Paul Laurence Dunbar

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Paul Laurence Dunbar Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

The body of poetry produced by Paul Laurence Dunbar illustrates some of the best qualities found in lyrical verse. It is obvious that the poet concentrated on a creation of mood and that he was an innovator who experimented with form, meter, and rhyme. Equally apparent is the fact that Dunbar’s creative style was influenced by the great British poetic innovators of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Dunbar’s commitment to speak to his people through his verse is reflected in his dialect poetry. Writing in all the major lyrical forms—idyll, hymn, sonnet, song, ballad, ode, and elegy—Dunbar established himself as one of the most versatile poets in American literature.

The more than four hundred poems written by Dunbar are varied in style and effect. It is clear, however, that his dominant aim was to create an empathetic poetic mood resulting from combinations of elements such as meter, rhyme, diction, sentence structure, characterization, repetition, imagery, and symbolism. His most memorable poems display the influence of such masters as William Wordsworth; Robert Herrick; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; John Donne; Robert Browning; and John Keats.

Such an array of influences would ordinarily render one’s genius suspect. There are common threads, however, that organically characterize the poetic expressions of Dunbar. The undergirding strain in his poetry is his allegiance to lyrical qualities. He carries mood through sound patterns, creates images that carry philosophical import, shapes dramatic events in the pattern of movement in his syntactic forms, and develops a rhythmic pattern that is quite effective in recitation. These lyrical qualities predominate in the best of Dunbar’s poetry. Indeed, one might easily classify Dunbar’s poetry in typical Romantic lyrical categories: The bulk of his poems can be classified as love lyrics, reflective lyrics, melancholic lyrics, or nature lyrics. Sometimes these moods overlap in a single poem. Consequently, an analysis of the features in Dunbar’s poetry is necessarily complex, placing his lyrical qualities in the poetic traditions that shape them.

Lyrics of the Hearthside

Dunbar’s lyricism is substantially displayed in his love poetry in Lyrics of the Hearthside. In “A Bridal Measure,” the poet’s persona beckons maidens to the bridal throne. His invitation is spirited and triumphant yet controlled, reminiscent of the tradition in love poetry established by Ben Jonson. The tone, however, more closely approximates the carpe diem attitude of Herrick.

    Come, essay a sprightly measure,    Tuned to some light song of pleasure.    Maidens, let your brows be crowned    As we foot this merry round.

The rhyming couplets carry the mood and punctuate the invitation. The urgency of the moment is extended further in the direct address: “Phyllis, Phyllis, why be waiting?/ In the woods the birds are mating.” The poem continues in this tone, while adopting a pastoral simplicity.

   When the year, itself renewing,   All the world with flowers is strewing,    Then through Youth’s Arcadian land,    Love and song go hand in hand.

The accentuation in the syntactic flow of these lines underlines the poet’s intentions. Though the meter is irregular, with some iambs and some anapests, the force of the poet’s exhortation remains apparent.

Dunbar frequently personifies abstractions. In “Love and Grief,” Dunbar espouses a morbid yet redemptive view of love. While the reflective scenario presented in this poem recalls Tennyson’s meditations on death and loss, the poetic event echoes Wordsworth’s faith in the indestructibility of joy. Utilizing the heroic couplet, Dunbar makes an opening pronouncement:

  Out of my heart, one treach’rous winter’s day,  I locked young Love and threw the key away.  Grief, wandering widely, found the key,  And hastened with it, straightway, back to me.

The drama of grief-stricken love is thus established. The poet carefully...

(The entire section is 3,383 words.)