Paul Laurence Dunbar
Edited with an Introduction by Herbert Woodward Martin
Penguin Books, 2004
As I mentioned in my previous post, I struggled with reading Dunbar’s poems. This wasn’t just because of the dialect (that didn’t help, but I usually can understand it by reading how it “sounds”), but also because of my weakness as a poetry reader in general, and I suspect perhaps, that this era of poetry may not be the best suited for me; I reacted better both to the Renaissance poetry of Spain’s Siglo de Oro and to a miscellaneous group of 20th century poems I read a year or so ago. But I did want to try my hand at this, the challenge not just to read one of Ohio’s most prolific writers, but the challenge of reading a genre–lyric poetry–I usually avoid. I opted for a curated collection, so I cannot be sure that my observations, such as they are, are necessarily true as compared to the entirety of Dunbar’s poetic output.
Dunbar seems to return to a number of themes many times–love (of course!), faith (I believe I read that his mother wanted him to be a preacher, so…), plantation life, odes to great African Americans and historical events. While most of the themes might be written in either “standard” or dialect, as suited Dunbar–or perhaps as suited his audience–, the odes were universally written in standard speech. They also seemed, I gather, to be tied to either deaths of great figures or anniversaries. Not all were made to people or events with which I was familiar, and I found myself more than one searching out the history behind the poem.
Dunbar also seems to have, over time, lost the optimism and cheerfulness of his early work, as starting in the selections from Lyrics of the Hearthside, some of the poems seemed to takes a grimmer, more despondent tone. I don’t know if this was a matter of which poems the editors selected for inclusion, if it reflected the natural passage from youth to manhood and the subsequent facing of stark reality we all must endure, or if it reflects an even darker turn Dunbar’s life took, perhaps due to the public reception of his work or a personal loss, or even the downturn his health took (he died young, of tuberculosis). This is not to say that his later poems lost all humor and optimism altogether, just that the later books appeared to include more unhappy poems than the early books did.
“A Career” (Oak and Ivy, 1893)
“Break me my bounds, and let me fly
To regions vast of boundless sky;
Nor I, like piteous Daphne, be
Root-bound. Ah, no! I would be free
As yon same bird that in its flight
Outstrips the range of mortal sight;
Free as the mountain streams that gush
From bubbling springs, and downward rush
Across the serrate mountain’s side,—
The rocks o’erwhelmed, their banks defied,—
And like the passions in the soul,
Swell into torrents as they roll.
Oh, circumscribe me not by rules
That serve to lead the minds of fools!
But give me pow’r to work my will,
And at my deeds the world shall thrill.
My words shall rouse the slumb’ring zest
That hardly stirs in manhood’s breast;
And as the sun feeds lesser lights,
As planets have their satellites,
So round about me will I bind
The men who prize a master mind!”
He lived a silent life alone,
And laid him down when it was done;
And at his head was placed a stone
On which was carved a name unknown!
And perhaps this was simply frustration – early on the poems suggest Dunbar’s ambition, and while he did achieve great success, it was for his dialect work, but he also wanted recognition for that which was more traditional. I was surprised to find that one of Dunbar’s most famous poems, “Sympathy,” from which Maya Angelou took the title for her most famous book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was actually in Dunbar’s first published volume of poems. Clearly–and Williams Dean Howell’s praise for his second volume also points to this–even Dunbar’s earliest published work has merit.
One of my favorite of Dunbar’s poems actually turned out to be one of his dialect poems. It is an illustration that some things never change–I can envision the same argument being made today (I think I’ve heard it!), only perhaps substitute different types of music.
“The Ol’ Tunes” (Oak and Ivy, 1893)
You kin talk about yer anthems
An’ yer arias an’ sich,
An’ yer modern choir-singin’
That you think so awful rich;
But you orter heerd us youngsters
In the times now far away,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.
There was some of us sung treble
An’ a few of us growled bass,
An’ the tide o’ song flowed smoothly
With its ‘comp’niment o’ grace;
There was spirit in that music,
An’ a kind o’ solemn sway,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.
But I think that some bright mornin’,
When the toils of life air o’er,
An’ the sun o’ heaven arisin’
Glads with light the happy shore,
I shall hear the angel chorus,
In the realms of endless day,
A-singin’ o’ the ol’ tunes
In the ol’-fashioned way.
Another favorite poem was “The Spellin’-Bee”, if for no other reason than it reminded me of The Little House books as the sort of event that might have occurred–certainly the time frame is close. (I believe there’s a spelling bee in Little Town on the Prairie? It’s been a long while since I read these.) That, and a little twist at the end. Dunbar does seem to like a twist now and then.
“The Spellin’-Bee” (Lyrics of Lowly Life, 1896)
I never shall furgit that night when father hitched up Dobbin,
An’ all us youngsters clambered in an’ down the road went bobbin’
To school where we was kep’ at work in every kind o’ weather,
But where that night a spellin’-bee was callin’ us together.
‘Twas one o’ Heaven’s banner nights, the stars was all a glitter,
The moon was shinin’ like the hand o’ God had jest then lit her.
The ground was white with spotless snow, the blast was sort o’ stingin’;
But underneath our round-abouts, you bet our hearts was singin’.
That spellin’-bee had be’n the talk o’ many a precious moment,
The youngsters all was wild to see jes’ what the precious show meant,
An’ we whose years was in their teens was little less desirous
O’ gittin’ to the meetin’ so ‘s our sweethearts could admire us.
Fur once within that lighted room, our feelin’s took a canter,
An’ scurried to the zero mark ez quick ez Tam O’Shanter.
‘Cause there was crowds o’ people there, both sexes an’ all stations;
It looked like all the town had come an’ brought all their relations.
In general, the poems I liked the best were the ones that in some way amused me: the observations on English cooking (from “A Letter” – Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899):
But dese Englishmen is diffunt, an’ dey’s curus fu’ a fac’.
Fust, dey’s heavier an’ redder in dey make-up an’ dey looks,
An’ dey don’t put salt nor pepper in a blessed t’ing dey cooks!
W’en dey gin you good ol’ tu’nips, ca’ots, pa’snips, beets, an’ sich,
Ef day ain’t some one to tell you, you cain’t ‘stinguish which is which.
or the fight in the kitchen:
“Trouble in de Kitchen” (Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, 1905)
Dey was oncet a awful quoil ‘twixt de skillet an’ de pot;
De pot was des a-bilin’ an’ de skillet sho’ was hot.
Dey slurred each othah’s colah an’ dey called each othah names,
Wile de coal-oil can des gu-gled, po’in oil erpon de flames.
But not all of the poems I liked are humorous. Dunbar had serious poems as well, often stirring. His “The Colored Soldiers” (Majors and Minors, 1895) is both a memorial to those who fought the Union cause but also an argument for equality:
They were comrades then and brothers,
Are they more or less to-day?
They were good to stop a bullet
And to front the fearful fray.
They were citizens and soldiers,
When rebellion raised its head;
And the traits that made them worth,–
Ah! those virtues are not dead.
While “Hymn” (Majors and Minors, 1895) is a poem of great faith:
When storms arise
And dark’ning skies
About me threat’ning lower,
To thee, O Lord, I raise mine eyes,
To thee my tortured spirit flies
For solace in that hour.
The mighty arm
Will let no harm
Come near me nor befall me;
Thy voice shall quiet my alarm,
When life’s great battle waxeth warm—
No foeman shall appall me.
Upon thy breast
Secure I rest,
From sorrow and vexation;
No more by sinful cares oppressed,
But in thy presence ever blest,
O God of my salvation.
And “For the Man Who Fails” (Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899) stands in contrast to those who deem that the only people who matter are those that are the “best” or “greatest” or “win.”
The world is a snob, and the man who wins
Is the chap for its money’s worth:
And the lust for success causes half of the sins
That are cursing this brave old earth.
For it ‘s fine to go up, and the world’s applause
Is sweet to the mortal ear;
But the man who fails in a noble cause
Is a hero that ‘s no less dear.
‘T is true enough that the laurel crown
Twines but for the victor’s brow;
For many a hero has lain him down
With naught but the cypress bough.
There are gallant men in the losing fight,
And as gallant deeds are done
As ever graced the captured height
Or the battle grandly won.
We sit at life’s board with our nerves highstrung,
And we play for the stake of Fame,
And our odes are sung and our banners hung
For the man who wins the game.
But I have a song of another kind
Than breathes in these fame-wrought gales,—
An ode to the noble heart and mind
Of the gallant man who fails!
The man who is strong to fight his fight,
And whose will no front can daunt,
If the truth be truth and the right be right,
Is the man that the ages want.
Tho’ he fail and die in grim defeat,
Yet he has not fled the strife,
And the house of Earth will seem more sweet
For the perfume of his life.
But perhaps the most appropriate poem to share with bookish people is one simply titled “Sonnet: On an Old Book with Uncut Leaves” (Lyrics of the Hearthside, 1899)
Emblem of blasted hope and lost desire,
No finger ever traced thy yellow page
Save Time’s. Thou hast not wrought to noble rage
The hearts thou wouldst have stirred. Not any fire
Save sad flames set to light a funeral pyre
Dost thou suggest. Nay,—impotent in age,
Unsought, thou holdst a corner of the stage
And ceasest even dumbly to aspire.
How different was the thought of him that writ.
What promised he to love of ease and wealth,
When men should read and kindle at his wit.
But here decay eats up the book by stealth,
While it, like some old maiden, solemnly,
Hugs its incongruous virginity!
2/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works. Read as part of my Reading Ohio project and for the category “a classic by a non-white author” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.