Saturday, March 18, 2017

I Greet The Dawn - Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I picked this title up for Black History Month as well after posting a Langston Hughes poem on Inauguration Day as a protest against the election to office a White Supremacist who has done his best to make good on his promises to antagonize people of color, immigrants and refugees. I was going to get a Langston Hughes collection, but it was already taken, so I “settled” for Paul Laurence Dunbar. 

I Greet The Dawn is a collection selected by Ashley Bryan in 1978. I appreciate that Mr. Bryan chose to focus not on the dialect poems that Dunbar was most known for, and instead primarily chose his conventional poems. During his lifetime, Dunbar received the most money and praise for the dialect poems, as they fit comfortably with the idea of the quaint Negro (pat on the head…)

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in 1872, one of the first generation of African Americans born free. His father escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad, then returned to fight in the Union army during the Civil War. Raised in Ohio, Dunbar was the only black in his class. Wilbur and Orville Wright also attended his school at around the same time, and later helped him in a failed attempt to start a newspaper for the black community. His poems ended up in the school and local newspapers, and generally made a name for himself. He had hoped to attend college, but he tried to find a job instead to help support his widowed mother. Alas, despite his experience and talents, he couldn’t find a job in the writing profession. Newspapers and magazines didn’t want him. The want ads would simply state “no colored need apply.) For most of his short life, he worked as an elevator operator while writing on the side.

His poems found some success, but he wasn’t able to support himself with them alone. In addition, influential critics like William Dean Howells praised the dialect poems while panning his literary English poems. In an ironic touch, Dunbar himself didn’t speak in dialect any more than I do - he had to write by listening to others, not speak with his own voice.

Later, Dunbar travelled to England, which was a pleasant experience. However, his tour wasn’t organized well, and it didn’t make enough money to support him - or even get him back. He had to write a friend to get his return fare.

In 1898, he married Alice Ruth Moore, a schoolteacher with a similar literary mind. Their eight year marriage was of mixed result. On the one hand, she was a devoted wife and the two had much in common. On the other, as Dunbar slowly succumbed to the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1906, she and his mother tangled over how to care for him best, and they separated. Attempts at reconciliation failed, and he died at age 33 at his mother’s home. It’s kind of a sad end to what could have been a great partnership.

There are about 150 poems in the collection, most short. They are grouped by topic: love, life, time and death, transcendence, odes to inspirational people, and the song of the poet. Here are the ones I liked the most:


Because you love me I have much achieved,
Had you despised me then I must have failed,
But since I knew you trusted and believed,
I could not disappoint you and so prevailed.

I love this little quatrain because it really expresses a truth about my relationship with the lovely Amanda. Without her believing in me, I never would have taken the risk of opening my own law practice.

“Love’s Apotheosis”

Love me. I care not what the circling years
To me may do.
If, but in spite of time and tears,
You prove but true.

Love me--albeit grief shall dim mine eyes,
And tears bedew,
I shall not e'en complain, for then my skies
Shall still be blue.

Love me, and though the winter snow shall pile,
And leave me chill,
Thy passion's warmth shall make for me, meanwhile,
A sun-kissed hill.

And when the days have lengthened into years,
And I grow old,
Oh, spite of pains and griefs and cares and fears,
Grow thou not cold.

Then hand and hand we shall pass up the hill,
I say not down;
That twain go up, of love, who 've loved their fill,--
To gain love's crown.

Love me, and let my life take up thine own,
As sun the dew.
Come, sit, my queen, for in my heart a throne
Awaits for you!

Dunbar wrote in a delightful variety of meters and forms, and I was thrilled with his technical mastery. Like another of my favorite poets, Christina Rossetti, he puts the rigid forms to work and makes them seem so natural and clear and beautiful. It is a true skill indeed to express within form, and this poem is a great example of that. The long and short lines emphasize perfectly the important thoughts, and the cadence serves the ideas so transparently that you don’t labor to say the words out loud.

“Love Song”

If Death should claim me for her own to-day,
And softly I should falter from your side,
Oh, tell me, loved one, would my memory stay,
And would my image in your heart abide?
Or should I be as some forgotten dream,
That lives its little space, then fades entire?
Should Time send o'er you its relentless stream,
To cool your heart, and quench for aye love's fire?

I would not for the world, love, give you pain,
Or ever compass what would cause you grief;
And, oh, how well I know that tears are vain!
But love is sweet, my dear, and life is brief;
So if some day before you I should go
Beyond the sound and sight of song and sea,
'T would give my spirit stronger wings to know
That you remembered still and wept for me.

Twist the knife, will you? It’s skillful iambic pentameter, but what a poem. I fell in love with it when I first read it.

I can’t remember which of the next two I read first as a child or teen. Both are the ones that I think of when I think of Dunbar. “Sympathy” is the source for the name of Maya Angelou’s best known collection. But “We Wear The Mask” is one of my favorite poems from any author- I memorized it for an assignment in high school, and it has never entirely left me 25 years later. It is just that good. Anyway, read them both and choose for yourself.


I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

“We Wear The Mask”

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
      We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
      We wear the mask!

The second in particular expresses how I feel some days - something I probably got from my dad, whose favorite song in his teens was “I Am A Rock.”

Dunbar could be humorous as well as serious. This little quatrain caught my eye.


There is a heaven, for ever, day by day,
The upward longing of my soul doth tell me so.
There is a hell, I'm quite as sure; for pray
If there were not, where would my neighbours go?

The whole section on death is quite good. Unfortunately, it was really hard to pick a favorite. Should I go with the incredibly dark “Behind the Arras”? Or the existentialist “Mortality”? Or one of his more conventional elegies? It was a hard call, but I am going with the more elliptical “Forever.”


I HAD not known before
Forever was so long a word.
The slow stroke of the clock of time
I had not heard.

'Tis hard to learn so late;
It seems no sad heart really learns,
But hopes and trusts and doubts and fears,
And bleeds and burns.

The night is not all dark,
Nor is the day all it seems,
But each may bring me this relief —
My dreams and dreams.

I had not known before
That Never was so sad a word,
So wrap me in forgetfulness —
I have not heard.  

It’s a haunting poem.

And speaking of haunting, how about this harrowing one, “The Haunted Oak”? Any time someone tries to gloss over the horror of lynching - and the terror exacted on African Americans - I think I might have to quote this one.

“The Haunted Oak”

Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
  Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
  Runs a shudder over me?

My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
  And sap ran free in my veins,
But I say in the moonlight dim and weird
  A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
  I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
  And left him here alone.

They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
  And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
  And why does the night wind wail?

He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
  And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
  And the steady tread drew nigh.

Who is it rides by night, by night,
  Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
  What is the galling goad?

And now they beat at the prison door,
  "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
  And we fain would take him away

"From those who ride fast on our heels
  With mind to do him wrong;
They have no care for his innocence,
  And the rope they bear is long."

They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
  They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
  And the great door open flies.

Now they have taken him from the jail,
  And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
  As they halt my trunk beside.

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
  And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
  Was curiously bedight.

Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
  'Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
  The mem'ry of your face.

I feel the rope against my bark,
  And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
  The touch of my own last pain.

And never more shall leaves come forth
  On the bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
  From the curse of a guiltless man.

And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
  And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
  In the guise of a mortal fear.

And ever the man he rides me hard,
  And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
  On the trunk of a haunted tree.

In the next poem, Dunbar praises Frederick Douglass, who was a mentor to him - in addition to being a civil rights icon. (Shh! Don’t tell The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named…)


Ah, Douglass, we have fall'n on evil days,
Such days as thou, not even thou didst know,
When thee, the eyes of that harsh long ago
Saw, salient, at the cross of devious ways,
And all the country heard thee with amaze.
Not ended then, the passionate ebb and flow,
The awful tide that battled to and fro;
We ride amid a tempest of dispraise.

Now, when the waves of swift dissension swarm,
And Honour, the strong pilot, lieth stark,
Oh, for thy voice high-sounding o'er the storm,
For thy strong arm to guide the shivering bark,
The blast-defying power of thy form,
To give us comfort through the lonely dark.

I feel this poem is relevant today, in our time. I also want to note the form, which Dunbar uses in many of his poems to historical figures: the Italian Sonnet. Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, rhymed ABBAABBACDCDCD. I have always loved the sonnet, and this is a fine one.

How about another humorous and pointed quatrain?

“To A Captious Critic”

Dear critic, who my lightness so deplores,
Would I might study to be prince of bores,
Right wisely would I rule that dull estate--
But, sir, I may not, till you abdicate.

Oh snap.

I like this one both for its wonderful description of that drowsy, rainy day, and for the form, which is interesting. Iambic tetrameter throughout, with the unusual rhyme scheme ABAABA. It’s pairs of tercets that match in each stanza.

“A Drowsy Day”

The air is dark, the sky is gray,
The misty shadows come and go,
And here within my dusky room
Each chair looks ghostly in the gloom.
Outside the rain falls cold and slow —
Half-stinging drops, half-blinding spray.

Each slightest sound is magnified,
For drowsy quiet holds her reign;
The burnt stick in the fireplace breaks,
The nodding cat with start awakes,
And then to sleep drops off again,
Unheeding Towser at her side.

I look far out across the lawn,
Where huddled stand the silly sheep;
My work lies idle at my hands,
My thoughts fly out like scattered strands
Of thread, and on the verge of sleep—
Still half awake — I dream and yawn.

What spirits rise before my eyes!
How various of kind and form!
Sweet memories of days long past,
The dreams of youth that could not last,
Each smiling calm, each raging storm,
That swept across my early skies.

Half seen, the bare, gaunt-fingered boughs
Before my window sweep and sway,
And chafe in tortures of unrest.
My chin sinks down upon my breast;
I cannot work on such a day,
But only sit and dream and drowse.

I’ll end with this lovely quatrain, with an image that I think is particularly memorable and imaginative.


The rain streams down like harp-strings from the sky;
The wind, that world-old harpist, sitteth by;
And ever as he sings his low refrain,
He plays upon the harp-strings of the rain.        

No comments:

Post a Comment