Una Marson: poems of a Jamaican literary pioneer

Poinciana tree in bloom_Hope Gardens_Kingston_Jamaica

Una Marson (1905-1965)



J ust a lovely little jewel floating on fair Carib’s breast,

A ll a-glittering in her verdue ‘neath a blazing tropic sky.

M ust have been part of Eden, it’s so full of peace and rest,

A nd the flowers in their splendour make you feel it’s good to die

I n a spot that’s so near heaven where one never feels depressed,

Cause Dame Nature makes you lazy and Dame Fortune lingers nigh,

A nd you feel just like a fledgling in your mother’s cosy nest.

. . .

I Cannot Tell


I cannot tell why I who once was gay

And never knew the burden of a sigh

Now sit and pass the weary hours away,

And never have a care for what goes by.


I cannot tell why oft the teardrops rise

And my sad heart lies leaden in my breast,

And in my mind these anxious thoughts arise

For no more am I happy with the rest.


I cannot tell why life is not the same

And my heart answers not to music’s plea,

Or why I start whene’er I hear your name

And in my dreams no other face I see:


I cannot tell why I should wish to die,

Now that the time has come to say goodbye.




. . .

Love’s Lament


I cannot let you hold me in your arms

And listen while you talk of trivial things;

It pains my heart thus to resist your charms

And see the longings of my soul take wings.


I cannot feel the pressure of your hands

Without the wish to hold them to my lips,

I have no strength to face life’s big demands

While daily from my heart your image slips,


I cannot bear the thought of losing you.

Yet still your presence brings me bitter pain.

The happy days gone by we will not rue ––

Their tender mem’ries still to us remain;


But oh my heart, I cannot bid you stay,

Though as you go you take my life away.




. . .

The Peanut Boy


Lord, look upon this peanut boy,

He’s rough and coarse and rude;

He has been selling all the day,

His words are very crude.


But, Lord, he’s worn and weary now,

See how he stands asleep;

His head is resting on the post,

The basket at his feet.


Dear Lord, he has not sold them all,

But he has done his best:

And, while he stands and sleeps awhile,

With sweet dreams make him blest.


And, Lord, when I shall fall asleep

With my tasks incomplete,

Remember I was weary, Lord,

And give me peaceful sleep.

. . .

Another Mould


You can talk about your babies

With blue eyes and hair of gold,

But I’ll tell you ’bout an angel

That’s cast in another mould.


She is brown just like a biscuit

And she has the blackest eyes

That don’t for once remind you

Of the blue of tropic skies.


And her hair is black and shiny

And her little teeth are pearls,

She’s just a year, I’ll tell you,

But the best of baby girls.


O, she’s sweeter than the sweetest

Of all babies ‘neath the sun,

And I feel that I could eat her,

Thinking she’s a sugar bun.


O, little ivory babies

Are as sweet as they can be,

But give me my brown skin cherub

Still a-dangling on my knee.



. . .



In South Africa £25 per head per annum is spent on educating the white child. The government gives a subsidy of £2 3s. 7d. per head to the missionary bodies who have undertaken the education of 300,000 black children of the 1,100,000 who should be educated. (W. G. Ballinger at W.I.L. Conference.)


It must be by oppression; and, for my part,

I know no personal cause to spurn at them,

But for my countrymen. They would be learned: ––

How that might change their nature, there’s the question,

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;

And that craves wary walking. Teach him? –– that; ––

And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,

That at his will he may do danger with.

The abuse of learning is when it is given

To subject races: And, to speak truth of Negroes,

I have known when they have turned to serve us

Once they are taught. But ’tis a common proof

That lowliness is young ambitious ladder

Whereto the climber upward turns his face:

But when he once attains the utmost round,

He then unto the ladder turns his back,

Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees

By which he did ascend: So Negroes may:

Then, lest they may, prevent. And, since the quarrel

Will bear no colour for the thing they are,

Fashion it thus; that what they are, when learned

Would run to these and these extremities:

And therefore, think them as the serpents

Which, hatch’d, would as their kind grow mischievous;

And keep them ignorant.


(With apologies to Shakespeare)



. . .

The Stranger


You liked talking to people like me

You said, with a wistful smile

That enchanted me, so the pause

That came before I spoke

Must have seemed strange to you,

And when I returned the compliment

So sweetly made, I still thought

Of the wistfulness of your smile.


So you like talking to people like me,

Friend with the wistful smile,

To foreign girls who are brown of skin

And have black kinky hair

And have strange black eyes.


You like to hear the tales I tell

Of a tropic Paradise,

Of sunkissed woods and mountains high

Of skies that are bluer than ever

Skies are blue in your nordic clime:

Of magic sunsets and marvellous seas,

Of waterfalls clattering down,

Stars so near, and the moon so large,

And fireflies, stars of the earth.


I like to listen to you,

Friend with the wistful smile.

It’s not to hear of your great country

And tales of your marvellous land,

But to watch the wistful smile

That plays around your mouth,

The strange look in your eyes

And hear the calm sweet tone of your voice.

. . .

Home Thoughts


June is drawing near

And in my sun-kissed isle

The Poinciana with its flaming blossom

Casts its spell o’er all the land.

These mighty trees in regal robes

Now call the land to worship,

And the bees, hungry for hidden honey,

Swarm among its blossoms and buzz and buzz,

And the blossoms laugh and yield

Shedding their sweet perfume;

They make a crown of golden dust

To beautify the honeybee.


There on the hillside, ‘mid a tuft

Of dark green trees, towers the Poinciana

Stretching its branches eagerly

To watch the children passing by.

I see a tree I used to love

Whose red and golden glory

Has thrilled my soul with wonder;

O, I remember that glad June,

So long ago it seems,

‘Twas Harvest in the Village Church

And the merry school children

Cut great branches of Poinciana

And made a radiant glory of the Church.


June comes again and Poinciana trees

Now blossom in my sunkissed isle

And I am here in London, and the flowers

Of dainty shades and delicate perfumes

Stir my heart and wake my love,

But it is the flaming glory

Of Poinciana trees in fair Jamaica

That my lone heart is homing.

I might sing of fragrant Myrtle blossoms

Whiter than snow and sweeter than honey,

Of pink and white June roses,

Of Jessamines, Hibiscus, Begonias,

Of Bougainvillea and Cassia,

But the Flaming Poinciana

Calls to me across the distance

Calling, calling me home.


O pride and glory of our tropic Isle,

As thy red and golden petals

Drip blood drops on the sod

That thou mayst bring forth

Mighty pods of fertile seed,

So children of your tropic land

With broken hearts that bleed

In foreign lands afar

Strain every nerve to bring forth

Fruit that may enrich the race

And are anew inspired

With hope and loyal longing ––

Hope that thy red and golden banners

Now unfurled through all the land

May call men’s hearts

To bow at Beauty’s shrine ––

And loyal longing that awakes

And claims the best thy sons and daughters give.


O Fair Jamaica! my thoughts go home to you,

In love and loyalty I shall for aye be true.

. . .



How tender the heart grows

At the twilight hour,

More sweet seems the perfume

Of the sunless flower.


Come quickly, wings of night,

The twilight hurts too deep;

Let darkness wrap the world around,

My pain will go to sleep.

. . .

My Philosophy

(as expounded by a Market Woman)


(Market woman walking quickly ahead of her friend. She carries a huge basket on her head. She swings both hands violently as she addresses the friend close behind her without turning):


“You can tan up talk wid him,

If you and him is companion

Me and him is no companion.”


(Second market woman following quickly at her heels):


“Me and him is companion, yes,

Me and him is companion

Me and all de wide worl’ is companion

For dere is nobody better dan me

And I is not better dan nobody.”




The Test


The test of true culture

Is the ability

To move among men,

East or West,

North of South,

With ease and confidence,

Radiating the pure light

Of a kindly humanity.

. . .



They tell us

That our skin is black

But our hearts are white.


We tell them

That their skin is white

But their hearts are black.

. . .


(Winter 1941)


Europe is frozen.

It is too cold for birds to sing,

For children to make snowmen,

For rivers to splash and sparkle,

For lovers to loiter in the snowlight.


The heart of humanity is frozen.

It is too cold for Poets to sing.

. . .

Una Marson in the 1940s

Una Marson, of Santa Cruz, Saint Elizabeth parish, was the youngest of six children born to Rev. Solomon Isaac, a Baptist parson, and Ada Marson.
In 1928 she launched her own magazine in Kingston, Jamaica – The Cosmopolitan – which dealt with local, proto-feminist, and workers’ rights issues. Her first book of poems she self-published in 1930: Tropic Reveries. It was followed by Heights and Depths in 1931, and a play, At What a Price, performed at the Ward Theatre in Kingston. In 1937 she published The Moth and The Star. Marson spent time in London, England, from 1932-36, and again from 1938-45 (the duration of WWII); it was during the war years that her work with the BBC lead to the creation of the Caribbean Voices programme. In her later years she divided her time between Jamaica and Washington, D.C., and it is now known that she suffered from clinical depression. She died of a heart attack in 1965.
We are grateful to Alison Donnell (Una Marson: Selected Poems, Peepal Tree Press, 2011) for providing biographical details and a description of the social and political context for Una Marson’s life and work.
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