Paul Laurence Dunbar

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How would you compare and contrast the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes? Paul Laurence Dunbar, author of “Sympathy,” predates the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic and cultural movement producing some of the greatest African American writers, musicians, and social thinkers. Langston Hughes, author of “Let America Be America Again," “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and “I, Too” is the central poet of the Harlem Renaissance.Do these poets employ similar literary devices, techniques, or use of language? Are their themes and goals similar? How is each poet's expression unique?

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We should begin our comparison by noting that Paul Laurence Dunbar uses traditional poetic structures much more frequently than Langston Hughes does. This isn't surprising, given that Dunbar was a generation older and wrote most of his work during what was still the late Victorian period. "The Haunted Oak," for example, is written in four-line stanzas, with the rhyme scheme ABCB. "The Debt" is written in similar quatrains, with the rhyme scheme AABB. Hughes, on the other hand, uses freer poetic structures, with less regular meter and rhyme, as one would expect for a poet writing during the modernist period in the twentieth century.

One could say this is a superficial distinction between the two poets, but it has an analogue in their subject matter and the manner in which it is dealt with. Both poets deal with racial injustice and the oppression of African Americans. But Hughes's way of expressing this theme is bolder. A poem such as "Let America be America Again" describes the dysfunctional racial dynamic of the United States more clearly and explicitly than any poem of Dunbar (or any other of Hughes himself). There is also a more direct sensuality in Hughes's verse—unsurprisingly, given that Dunbar died in 1906, and open and frank discussions of sexuality were not considered proper in his time.

That said, many readers judge Dunbar's poetry to be more lyrical than that of Hughes. A separate issue is the fact that Dunbar uses the dialect of African American speakers more frequently than Hughes. Unfortunately, some readers may interpret this aspect of Dunbar's technique as inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. The standards of his time regarding the use of non-standard language in literature were different from ours.

Both Dunbar and Hughes perhaps have much more in common, however, than one would think from a casual reading of their poetry. Both were ahead of their time and were path-breakers in giving voice to the African American experience in a highly expressive way.

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Both poets engage with elements of nature and use those elements as metaphors to describe the black experience. Dunbar identifies with a caged bird—another being who is kept under someone's control and disallowed the freedom that is natural to it. He beats against the bars in an effort to be free, despite the pain this causes him. Furthermore, he gives the bird a gender: "he." The bird's male identity further connects this trope to the poet and his own possible experiences, or those of other black men.

Hughes uses rivers—ancient bodies of water that continue to move out to sea—to show that the black experience is much longer and more expansive than American history would have us believe. 

The intent of both poets is to write about the black experience in unique and creative voices. While Dunbar still employs a rhyme scheme (a, b, a, a, b, c, c in the first and third stanza; a, b, a, a, b, a, a in the second) that is more reminiscent of nineteenth-century poetry, Hughes uses free verse, which is more typical of twentieth-century poetry.

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