A Prolific Young Writer

Although he lived a mere thirty-three years, Paul Laurence Dunbar published six volumes of poetry, four novels, and quite a few volumes of short stories. Altogether, he authored no fewer than twenty books. For all this prodigious productivity and in spite of his widespread reputation as the first African American to master the art of writing poetry, Dunbar, a lyricist of tremendous ability, has come down to modern readers primarily as a poet of “Negro” dialect. In the process, he also acquired the reputation of being a superb reader of his own poetry. As poet and reader, he was eagerly sought after, and whether it was in London, New York, Washington, the South, or his birthplace, Dayton, Ohio, his soft, musical voice induced his listeners to take note of his poetic abilities, his devotion to his art, and his determination to live as a professional artist.

Encumbered by sorrow, ill-health, frequent financial difficulties, unfulfilled love, and an unhappy marriage, he persevered; with a heroic resilience, Dunbar composed throughout his entire life, each composition showing promise of greater literary achievement than the one before. Even in the midst of failing health and a crushed spirit, he could produce poetry full of love, laughter, and sunshine. From all accounts, his untiring devotion to his mother, and hers to him, must have gone a long way in maintaining this equanimity in the midst of trying times.

Pigeonholed as a Dialect Poet

Though more than two-thirds of Dunbar’s poems are written in Standard English, these are not the works that made him famous, nor are they the ones that have secured him a place in the history of American literature. The qualities that he displays in his standard poetry—such as the detailed attention to nature, the skillful manipulation of imagery, the masterful experimentation with rhyme and meter, and the controlled handling of serious philosophical themes—have traditionally been ignored in favor of the rhythmic, narrative, and pleasing delineation of black peasant life that characterizes much of his dialect poetry.

Little did Dunbar know that when one of America’s most influential literary critics—William Dean Howells—favorably reviewed Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors, it not only would bring the poet instant fame but also would place severe limitations on him as an artist. Scarcely twenty years old, Dunbar had written Oak and Ivy in 1892 and followed this collection of poetry with another in 1895, Majors and Minors. Being very poor, he found himself reduced to selling copies of these collections himself; the favorable review of these volumes by Howells in Harper’s Weekly was more than welcome news to Dunbar at the time.

Howells not only arranged for the publication of Lyrics of Lowly Life in 1896 but also wrote an introduction to the volume, describing Dunbar as “the...

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(Mis)Representing African American Experience

As soon as one approaches the dialect poetry, one understands why the white literary public at the time praised his poetry, why he himself rejected the dialect poems, and why subsequently many critics, particularly black ones, would be harsh in their judgment of Dunbar. As “jingles,” they are not on the level of serious poems, jingles being no more than short, catchy songs. Moreover, to characterize their language as that of a “broken tongue” is to diminish the very medium of those poems. An examination of the content and language of the dialect poems substantiates Dunbar’s assertion to some degree.

Generally speaking, Dunbar’s dialect poetry presents an idealized, and therefore unrealistic, picture of black peasant life in the South. This life is characterized by a plenitude of good living. There is an abundance of food of all descriptions, as in “The Party”:

Well, we eat and drunk ouah po’tion, ’twell dahwasn’t nothin lef,An’ we felt jes’ like new sausage, we was mos’nigh stuffed to def!

The people are always ready to “Feed you tell you hear the buttons/ Crackin’ on yore Sunday vest” (“After a Visit”). There is always something to eat, even if it is merely a hot “co’n pone” (“When de Co’n Pone’s Hot”). Here no one goes hungry. In fact, Dunbar’s characters often seem to...

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Hints at the Reality Underneath

There are times, however, when Dunbar suggests in his dialect poetry that all is not quite well. From time to time, there is a muted sense of protest. The maid in “When Dey ’Listed Colored Soldiers” is proud that her man has gone to fight for his freedom on the side of the North, but this sentiment is undercut by the fact that she can be equally touched by the death of her two “mastahs . . . in gray suits.” There is also a distinct sense of freedom permeating “An Ante-Bellum Sermon,” but the seriousness of the poem is undermined by the humor that crops up from time to time. In the very last paragraph of “A Banjo Song,” there is a hint that all is not right. The music of the banjo is important because it is “de greates’ joy an’ solace/ Dat a weary slave kin know!” and because it is one of the few pleasures “O’ dis life.” When the slave finally begins to think of “de days w’en slavery helt me/ In my mis’ry—ha’d an’ fas’,” and acknowledges the cruelty of slavery, he is very quick to forget “de whuppins” and the terror of the “block an’ lash” (“The Old Cabin”). These sentiments of the slave on the plantation may be accounted for or explained away in the poem “We Wear the Mask.” It is significant that the “mask” not only “grins,” but it “lies” as well. This mask hides “tears and sighs,” “torn and bleeding hearts,” and even “tortured souls.” All this is achieved while “We smile” and while “We sing.”

Among Dunbar’s dialect poems, there is only one that comes close to questioning the plantation stereotype, to challenging the necessity to “wear the mask.” In...

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Work in Standard English

Dunbar’s poetry in Standard English reveals a Romantic in the vein of John Keats, who, like Dunbar, died an early death. His “Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes” is worthy of the best in the tradition. In the tradition of the Romantic poet, Dunbar has an affinity to and a fascination for nature. He loves to “walk with nature heart by heart” (“In Summer Time”) and wishes “Dame Nature were [his] mate” (“Nutting Song”). The poet responds to nature in its myriad manifestations. Nature in its wild, luxuriant state provides the atmosphere for the subjective experience of Dunbar. As such, every season of the year, every segment of the day, every flower and bird known to the poet, every natural phenomenon meets with extensive treatment. His commitment to nature is summed up in the skillfully wrought poem “Nature and Art,” in which he pronounces the marriage between the two: “And at the morrow’s dawning they were wed.”

Dunbar also uses his standard poetry to articulate philosophical positions, most noteworthy of which are his deliberations on life itself. For the poet, life is a constant struggle, for his “days are never days of ease.” Life is sad and “cheerless,” since “Life’s music beats for me/ A melancholy strain” (“Worn Out”). Elsewhere, life is an “arduous” journey beset by “cruel thorns,” “detaining hands,” and “frowning skies” (“By Rugged Ways”); at its worst, it becomes a prison for the poet—a prison in which he feels trapped much as the “caged bird” who beats his wing on cruel bars in the poem “Sympathy.” Still, life is more than mere pain. In one of his more famous and popular poems, “Life,” the poet speaks of life in all of its essential contradictions. It is:

A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,And never a laugh but the moans come...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Baker Jr., Houston A. “Paul Laurence Dunbar, an Evaluation.” In Singers of Daybreak. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. Examines the tremendous sociohistorical and psychological odds against which the poet had to struggle. Notes the literary framework with which Dunbar had been burdened and within which he had to write. Applauds the limited success the poet achieved in his “skillful blending of southern folk regionalism with a conscious literary tradition.”

Brawley, Benjamin. Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1936. A biography and a critical analysis....

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