The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 859 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.