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Featured Poem: Life’s Tragedy by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Written by Rachael Norris, 28th October 2019

As part of our series for Black History Month in October, this week's Featured Poem is Life's Tragedy by Paul Laurence Dunbar, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Leader, Tom Young.

This poem offers comfort and hard truth!

I know well the feeling that you’re missing out, and it is a comfort that the writer knew it too. The ‘we mortals’ of the last verse includes everyone, and in fact this feeling is nothing more or less than ‘Life’s Tragedy’. Probably all of us feel it.

I like the ‘brimming day’, and especially the ‘potent sorrow’. Regret especially can be harmful, so it’s good to understand and accept it as much as possible. I’m reminded to face-up to sorrow in order to lessen its potency.

Even if you think in your more contented moments that no song, love or thing is really ‘perfect’, it is hard not to sometimes compare real life to an imagined one.

Should we keep looking for ‘that perfect thing’? Or should we rather count the joys we have? I’d like to know which way is right, but the poem leaves me uncomfortably in the middle. This is where I miss the wisdom that might be gained by reading it with other people. What do you think?


Life’s Tragedy

It may be misery not to sing at all,

And to go silent through the brimming day;

It may be misery never to be loved,

But deeper griefs than these beset the way.


To sing the perfect song,

And by a half-tone lost the key,

There the potent sorrow, there the grief,

The pale, sad staring of Life's Tragedy.


To have come near to the perfect love,

Not the hot passion of untempered youth,

But that which lies aside its vanity,

And gives, for thy trusting worship, truth.


This, this indeed is to be accursed,

For if we mortals love, or if we sing,

We count our joys not by what we have,

But by what kept us from that perfect thing.

Paul Laurence Dunbar


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