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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.
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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 first instance of an American negro who had evinced innate distinction in literature.” Howells proceeded to characterize him as “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.” Though Howells admitted that some of Dunbar’s poetry in literary English was quite good, he was emphasizing that these were not “distinctively his contribution to the body of American poetry.” For him, that distinction belonged to the dialect pieces, in which he saw the poet presenting black life with a humor and sympathy as had never been done before.
While Dunbar must have initially felt honored by Howells’s promises, he soon came to regard them as a mixed blessing. One year later, Dunbar wrote a friend with the complaint that “Mr. Howells has done me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse.” This dictum made it difficult for the young poet from Ohio to be accepted as a serious artist.
After Lyrics of Lowly Life, Dunbar published his Lyrics of the Hearthside in 1899, followed by Lyrics of Love and Laughter in 1903 and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow in 1905, thus clearly demonstrating a preference for the lyrical mode. The volume of Dunbar’s literary output during these years suggests a frantic race with time, since the poet knew as early as 1899 that he was suffering from an incurable illness, to which he finally succumbed in 1906. Seven years after his death, all of his poems were assembled in one volume, The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Dunbar provides the key to evaluating his work in “The Poet”:
He sang of life, serenely sweet,With, now and then, a deeper note.From some high peak, nigh yet remote,He voiced the world’s absorbing beat.He sang of love when earth was young,And Love, itself, was in his lays.But ah, the world, it turned to praiseA jingle in a broken tongue.
With more than two-thirds of Dunbar’s poetry focused on “life, serenely sweet,” the public saw fit to praise his “jingle in a broken tongue.” Therein lay the basis for Dunbar’s discontent.
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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 be celebrating a holiday, as in “Chrismus Is A-Comin’,” “Dey’ll be lots o’ chicken/ Plenty tukky, too.”
Constant merrymaking seems to be the order of the day. There is frequent dancing, sometimes “all night th’oo,” and youngsters are always “A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes/ In the ol’-fashioned way”; there is always someone to play the “real ol’-fashioned banjo” (“A Banjo Song”) or the fiddle, and there are those who are at all times ready “to give dheir feet a fling” as they dance “Jigs, cotillions, reels an’ break-downs, cordrills an’ a waltz er two” (“The Party”). There is a good time to be had by one and all.
It stands to reason that if dancing and singing and, in general, merrymaking are associated with the slave plantation, then the old slaves would be distressed over the abolition of slavery. There are fond memories of “de happy days gone by,” for the slave sees in the deserted plantation “All dat loved me an’ dat I loved in de pas’” (“The Deserted Plantation”). So tied to his slave past is the slave that he decides to “stay an’ watch de deah ole place an’ tend it” until death. The slaves’ gratitude to their master reaches beyond the grave to heaven, where they hope to continue serving their old master; faced with the prospect of being released from slavery, men and women begin crying and are ready to “tell Mistah Lincum fu’ to tek his freedom back” (“Chrismus on the Plantation”).
When the black peasants in Dunbar’s idyllic world are not having a joyous time, singing and dancing, they are hunting “fu’ coon an’ fu’ ’possum” (“Hunting Song”), fishing without a care in the world (“Fishing”), or courting (“A Spring Wooing,” “The Old Front Gate”). There is very little notion of the turbulence taking place in black people’s life at the time. Living and writing in a period when black people were increasingly being disenfranchised, when the country was rapidly being segregated, when the lynching of a black man was fast becoming the pastime of white hate groups, and when terror was being generally directed at the black community, this son of ex-slaves chose to ignore the essential factors that helped to shape the lives of the very people his dialect poetry purported to reflect.
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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 “Philosophy,” the poet announces:
But you don’t ketch folks a-grinnin’ wid a misery in de back;An’ you don’t fin’ dem a-smilin’ w’en dey’s hongry ez kin be.
The poet does seem somewhat appalled at the idea of having to “grin/ W’en we knows dat in ouah innards we is p’intly mad ez sin.” This is not a very strong protest, however, nor is it sustained in any way; it certainly is not sufficient to erase or invalidate the prevailing posture of the rest of his dialect poems.
It is not only the distorted picture of life and the philosophy of the dialect poems that have irritated many critics; the language of the poems has been a sore point as well. It is by no means an accurate representation of folk speech. It is rather a highly conventionalized literary speech that seeks to achieve its objective by means of exaggeration and deliberate truncation of Standard English. Dunbar himself refers to it merely as a “broken tongue,” suggesting that it does not have the integrity of a separate language and that it is not worthy of being considered valid. The white literary public at the time, however, viewed it as a failed attempt to speak “proper” English on the part of the black folk.
For all of the objection that one may have to Dunbar’s dialect poetry, one must still acknowledge and admire the strong rhythmic and narrative qualities of the dialect poems. Poems like “Dat Ol’ Mare o’ Mine,” “The Old Front Gate,” and “Lullaby” charm with their tale and music. Moreover, Dunbar humanizes his characters and makes them likable to some degree. This in itself is an achievement of considerable importance, even if Dunbar himself may not have thought so.
Not attaching much significance to his dialect poetry, the poet seems to have reserved for his poetry in Standard English his most serious themes. These are the poems in which his philosophy of life is most consistently articulated. In these poems, he exhibits the true breadth of his interest as a man and a poet; in them, he is able to demonstrate his mastery of conventional literary forms. In fact, these poems suggest an attitude of mind that is not only different from but also contradictory to that which emerges in his dialect poetry.
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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 double.
Believing that each thing is an interpenetration of opposites, so that if life grants “the smile to warm” it must also grant “the tears to refresh,” the poet consoles himself with the thought that “joy seems sweeter when cares come after,/ And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter.”
Those who from reading his dialect poetry are quick to assert that Dunbar is “brainwashed” and has no sense of racial consciousness would do well to pay close attention to some of his standard poems. Poems such as “Frederick Douglass,” “Ode to Ethiopia,” “The Colored Soldiers,” “Black Samson of Brandywine,” “Harriet Beecher Stowe,” “Robert Gould Shaw,” and “We Wear the Mask” project one who is not only conscious but also committed. Occasionally, he can even produce a militant tone, as when he condemns “grim Oppression” in “Frederick Douglass” and insists in “The Colored Soldiers” that “the Blacks enjoy their freedom” because they won it dearly. He is not unmindful of the damaging effects of racism on African Americans. In an act of total identification, the pain of the lynched victim becomes his own pain, and the “curse of a guiltless man” against the oak tree on which he has been lynched becomes the poet’s curse as well in “The Haunted Oak.” Such attitudes signal a clear departure from the world that Dunbar presents in his dialect poetry.
His standard poetry is also reserved for his comments on the critical issue of his concept of his art and his feelings about his career as a poet, the joy that his art brings him and the simultaneous feelings of bitter disappointment over the fact that his dialect poetry has been praised and preferred while his standard poetry has been overlooked and disregarded. He is terribly bothered by people’s expectations of him as a poet. In “Misapprehension,” he speaks of having written a very serious and emotionally charged poem; one who claimed to have loved it, “read and considered it,” and said: “Ay, brother,—’t is well writ,/ But where’s the joke?” It is obvious that this person has come to expect and prefer the qualities of the dialect poetry.
Haunted by these expectations, and considering himself a failure for not having achieved fame for his standard poetry, Dunbar despairs in the end and writes what seems to be his own obituary. Affirming that he has not properly used “the gift of song” that “God in His great compassion” gave him, the poet is convinced that the “Master in infinite mercy” now rewards him with death (“Compensation”). The critic need not accept this self-assessment. In fact, Dunbar himself would be forced to reassess his self-evaluation were he alive today, for his reputation now stands more on his poetry written in Standard English than on his “jingle in a broken tongue.” One need only read Dunbar’s more serious poetry to agree with him that “I sing my song, and all is well.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 361
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. Highlights some of Dunbar’s earliest works in tracing his pursuit of his aspiration and the development of his career. Deplores the “slavish” adherence by some critics to Howell’s review of Dunbar’s poetry. Ends with an impressive bibliography of Dunbar’s works, both primary and secondary.
Brown, Sterling. “Dunbar and Traditional Dialect” and “Dunbar and the Romantic Tradition.” In Negro Poetry and Drama and the Negro in American Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Gives Dunbar credit for humanizing, to some degree, black folk life; notes with regret, however, the many omissions in his portrayal of that life. Observes that Dunbar reserved most of his serious issues for his poetry in Standard English, but that these are largely imitative.
Cunningham, Virginia. Paul Laurence Dunbar and His Song. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1947. Literary biography based on scrapbooks and on documents written by and to Dunbar and his mother. Contains valuable explanations of and background to many of the poet’s works.
Gayle, Addison G. Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Argues that Dunbar was forced to sell his soul in order to survive in a country that constantly deemed him unworthy. Makes the point that Dunbar knew that very little of what he wrote in dialect was true.
Revell, Peter. Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Analyzes Dunbar’s work, paying special attention to his treatment of themes from African American life and history. Contains a biographical summary along with an analysis of the problems faced by black writers at the time. Examines the poetry in literary English and that in dialect separately.