The Poem

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1777 words.)

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