Saturday, May 21, 2016

‘The Mystery’

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.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar
I did not know Dunbar (1872-1906) was a Freemason when I decided to share his poem here, but Bro. Google reflects light in all directions, and it turns out not only was Dunbar a brother, but there’s a remarkable story about his initiation and his lodge. In Along this Way: The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson (1933), the author writes of the time he and Dunbar were made Masons. Excerpted:

Paul returned to his home in Washington early in the spring. He always spoke of his stay in Jacksonville in high terms. Before he left, the Negro Masons decided to organize a lodge of young men, and in honor of Paul, name it the Paul Laurence Dunbar Lodge. The lodge was organized, and Paul and twenty-five or thirty more of us were one night initiated and carried through the first three degrees of Masonry. The Negro Masons of that day in Jacksonville were a horny-handed set. The Odd Fellows lodges were made up of white collar workers, but the Masonic lodges were recruited largely from the stevedores, hod carriers, lumber mill and brickyard hands, and the like. The initiation was rough, and lasted all night. One of our young friends was lame for a number of weeks on account of a fall to the floor while being tossed in a blanket. I was made Worthy Master of the lodge, but it did not take me long to see that being a good Mason demanded more time than I should be willing to devote to it. The first time that I had to “turn out” with the lodge, arrayed in regalia, settled the question definitely.

Imagine being initiated, passed, and raised in a single night, and having a lodge named in your honor! That is Paul Laurence Dunbar Lodge 219 under the MW Union Grand Lodge in Jacksonville, Florida. Another lodge named for Dunbar is found in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Google also shows how Dunbar’s poetry was included in several publications of several mainstream grand lodges. In the January 1916 edition of the Grand Lodge of Iowa’s Quarterly Bulletin, an all-around delight to read, we see the last stanza of his “The Poet and His Song”:

Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot,
My garden makes a desert spot,
Sometimes a blight upon the tree
Takes all my fruit away from me;
And then with throes of bitter pain
Rebellious passions rise and swell;
And so I sing and all is well.

Amid the Report on Foreign Correspondence in the pages of the Grand Lodge of Nebraska’s proceedings for 1922, there is a report from the Grand Lodge of New Mexico that makes the point of specifically recording how its grand master “quotes Paul Lawrence [sic] Dunbar’s lines, on ‘The Lord Had a Job for Me.’” But it seems the actual title of that poem is “Too Busy.” This is found in the anthology titled The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar edited by Joanne M. Braxton (1993).

Ever on the lookout for pipe poetry, I can’t resist concluding this edition of The Magpie Mason with Dunbar’s “A Companion’s Progress,” also found in the Braxton book, which puts its first publication at August 21, 1901 in a periodical called St. James Gazette.

My stock has gone down and my tailor has sent
To request that I settle my bill;
My landlady asks with a frown for her rent,
And there isn’t a cent in the till.
The governor storms and my mother’s in tears;
There’s a coldness betwixt me and Nell,
But I’m utterly dead to regrets and to fears,
For my meerschaum is colouring well.

At first I had fears of what looked like a crack,
And my breath came in gasps of alarm,
But oh, how the joy of my heart flooded back
When I found that ’twas nothing to harm.
And so ever since I have nursed it with care,
With thrills that my heart cannot quell,
And I’ve bored all my friends to relate the affair
That my meerschaum is colouring well.

Magpie file photo

A meerschaum pipe I saw at the New York Pipe Show in 2014. It was colored artificially, but true meerschaum pipe lovers prefer to turn the white mineral into progressively darker hues of brown by patiently and personally smoking the pipe over a long period of time. It is a delicate substance, ergo the poets fear of cracks.

Gotta share this one with my pipe club on Facebook.

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