“Go on and up!”: the tight-rope-walking poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar

ZP_Paul Laurence Dunbar_a studio photographic portrait from 1896

ZP_Paul Laurence Dunbar_a studio photographic portrait from 1896

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906, Dayton, Ohio, U.S.A.)



Folks ain’t got no right to censuah othah folks about dey habits;

Him dat giv’ de squir’ls de bushtails made de bobtails fu’ de rabbits.

Him dat built de gread big mountains hollered out de little valleys,

Him dat made de streets an’ driveways wasn’t shamed to make de alleys.


We is all constructed diff’ent, d’ain’t no two of us de same;

We cain’t he’p ouah likes an’ dislikes, ef we’se bad we ain’t to blame.

Ef we’se good, we needn’t show off, case you bet it ain’t ouah doin’

We gits into su’ttain channels dat we jes’ cain’t he’p pu’suin’.


But we all fits into places dat no othah ones could fill,

An’ we does the things we has to, big er little, good er ill.

John cain’t tek de place o’ Henry, Su an’ Sally ain’t alike;

Bass ain’t nuthin’ like a suckah, chub ain’t nuthin’ like a pike.


When you come to think about it, how it’s all planned out it’s splendid.

Nuthin’s done er evah happens, ‘dout hit’s somefin’ dat’s intended;

Don’t keer whut you does, you has to, an’ hit sholy beats de dickens –

Viney, go put on de kittle, I got one o’ mastah’s chickens.


.     .     .


“A Negro Love Song”


Seen my lady home las’ night,

Jump back, honey, jump back.

Hel’ huh han’ an’ sque’z it tight,

Jump back, honey, jump bck.

Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh,

Seen a light gleam f’om huh eye,

An’ a smile go flittin’ by –

Jump back, honey, jump back.


Hyeahd de win’ blow thoo de pine,

Jump back, honey, jump back.

Mockin’-bird was singin’ fine,

Jump back, honey, jump back.

An’ my hea’t was beatin’ so,

When I reached my lady’s do’,

Dat I couldn’t ba’ to go –

Jump back, honey, jump back.


Put my ahm aroun’ huh wais’,

Jump back, honey, jump back.

Raised huh lips an’ took a tase,

Jump back, honey, jump back.

Love me, honey, love me true?

Love me well ez I love you?

An’ she answe’d, “ ’Cose I do” –

Jump back, honey, jump back.


.     .     .




Lucy done gone back on me,

Dat’s de way wif life.

Evaht’ing was movin’ free,

T’ought I had my wife.

Den some dahky comes along,

Sings my gal a little song,

Since den, evaht’ing’s gone wrong,

Evah day dey’s strife.


Didn’t answer me to-day,

W’en I called huh name,

Would you t’ink, she’d ac’ dat way

W’en I ain’t to blame?

Dat’s de way dese women do,

W’en dey fin’s a fellow true,

Den dey  ’buse him thoo an’ thoo;

Well, hit’s all de same.


Somep’n’s wrong erbout my lung,

An’ I’s glad hit’s so.

Doctah says  ’at I’ll die young,

Well, I wants to go!

Whut’s de use o’ livin’ hyeah,

W’en de gal you loves so deah,

Goes back on you clean an’ cleah –

I sh’d like to know!


.     .     .




Hit ‘s been drizzlin’ an’ been sprinklin’,

Kin’ o’ techy all day long.

I ain’t wet enough fu’ toddy,

I ‘s too damp to raise a song,

An’ de case have set me t’inkin’,

Dat dey ‘s folk des lak de rain,

Dat goes drizzlin’ w’en dey’s talkin’,

An’ won’t speak out flat an’ plain.


Ain’t you nevah set an’ listened

At a body ‘splain his min’?

W’en de t’oughts dey keep on drappin’

Was n’t big enough to fin’?

Dem ‘s whut I call drizzlin’ people,

Othahs call ’em mealy mouf,

But de fust name hits me bettah,

Case dey nevah tech a drouf.


Dey kin talk from hyeah to yandah,

An’ f’om yandah hyeah ergain,

An’ dey don’ mek no mo’ ‘pression,

Den dis powd’ry kin’ o’ rain.

En yo’ min’ is dry ez cindahs,

Er a piece o’ kindlin’ wood,

‘T ain’t no use a-talkin’ to ’em,

Fu’ dey drizzle ain’t no good.


Gimme folks dat speak out nachul,

Whut ‘ll say des whut dey mean,

Whut don’t set dey wo’ds so skimpy

Dat you got to guess between.

I want talk des’ lak de showahs

Whut kin wash de dust erway,

Not dat sprinklin’ convusation,

Dat des drizzle all de day.


.     .     .


“The Lawyer’s Ways”


I ‘ve been list’nin’ to them lawyers

In the court house up the street,

An’ I ‘ve come to the conclusion

That I’m most completely beat.

Fust one feller riz to argy,

An’ he boldly waded in

As he dressed the tremblin’ pris’ner

In a coat o’ deep-dyed sin.


Why, he painted him all over

In a hue o’ blackest crime,

An’ he smeared his reputation

With the thickest kind o’ grime,

Tell I found myself a-wond’rin’

In a misty way and dim,

How the Lord had come to fashion

Sich an awful man as him.


Then the other lawyer started,

An’ with brimmin’, tearful eyes,

Said his client was a martyr

That was brought to sacrifice.

An’ he give to that same pris’ner

Every blesséd human grace,

Tell I saw the light o’ virtue

Fairly shinin’ from his face.


Then I own ‘at I was puzzled

How sich things could rightly be;

An’ this aggervatin’ question

Seems to keep a-puzzlin’ me.

So, will some one please inform me,

An’ this mystery unroll–

How an angel an’ a devil

Can persess the self-same soul?


.     .     .




Well, mebbe ya don’t remember Tim

Little feller, lank an’ slim

Jest about as big as a minute

With an eye like coal, with a sparkle in it.

Newsboys ust to carry The Press

Littlest one on the force I guess

But he wasn’t afeared to run and holler

Spry as a cricket an’ bright as a dollar.

Wall, like a book I knowed this Tim

use to work along a’ him

When The Press was a little measley sheet,

An’ I reckon this team was hard to beat.

Sell papers, well know you’re a talkin’ sin;

When we got out we made a din

All up and down the busy street

Till every blesséd printed sheet

We had was gone, then me and Tim

We’d hurry home in the twilight dim

Down to our cellar an’ while away

The darkenin’ hours in quiet play.

Fur we wuz only kids, us two

And played like other youngsters do.

Orphans, we wuz without friend

His aid er helpin’ hand to lend

Yes we wuz poor as poor could be

But we wuz happy – Tim and me.

And the days went by like a song of joy

You know what it is to be a boy

I reckon you’ll laugh when you hear me say

That we fell in love in a boyish way.


.     .     .


“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.


.     .     .




My heart to thy heart,

My hand to thine;

My lip to thy lips,

Kisses are wine

Brewed for the lover in sunshine and shade;

Let me drink deep, then, my African maid.


Lily to lily,

Rose unto rose;

My love to thy love

Tenderly grows.

Rend not the oak and the ivy in twain,

Nor the swart maid from her swarthier swain.


.     .     .


“Ode to Ethiopia”


O Mother Race! to thee I bring

This pledge of faith unwavering,

This tribute to thy glory.

I know the pangs which thou didst feel,

When Slavery crushed thee with its heel,

With thy dear blood all gory.


Sad days were those – ah, sad indeed!

But through the land the fruitful seed

Of better times was growing.

The plant of freedom upward sprung,

And spread its leaves so fresh and young –

Its blossoms now are blowing.


On every hand in this fair land,

Proud Ethiope’s swarthy children stand

Beside their fairer neighbour;

The forests flee before their stroke,

Their hammers ring, their forges smoke –

They stir in honest labour.


They tread the fields where honour calls;

Their voices sound through senate halls

In majesty and power.

To right they cling; the hymns they sing

Up to the skies in beauty ring,

And bolder grow each hour.


Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul;

Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll

In characters of fire.

High ‘mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky

Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher.


Thou hast the right to noble pride,

Whose spotless robes were purified

By blood’s severe baptism.

Upon thy brow the cross was laid,

And labour’s painful sweat-beads made

A consecrating chrism.


No other race, or white or black,

When bound as thou wert, to the rack,

So seldom stooped to grieving;

No other race, when free again,

Forgot the past and proved them men

So noble in forgiving.


Go on and up! Our souls and eyes

Shall follow thy continuous rise;

Our ears shall list thy story

From bards who from thy root shall spring,

And proudly tune their lyres to sing

Of Ethiopia’s glory.


.     .     .


“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!


.     .     .




Out of my heart, one day, I wrote a song,

With my heart’s blood imbued,

Instinct with passion, tremulously strong,

With grief subdued;

Breathing a fortitude


And one who claimed much love for what I wrought,

Read and considered it,

And spoke:

“Ay, brother –  ’tis well writ,

But where’s the joke?”


.     .     .




Deep in my heart that aches with the repression,

And strives with plenitude of bitter pain,

There lives a thought that clamours for expression,

And spends its undelivered force in vain.


What boots it that some other may have thought it?

The right of thoughts’ expression is divine;

The price of pain I pay for it has bought it,

I care not who lays claim to it –’t is mine!


And yet not mine until it be delivered;

The manner of its birth shall prove the test.

Alas, alas, my rock of pride is shivered –

I beat my brow – the thought still unexpressed.


.     .     .


“A Choice”


They please me not – these solemn songs

That hint of sermons covered up.

’T is true the world should heed its wrongs,

But in a poem let me sup,

Not simples brewed to cure or ease

Humanity’s confessed disease,

But the spirit-wine of a singing line,

Or a dew-drop in a honey cup!


.     .     .




With what thou gavest me, O Master,

I have wrought.

Such chances, such abilities,

To see the end was not for my poor eyes,

Thine was the impulse, thine the forming thought.


Ah, I have wrought,

And these sad hands have right to tell their story,

It was no hard up striving after glory,

Catching and losing, gaining and failing,

Raging me back at the world’s raucous railing.

Simply and humbly from stone and from wood,

Wrought I the things that to thee might seem good.


If they are little, ah God! but the cost,

Who but thou knowest the all that is lost!

If they are few, is the workmanship true?

Try them and weigh me, whate’er be my due!


.     .     .     .     .

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872 – less than a decade after the Emancipation Act – to a mother and a father who had been slaves in Kentucky.  His mother had learned to read expressly for the purpose of saying aloud the Bible and Dunbar learned to read at his mother’s knee – from The Good Book.  He wrote his first poem at the age of 6 and by the end of high school in Dayton he had had poems published in The Herald newspaper.  His first book of poems, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1893.  Editor and critic William Dean Howells wrote a glowing review of Dunbar’s second book of poetry, Majors and Minors, in 1896.  Combining the two books into one, Lyrics of Lowly Life, with an introduction by the influential Howells, Dunbar had a best-seller and was soon nationally famous.  Drawing attention to Dunbar’s dark skin, as if mulatto writers somehow didn’t count, Howells had written that Dunbar was “the only man of pure African blood and of African civilization to feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically”.  Hogwash, a good half of that extravagant statement.  But Howells was writing for white readers of poetry who preferred something authentic, something other than the common Coon Songs/Minstrel Music of the 1890s.  And all this just as Jim Crow legislation – ‘separate but equal’ bylaws – became firmly entrenched.

Thereafter, Dunbar would walk a literary tightrope.  He tried to be true to his own ambition to develop and showcase his considerable range as a poet while being clamoured after for Negro-Dialect poems (verses using everyday Black speech from The South – which had constituted just a quarter of the 100-plus poems in Lyrics).  And yet – Dunbar’s Negro-Dialect poems can in instances go beyond the popular Minstrel-influenced poems and songs of the era because he voiced in them a very-real sadness sometimes, some subtly subversive wit – and cynicism as well.   It is notable that he also wrote other Peoples’ dialect poems that showed a supple command of Irish, German and Southern-White speech patterns.  Briefly and unhappily Dunbar was married to Alice Ruth Moore – later a journalist and anti-lynching campaigner – from 1898 to 1902.  Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1900 he was prescribed “the whiskey diet” plus the pure air of Colorado.   Feeling perhaps that Time was running out, he began writing essays and unusual, inventive stage plays – which scholars since the 1990s have been re-appraising (along with Dunbar’s Negro-Dialect poems).  His health worsened and he returned to Ohio in 1904, dying there in 1906 at the age of 33.   After much academic argument about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s legacy it is now agreed that he was the finest Black-American poet before the cultural blossoming of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

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