestige of a tear.
Sad suffering face, from parting grown so dear!
Night jasmines cannot bloom in this cold place;
Without the street is wet and weird with snow;
The cold nude trees are tossing to and fro;
Too stormy is the night for your fond face;
For your low voice too loud the wind’s mad roar.
But, oh, your scent is here–jasmines that grow
Luxuriant, clustered round your cottage door!
Your body was a sacred cell always,
A jewel that grew dull in garish light,
An opal which beneath my wondering gaze
Gleamed rarely, softly throbbing in the night.
I touched your flesh with reverential hands,
For you were sweet and timid like a flower
That blossoms out of barren tropic sands,
Shedding its perfume in one golden hour.
You yielded to my touch with gentle grace,
And though my passion was a mighty wave
That buried you beneath its strong embrace,
You were yet happy in the moment’s grave.
Still more than passion consummate to me,
More than the nuptials immemorial sung,
Was the warm thrill that melted me to see
Your clean brown body, beautiful and young;
The joy in your maturity at length,
The peace that filled my soul like cooling wine,
When you responded to my tender strength,
And pressed your heart exulting into mine.
How shall I with such memories of you
In coarser forms of love fruition find?
No, I would rather like a ghost pursue
The fairy phantoms of my lonely mind.
It was the silver, heart-enveloping view
Of the mysterious sea-line far away,
Seen only on a gleaming gold-white day,
That made it dear and beautiful to you.
And Laura loved it for the little hill,
Where the quartz sparkled fire, barren and dun,
Whence in the shadow of the dying sun,
She contemplated Hallow’s wooden mill.
While Danny liked the sheltering high grass,
In which he lay upon a clear dry night,
To hear and see, screened skilfully from sight,
The happy lovers of the valley pass.
But oh! I loved it for the big round moon
That swung out of the clouds and swooned aloft,
Burning with passion, gloriously soft,
Lighting the purple flowers of fragrant June.
Sometimes I tremble like a storm-swept flower,
And seek to hide my tortured soul from thee.
Bowing my head in deep humility
Before the silent thunder of thy power.
Sometimes I flee before thy blazing light,
As from the specter of pursuing death;
Intimidated lest thy mighty breath,
Windways, will sweep me into utter night.
For oh, I fear they will be swallowed up–
The loves which are to me of vital worth,
My passion and my pleasure in the earth–
And lost forever in thy magic cup!
I fear, I fear my truly human heart
Will perish on the altar-stone of art!
At night the wide and level stretch of wold,
Which at high noon had basked in quiet gold,
Far as the eye could see was ghostly white;
Dark was the night save for the snow’s weird light.
I drew the shades far down, crept into bed;
Hearing the cold wind moaning overhead
Through the sad pines, my soul, catching its pain,
Went sorrowing with it across the plain.
At dawn, behold! the pall of night was gone,
Save where a few shrubs melancholy, lone,
Detained a fragile shadow. Golden-lipped
The laughing grasses heaven’s sweet wine sipped.
The sun rose smiling o’er the river’s breast,
And my soul, by his happy spirit blest,
Soared like a bird to greet him in the sky,
And drew out of his heart Eternity.
Swift swallows sailing from the Spanish main,
O rain-birds racing merrily away
From hill-tops parched with heat and sultry plain
Of wilting plants and fainting flowers, say–
When at the noon-hour from the chapel school
The children dash and scamper down the dale,
Scornful of teacher’s rod and binding rule
Forever broken and without avail,
Do they still stop beneath the giant tree
To gather locusts in their childish greed,
And chuckle when they break the pods to see
The golden powder clustered round the seed?
On A Primitive Canoe
Here, passing lonely down this quiet lane,
Before a mud-splashed window long I pause
To gaze and gaze, while through my active brain
Still thoughts are stirred to wakefulness; because
Long, long ago in a dim unknown land,
A massive forest-tree, ax-felled, adze-hewn,
Was deftly done by cunning mortal hand
Into a symbol of the tender moon.
Why does it thrill more than the handsome boat
That bore me o’er the wild Atlantic ways,
And fill me with rare sense of things remote
From this harsh land of fretful nights and days?
I cannot answer but, whate’er it be,
An old wine has intoxicated me.
Your voice is the color of a robin’s breast,
And there’s a sweet sob in it like rain–still rain in the night.
Among the leaves of the trumpet-tree, close to his nest,
The pea-dove sings, and each note thrills me with strange delight
Like the words, wet with music, that well from your trembling throat.
I’m afraid of your eyes, they’re so bold,
Searching me through, reading my thoughts, shining like gold.
But sometimes they are gentle and soft like the dew on the lips of the eucharis
Before the sun comes warm with his lover’s kiss.
You are sea-foam, pure with the star’s loveliness,
Not mortal, a flower, a fairy, too fair for the beauty-shorn earth.
All wonderful things, all beautiful things, gave of their wealth to your birth.
Oh I love you so much, not recking of passion, that I feel it is wrong!
But men will love you, flower, fairy, non-mortal spirit burdened with flesh,
Nay, why reproach each other, be unkind,
For there’s no plane on which we two may meet?
Let’s both forgive, forget, for both were blind,
And life is of a day, and time is fleet.
And I am fire, swift to flame and burn,
Melting with elements high overhead,
While you are water in an earthly urn,
All pure, but heavy, and of hue like lead.
Winter In The Country
Sweet life! how lovely to be here
And feel the soft sea-laden breeze
Strike my flushed face, the spruce’s fair
Free limbs to see, the lesser trees’
Bare hands to touch, the sparrow’s cheep
To heed, and watch his nimble flight
Above the short brown grass asleep.
Love glorious in his friendly might,
Music that every heart could bless,
And thoughts of life serene, divine,
Beyond my power to express,
Crowd round this lifted heart of mine!
But oh! to leave this paradise
For the city’s dirty basement room,
Where, beauty hidden from the eyes,
A table, bed, bureau, and broom
In corner set, two crippled chairs
All covered up with dust and grim
With hideousness and scars of years,
And gaslight burning weird and dim,
Will welcome me . . . And yet, and yet
This very wind, the winter birds
The glory of the soft sunset,
Come there to me in words.
Merry voices chatterin’,
Nimble feet dem patterin’,
Big an’ little, faces gay,
Happy day dis market day.
Sateday, de marnin’ break,
Soon, soon market-people wake;
An’ de light shine from de moon
While dem boy, wid pantaloon
Roll up ober dem knee-pan,
‘Tep across de buccra lan’
To de pastur whe’ de harse
Feed along wid de jackass,
An’ de mule cant’ in de track
Wid him tail up in him back,
All de ketchin’ to defy,
No ca’ how dem boy might try.
In de early marnin’-tide,
When de cocks crow on de hill
An’ de stars are shinin’ still,
Mirrie by de fireside
Hots de coffee for de lads
Comin’ ridin’ on de pads
T’rown across dem animul–
Donkey, harse too, an’ de mule,
Which at last had come do’n cool.
On de bit dem hol’ dem full:
Racin’ ober pastur’ lan’,
See dem comin’ ebery man,
Comin’ fe de steamin’ tea
Ober hilly track an’ lea.
Hard-wuk’d donkey on de road
Trottin’ wid him ushal load,
Hamper pack’ wi’ yam an’ grain,
Sour-sop, and Gub’nor cane.
Cous’ Sun sits in hired dray,
Drivin’ ‘long de market way;
Whole week grindin’ sugar cane
T’rough de boilin’ sun an’ rain,
Now, a’ter de toilin’ hard,
He goes seekin’ his reward,
While he’s thinkin’ in him min’
Of de dear ones lef behin’,
Of de loved though ailin’ wife,
Darlin’ treasure of his life,
An’ de picknies, six in all,
Whose ’nuff burdens ‘pon him fall:
Seben lovin’ ones in need,
Seben hungry mouths fe feed;
On deir wants he thinks alone,
Neber dreamin’ of his own,
But gwin’ on wid joyful face
Till him re’ch de market-place.
Sugar bears no price to-day,
Though it is de mont’ o’ May,
When de time is hellish hot,
An’ de water cocoanut
An’ de cane bebridge is nice,
Mix’ up wid a lilly ice.
Big an’ little, great an’ small,
Afou yam is all de call;
Sugar tup an’ gill a quart,
Yet de people hab de heart
Wantin’ brater top o’ i’,
Want de sweatin’ higgler fe
Ram de pan an’ pile i’ up,
Yet sell i’ fe so-so tup.
Cousin Sun is lookin’ sad,
As de market is so bad;
‘Pon him han’ him res’ him chin,
Quietly sit do’n thinkin’
Of de loved wife sick in bed,
An’ de children to be fed–
What de laborers would say
When dem know him couldn’ pay;
Also what about de mill
Whe’ him hire from ole Bill;
So him think, an’ think on so,
Till him t’oughts no more could go.
Then he got up an’ began
Pickin’ up him sugar-pan:
In his ears rang t’rough de din
‘Only two-an’-six a tin’.’
What a tale he’d got to tell,
How bad, bad de sugar sell!
Tekin’ out de lee amount,
Him set do’n an’ begin count
All de time him min’ deh doubt
How expenses would pay out;
Ah, it gnawed him like de ticks,
Sugar sell fe two-an’-six!
So he journeys on de way,
Feelinl sad dis market day;
No e’en buy a little cake
To gi’e baby when she wake,–
Passin’ ‘long de candy-shop
‘Douten eben mek a stop
To buy drops fe las’y son,
For de lilly cash nea’ done.
So him re’ch him own a groun’,
An’ de children scamper roun’,
Each one stretchin’ out him han’,
Lookin’ to de poor sad man.
Oh, how much he felt de blow,
As he watched dem face fall low,
When dem wait an’ nuttin’ came
An’ drew back deir han’s wid shame!
But de sick wife kissed his brow:
‘Sun, don’t get down-hearted now;
Ef we only pay expense
We mus’ wuk we common-sense,
Cut an’ carve, an’ carve an’ cut,
Mek gill sarbe fe quattiewut;
We mus’ try mek two ends meet
Neber mind how hard be it.
We won’t mind de haul an’ pull,
While dem pickny belly full.’
An’ de shadow lef’ him face,
An’ him felt an inward peace,
As he blessed his better part
For her sweet an’ gentle heart:
‘Dear one o’ my heart, my breat’,
Won’t I lub you to de deat’?
When my heart is weak an’ sad,
Who but you can mek it glad?’
So dey kissed an’ kissed again,
An’ deir t’oughts were not on pain,
But was ‘way down in de sout’
Where dey’d wedded in deir yout’,
In de marnin’ of deir life
Free from all de grief an’ strife,
Happy in de marnin’ light,
Never thinkin’ of de night.
So dey k’lated eberyt’ing;
An’ de profit it could bring,
A’ter all de business fix’,
Was a princely two-an’-six.