Themes and Meanings

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The poems written in standard English in Lyrics of Lowly Life cover conventional topics, including the poet, nature in all its moods, love requited and unrequited, youth, aging, birth, and death. Dunbar’s lyrics have a Romantic poet’s emphasis on extremes of emotion—exhilarating joy and deep sorrow. A poem such as “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eye” expresses a sadness that verges on the melodramatic. Other lyrics are more lighthearted. For example, in “Retort” the poet has a traditional head-versus-heart dialogue; he first doubts his love for “Phyllis” but then affirms it lest he be “worse than a fool.” In “Passion and Love” a teary young girl is wooed by a passionate suitor whom she rejects and then by a more “aloof” one she accepts. Dunbar’s lyric poems in standard English generally have simple themes, in keeping with the late nineteenth century American popular poetry tradition. Since “Ere Sleep Comes Down on Weary Eyes,” the most complex lyric in this volume, is also first in the volume, Dunbar may well have believed that this was his most successful attempt to go beyond the conventions of the day.

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Dunbar did not live long enough to witness and participate in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s. If he had, he would have heard his poetic descendants announce their independence from white influence and their determination to express the African American experience according to their own choice of language and form. In the achievement of these later poets the reader hears echoes of Dunbar’s earlier voice.

Langston Hughes’s poem “The Weary Blues,” for example, is similar to Dunbar’s “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes” in content, but unlike Dunbar, Hughes particularizes the experience using the language and rhythms of the African American vernacular—in this case, of blues music. Hughes tells the reader about someone who (like the persona in Dunbar’s poem) is near...

(The entire section contains 509 words.)

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