Paul Laurence Dunbar

August 30, 2006


Seminal American poet in the late 19th and early 20th century
One of the first major African American poets
Crucial transitional poet: reflects on history while looking forward to the redefinition of poetry
Wrote his first poem at age 6 and gave his first public recital at age 9
Wrote a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, and five novels and a play
Work is known for its colorful language, conversational tone, and brilliant rhetorical structure
Died of tuberculosis at 33


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!


The bird is a classic Romantic symbol
Dunbar distorts this image: the bird is beating itself to death, but is not a helpless symbol; it has definite strength.

Yes, the Blacks enjoy their freedom / And they won it dearly, too; / For the life blood of their thousands / Did the southern fields bedew. / In the darkness of their bondage, / In their depths of slaver’s night; / Their muskets flashed the dawning / And they fought their way to light.

-The Colored Soldiers

Oh, why does the dog howl all night long, / And why does the night wind wail?

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.

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 a 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 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.

-The Haunted Oak

Not addressing a single event, poem is written to enrage people and to inspire action
Racial injustice is a crime so great, nature is taking on the sadness of it

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,


Addressed to Frederick Douglas


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