The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799

Lyrics of Lowly Life is a collection of 115 lyric poems by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The collection contains poems written in both standard English and African American dialect. The meter of the poems follows standard iambic and trochaic patterns. Dunbar employs a variety of traditional stanza and...

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Lyrics of Lowly Life is a collection of 115 lyric poems by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. The collection contains poems written in both standard English and African American dialect. The meter of the poems follows standard iambic and trochaic patterns. Dunbar employs a variety of traditional stanza and rhyme patterns.

The first poem in Lyrics of Lowly Life is “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes,” written in standard English, on the subject of death. In the opening stanza, Dunbar describes the persona’s deep weariness after a day of searching unsuccessfully for “magic gold,” the goal of his waking dreams, probably material goods. He resists sleep because it brings dreams that deceive by making the world appear better than it is. This conflict between sleeping dreams and waking frustrations tortures the subject, making him desire and dread both sleep and wakefulness. In the second stanza the subject’s drowsy state causes harsh memories to become “poisonous vapors.” In the third stanza phantoms continue to invade the narrator’s consciousness until depression deepens into “teeming gloom” and “inexplicable pain.”

The poem’s second half begins with lighter images about a place “Where ranges forth the spirit far and free.” This hope for escape into imagined “lands unspeakable—beyond surmise” ends abruptly, when “Fancy fails and dies” of weariness. The next stanza depicts self-scrutiny, a sort of judgment time, hinting to the reader that when sleep does come it might be accompanied by death. The poet’s soul moves into a state beyond the “sad world’s cries,” into “the last dear sleep whose soft embrace is balm,” sealing forever the narrator’s eyes.

In addition to standard English lyrics Dunbar wrote dialect poems. The purpose of the majority of dialect poems at this time period was to entertain readers with charming characters and a combination of lively rhythm, hyperbole, and humorous images. However, another purpose of dialect poetry was to portray African Americans as carefree and childlike. That is, dialect poetry was popular in nineteenth century America because it reflected the stereotypes of black Americans favored by prejudiced white minds. The language in these poems contains deliberate errors in usage and spelling. An example of Dunbar’s dialect poetry from Lyrics of Lowly Life is “When Malindy Sings.” The poem begins,

G’way an quit dat noise, Miss Lucy—Put dat music book away;What’s de use to keep on tryin?Ef you practises twell you’re gray.

The poem consists of nine eight-line stanzas in which the narrator relates to “Miss Lucy” the superior singing talents of “Malindy.” The tone is gay and humorous, and the poem easy to understand. In the second stanza Miss Lucy learns that she “ain’t got de tu’ns an’ twistin’s/ Fu’ to make it sweet and light.” Regarding Malindy, however, the poem’s speaker has nothing but praise: Malindy’s warbling outdoes “Robins, la’ks, an’ all dem things”; her singing silences the fiddler, converts sinners, and indeed travels to the “very gates of God,” at the poem’s end.

In a small number of his standard English and dialect poems Dunbar expresses the reality of the racism that shackled him as man and artist. For example, “We Wear the Mask” (a standard-English poem) reveals that the outward cheerfulness of his African American subjects in his dialect poems is a mask of cheerfulness that hides their “torn and bleeding hearts.” In writing this poem Dunbar momentarily removes the mask and says bluntly that in both slavery and the oppression that came after, black people have hated wearing a mask that belies both their suffering and their human dignity. In the third stanza the poet allows the “tortured souls,” now unmasked, to cry out to God the pain they suffer because of racism’s power in society and art. The repetition of “We wear the mask” as the poem’s last line acknowledges that the mask is still demanded of the black race living in a racist and predominantly white society.

In two other standard English lyrics Dunbar looks behind the mask another way: He portrays the humanity and nobility of two African Americans. In “The Colored Soldiers” he honors the black soldiers who fought for their own freedom as members of the Union Army during the Civil War. In “Frederick Douglass” he elegizes the great African American ex-slave and abolitionist.

Dunbar also escapes racist rules for the portrayal of black subjects in at least one dialect poem. At first “An Ante-Bellum Sermon” seems to be another portrayal of happy slaves, this time listening to a preacher’s words. However, in a manner similar to the composers of spirituals, the preacher transforms a call for heavenly freedom into a call for freedom from slavery on this earth.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

Certainly the most obvious device Dunbar employed was, as noted previously, the use of African American dialect in many of his poems. Although these poems were popular, they have generally not stood the test of time well. The stereotypical nature of this use of dialect seems, to put it mildly, off-putting to many modern readers. Also, as critics have pointed out, the stylized “Negro dialect,” as it was called, of the nineteenth century did not even reproduce the sounds of folk speech accurately; it had evolved its own set of conventions independent of the speech patterns and pronunciation of real African Americans.

Influential literary critic William Dean Howells, a champion of Dunbar’s poetry, arranged for the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life. In his introduction to the volume, Howells wrote that Dunbar’s dialect poems are superior to his standard English poems and that they communicate African American life “aesthetically,” “lyrically,” and with humor. Howells was expressing a view of the time; today readers would agree with Dunbar himself that the dialect poems are not his best work. Yet Dunbar did combine the dialect sound with iambic and trochaic meters to great effect, a fact that can be best appreciated when the poetry is read aloud. The following stanza from “A Negro Love Song” is meant to entertain the reader, and entertain it does:

Seen my lady home las’ night,  Jump back, honey, jump back.Hel’ huh han’ an’ sque’z it tight,  Jump back, honey, jump back.Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh,Seen a light gleam f’om huh eye,An’ a smile go flittin’ by—  Jump back, honey, jump back.

Dunbar himself was educated and well-read and spoke standard English, as did white writers who chose to write in dialect, such as Chandler Harris. Dunbar, as he says in “The Poet,” from his Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899), wrote in dialect because publishers and the public wanted this kind of verse from any writer who portrayed African Americans: “the world, it turned to praise/ A jingle in a broken tongue.” He wore this “mask” unwillingly, unhappy that it hid his real voice, demeaned his people, and enabled white Americans to ignore racial injustice.

Throughout Lyrics of Lowly Life Dunbar uses sound to great effect. In “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eye,” the title is repeated as the first and last line of each of the poem’s six stanzas. The result reminds one of a lullaby, but it also sounds melancholy, with a heavy, sad beat created when the predominantly monosyllabic first line is read. The long vowel sounds in “sleep,” “soothe,” and “weary” add to this feeling.

Dunbar uses metaphor throughout his poetry. In “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eye,” the poet expresses the narrator’s waking hope as finding the “magic gold” of material success. The poet personifies life as full of “aches,” and griefs that haunt are the product of a “witch’s caldron.” In Dunbar’s metaphors there is almost always a comforting familiarity, a clear meaning, rather than extraordinary invention and subtlety. This approach was in keeping with what readers of popular poetry in his time expected, whether the writer was Dunbar or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a popular European American poet of the period.

Dunbar’s strongest use of metaphor occurs when he protests the need of African Americans to hide their humanity behind dialect and other subterfuges in order to survive in a racist environment. In “We Wear the Mask,” the mask represents this duplicity. The line “We wear the mask” is used three times: to begin the poem, to end the second stanza, and to end the third and last stanza. The poet begins the poem wearing the mask, then in the second stanza removes the mask and faces the reader without it, and finally replaces it at the poem’s end. While the mask is off, the poet reveals the pain it hides, crying out even to God for an end to this “guile” and all the injustice it implies. Only in his pain does Dunbar find this powerful metaphor. “We Wear the Mask” is the finest poem in Lyrics of Lowly Life, containing in its metaphor the history of a people wrapped in racism and the dilemma of an artist who must wear a mask.

Many of Dunbar’s poems use images from nature or are about nature itself. In “Rising of the Storm,” for example, the lake heaves with “a sob and a sigh.” “Ballad” explains how a lover’s loyalty brings a bright day and joy while a lover’s deceit brings a dark day and sadness. In “The Lover and the Moon” a lover faces the dilemma of keeping his love faithful while he is on a journey. He prays to the moon that it keep an eye on the lover from whom he is parted. After the moon fails in its task and the lover loses his mate, he asks the sea to punish the moon, which is why in stormy weather “waves strain their awful hands on high/ To tear the false moon from the sky.”

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

Alexander, Eleanor. Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore. Albany: New York University Press, 2001.

Best, Felton O. Crossing the Color Line: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1996.

Bone, Robert. Down Home: Origins of the Afro-American Short Story. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Hudson, Gossie Harold. A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1999.

Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979.

Turner, Darwin T. “Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Rejected Symbol.” Journal of Negro History, January, 1967, 1-13.

Wagner, Jean. “Paul Laurence Dunbar.” In Black Poets of the United States from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes, translated by Kenneth Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.

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