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Three Poems
Comprehensive Paul Laurence Dunbar site
Dunbar House Web site

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906) was a seminal American poet in the late 19th and early 20th century. Dunbar gained national recognition for his 1896 Lyrics of a Lowly Life, one poem in the collection being Ode to Ethiopia. Born in Dayton, Ohio to parents who had escaped from slavery, Dunbar's father was a veteran of the American Civil War, having served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment. His parents instilled in him a love of learning and history. He was the only black student at Dayton Central High School, but he participated actively. During college, he was both the editor of the school newspaper, class president, and the president of the school literary society.

He wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9. Dunbar's first published work came in a newspaper put out by his high-school friends, Wilbur and Orville Wright, who owned a printing plant. The Wright Brothers later invested in the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper aimed at the black community edited and published by Dunbar.

His first collection of poetry, Oak and Ivy was published in 1892 and attracted the attention of James Whitcomb Riley, the popular "Hoosier Poet." Both Riley and Dunbar wrote poems in both standard English and dialect. His second book, Majors and Minors (1895) brought him national fame and the patronage of William Dean Howells, the novelist and critic and editor of Harper's Weekly. After Howell's praise, his first two books were combined as Lyrics of a Lowly Life, and Dunbar started a career of international literary fame that was cut short by his early death.

He moved to Washington, D.C., in the Le Droit Park neighborhood. While in Washington, he attended Howard University.

His wife Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a famous poet as well. A graduate of Dillard University, in New Orleans, Moore's most famous works include a short story entitled, "Violets". She and her husband also wrote books of poetry as companion pieces. An Account of their love, life and marriage was depicted in a play by Katherine McGhee titled Oak and Ivy.

He kept a lifelong friendship with the Wrights and was also closely associated with Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. He was honored with a ceremonial sword by President Theodore Roosevelt.

He wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, and five novels and a play. His essays and poems were published widely in the leading journals of the day. His work appeared in Harper's Weekly, Sunday Evening Post, Denver Post, Current Literature and a number of other publications. During his life, considerable emphasis was laid on the fact that Dunbar was of pure black descent, with no white ancestors.

Dunbar's work is known for its colorful language, use of dialect, conversational tone, and brilliant rhetorical structure.

He traveled to England in 1897 to recite his works on the London literary circuit. After his return, Dunbar took a job at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. In 1900, Dunbar was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and moved to Colorado with his wife on the advice of his doctors. Dunbar died at age thirty-three on February 9, 1906, and was interred in the Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio.

In 1975 the U.S. Postal Service issued a 10 cent commemorative stamp in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar.


Three Poems:

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 overwise,
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 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 praise
A jingle in a broken tongue.


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 neighbor;
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.




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    [Our biography was extracted and edited from wikipedia.org]      
Last Updated: Sat, September 9, 2006
©2006 John Struloeff -- All Rights Reserved.