Poetry Wednesday: Paul Lawrence Dunbar

They please me not– these solemn songs
That hint of sermons covered up.
‘T is true the world should heed its wrongs,
But in a poem let me sup,
Not simples brewed to cure or ease
Humanity’s confessed disease,
But the spirit-wine of a singing line,
Or a dew-drop in a honey cup!

Paul Lawrence Dunbar is, quite simply, an amazing poet.

His work is serious, humorous, and devastating by turns and his mastery of wordplay is complete and absolute.

The Lawyers’ Ways
(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

I’ve been list’nin’ to them lawyers
In the court house up the street,
An’ I’ve come to the conclusion
That I’m most completely beat.
Fust one feller riz to argy,
An’ he boldly waded in
As he dressed the tremblin’ pris’ner
In a coat o’ deep-dyed sin.
Why, he painted him all over
In a hue o’ blackest crime,
An’ he smeared his reputation
With the thickest kind o’ grime,
Tell I found myself a-wond’rin’,
In a misty way and dim,
How the Lord had come to fashion
Sich an awful man as him.
Then the other lawyer started,
An’ with brimmin’, tearful eyes,
Said his client was a martyr
That was brought to sacrifice.
An’ he give to that same pris’ner
Every blessed human grace,
Tell I saw the light o’ virtue
Fairly shinin’ from his face.
Then I own ‘at I was puzzled
How sich things could rightly be;
An’ this aggervatin’ question
Seems to keep a-puzzlin’ me.
So, will some one please inform me,
An’ this mystery unroll–
How an angel an’ a devil
Can persess the self-same soul?

I could stop right here and fill this entire blog with his amazing work, because it doesn’t need any enhancement from the story of his life, however fascinating that story is.

And it is fascinating: He was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872 to former slaves* and raised by his mother, who taught him a love of poetry and reading and learning. The only African-American in his high school, he was also the editor of the school paper and president of the school’s literary society—and on the debating team, too.

Despite the articles and poetry he’d written for local newspapers, the only job he could find after graduation was as an elevator operator—but he kept writing poetry and stories. He even published an African-American newspaper, The Dayton Tattler, with the help of Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were friends of his from high school.**

In 1892,  one of his former teachers asked him to give the welcoming address to the Western Association of Writers,*** where he met James Newton Matthews—the “Poet of the Prairie”—who went home and wrote a favorable article about the young writer’s work in an Illinois newspaper. The article attracted the attention of James Whitcomb Riley—another poet of some small accomplishment—who encouraged the young Mr. Dunbar to publish a collection, which he did later that same year.

The collection was well-received by critics, but left Mr. Dunbar owing a lot of money to his publisher^—so he offered his book to his elevator passengers at a dollar a copy. And people bought it, and read it, and talked about it.

And no wonder:

A year later, he was invited to recite his work at the World’s Fair in Chicago. There, he met Frederick Douglass—the Frederick Douglass^^—who called him “the most promising young colored man in America.”  Mr. Dunbar  had some nice things to say in return:

Frederick Douglass
(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

A hush is over all the teeming lists,
And there is pause, a breath-space in the strife;
A spirit brave has passed beyond the mists
And vapors that obscure the sun of life.
And Ethiopia, with bosom torn,
Laments the passing of her noblest born.

She weeps for him a mother’s burning tears–
She loved him with a mother’s deepest love
He was her champion thro’ direful years,
And held her weal all other ends above.
When Bondage held her bleeding in the dust,
He raised her up and whispered, ‘Hope and Trust.’

For her his voice, a fearless clarion, rung
That broke in warning on the ears of men;
For her the strong bow of his pow’r he strung
And sent his arrows to the very den
Where grim Oppression held his bloody place
And gloated o’er the mis’ries of a race.

And he was no soft-tongued apologist;
He spoke straight-forward, fearlessly uncowed;
The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist
And set in bold relief each dark-hued cloud;
To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
And hurled at evil what was evil’s due.

Thro’ good and ill report he cleaved his way
Right onward, with his face set toward the heights,
Nor feared to face the foeman’s dread array–
The lash of scorn, the sting of petty spites.
He dared the lightning in the lightning’s track,
And answered thunder with his thunder back.

When men maligned him and their torrent wrath
In furious imprecations o’er him broke,
He kept his counsel as he kept his path;
‘Twas for his race, not for himself, he spoke.
He knew the import of his Master’s call
And felt himself too mighty to be small.

No miser in the good he held was he–
His kindness followed his horizon’s rim.
His heart, his talents and his hands were free
To all who truly needed aught of him.
Where poverty and ignorance were rife,
He gave his bounty as he gave his life.

The place and cause that first aroused his might
Still proved its pow’r until his latest day.
In Freedom’s lists and for the aid of Right
Still in the foremost rank he waged the fray;
Wrong lived; His occupation was not gone.
He died in action with his armor on!

We weep for him, but we have touched his hand,
And felt the magic of his presence nigh,
The current that he sent thro’ out the land,
The kindling spirit of his battle-cry
O’er all that holds us we shall triumph yet
And place our banner where his hopes were set!

Oh, Douglass, thou hast passed beyond the shore,
But still thy voice is ringing o’er the gale!
Thou ‘st taught thy race how high her hopes may soar
And bade her seek the heights, nor faint, nor fail.
She will not fail, she heeds thy stirring cry,
She knows thy guardian spirit will be nigh,
And rising from beneath the chast’ning rod,
She stretches out her bleeding hands to God!

By 1897, Mr. Dunbar was invited to read his works in London, gaining him international attention. Once his tour on the literary circuit was over, he returned to the states, took a job at the Library of Congress, ^^^ and married.

(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

He was a poet who wrote clever verses,
And folks said he had a fine poetical taste;
But his father, a practical farmer, accused him
Of letting the strength of his arm go to waste.

He called on his sweetheart each Saturday evening,
As pretty a maiden as ever man faced,
And there he confirmed the old man’s accusation
By letting the strength of his arm go to waist.

But he soon decided that library work wasn’t for him° and the dust of the archives worsened a chronic cough which turned out to be tuberculosis. He quit to write full time and held readings all over the country.

His traveling didn’t help the state of his marriage, nor did the alcohol that he used to stave off the depression and pain from his failing health. He and his wife separated in 1902.

Ships that Pass in the Night
(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

Out in the sky the great dark clouds are massing;
I look far out into the pregnant night,
Where I can hear the solemn booming gun
And catch the gleaming of a random light,
That tells me that the ship I seek
is passing, passing.
My tearful eyes my soul’s deep hurt are glassing;
For I would hail and check that ship of ships.
I stretch my hands imploring, cry aloud,
My voice falls dead a foot from mine own lips,
And but its ghost doth reach that vessel, passing, passing.
O Earth, O Sky, O Ocean, both surpassing,
O heart of mine, O soul that dreads the dark!
Is there no hope for me? Is there no way
That I may sight and check that speeding bark
Which out of sight and sound is passing, passing?

But through all of this, he continued to write, always, completing twelve collections worth of poetry, four books of short stories, five novels, and a play.

We Wear the Mask
(Paul Laurence Dunbar)

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 overwise,
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!

Paul Lawrence Dunbar died in February of 1909, at his mother’s house in Dayton. He was only thirty-nine years old, which should make all of us grateful he was as prolific as he was.

The thing that strikes me about Mr. Dunbar’s life is that it isn’t just the story of a 19th Century African-American poet—and not just the story of the first nationally and internationally lauded African-American poet.  It’s  the quintessential story of a writer, with many, if not all, of the struggles and strokes of luck, triumphs and losses that a literary life can hold, even if it contains literary success.

But no matter how you look at Mr. Dunbar—as a writer, a poet, a fatherless child, an African-American in the Nineteenth Century—every single thing we know about the man pales before the words he left us.

And I think that might be the best measure of a poet, no matter his or her circumstances.

*His father escaped and fought in the Civil War with the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment. He left Matilda and his two children when Paul was two.

**Paul’s mother was the Wright family’s washerwoman for a time, but it didn’t seem to affect their friendship at all.

***You want a coincidence?  He gave this welcoming speech on his birthday.

^In those days, with few exceptions, writers paid to have their works published and made money after the Publisher made theirs. Everything old is new again.

^^Look. Him. Up. Even if you think you know who he was.

^^^If I may be permitted a dignified squee: Squee.

°Don’t care, still counts.


17 thoughts on “Poetry Wednesday: Paul Lawrence Dunbar

  1. Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Oh Sarah, I’m about to cry, my god. I’ve never heard of him, and I can’t thank you enough for showcasing him here. I fancy myself well-studied in African-American Lit and poetry, and see — as usual, what the heck do I know?!

    This was so great, to learn about someone new. Well, new to me. And what words he shares – jesus.

    I’m off to find out more about him this minute.

  2. I heard Maya Angelou read “Sympathy” and thought it was hers. Hand over the dunce cap, I’m going to the corner.

    Thank you so much for this, Sarah. I’m smitten.

    • I think she did an homage to Mr. Dunbar, called, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” so it may very well have been her poem. I’ll investigate!

      I fell in love with Mr. Dunbar’s humorous stuff first:


      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?

    • I think he was quite self-aware and I’m not sure it helped him much, except in verse.

      He wrote some sly and funny stuff, did Mr. Dunbar, as well as things that hurt to read.

  3. So much about this story breaks my heart. From the simple elevator operator trying to make it, to the recognition his words finally get, all the way to the sickness that eventually takes over. And through it all, his work led the way. It’s inspiring and yet so very sad.

  4. wow…i always thought maya’s autobiography title was her own…i had no idea it was from dunbar’s poem sympathy. that adds a whole other layer to its meaning. i love these literary loops.thank you for this.

  5. I thought I commented on this the other day…but it got lost in cyberspace. It is interesting to read life stories such as this juxtaposed with the author/poet’s writing. Certainly, a very talented writer, whose experiences influenced his voice. You are so correct that literature can’t happen in a vacuum. We write what we feel, because expressing it any other way is unsatisfactory. Thanks for sharing this.

    • We write what we feel, because expressing it any other way is unsatisfactory.

      This is one of the best explanations I’ve ever seen of why we do this odd thing. Thanks, John.

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