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In Commemoration of Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Today we commemorate the life of poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who passed away on February 9th, 1906. Dunbar was a great American poet who is too often forgotten in our current contemporary world of poetry.

Dunbar was one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. Frederick Douglass called Dunbar, "one of the sweetest songsters his race has produced and a man of whom I hope great things."[1]

We share Douglass' view and believe Dunbar's poetry speaks for itself.

I Know Why the Caged Birds Sings

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!

Life’s Tragedy

It may be misery not to sing at all, And to go silent through the brimming day; It may be misery never to be loved, But deeper griefs than these beset the way.

To sing the perfect song, And by a half-tone lost the key, There the potent sorrow, there the grief, The pale, sad staring of Life's Tragedy. To have come near to the perfect love, Not the hot passion of untempered youth, But that which lies aside its vanity, And gives, for thy trusting worship, truth. This, this indeed is to be accursed, For if we mortals love, or if we sing, We count our joys not by what we have, But by what kept us from that perfect thing.

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!

Common Things

I like to hear of wealth and gold, And El Doradoes in their glory; I like for silks and satins bold To sweep and rustle through a story. The nightingale is sweet of song; The rare exotic smells divinely; And knightly men who stride along, The role heroic carry finely. But then, upon the other hand, Our minds have got a way of running To things that aren't quite so grand, Which, maybe, we are best in shunning. For some of us still like to see The poor man in his dwelling narrow, The hollyhock, the bumblebee, The meadow lark, and chirping sparrow. We like the man who soars and sings With high and lofty inspiration; But he who sings of common things Shall always share our admiration.


A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in, A minute to smile and an hour to weep in, A pint of joy to a peck of trouble, And never a laugh but the moans come double; And that is life! A crust and a corner that love makes precious, With a smile to warm and the tears to refresh us; And joy seems sweeter when cares come after, And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter; And that is life!

The Lesson

My cot was down by a cypress grove, And I sat by my window the whole night long, And heard well up from the deep dark wood A mocking–bird’s passionate song.

And I thought of myself so sad and lone, And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring; Of my mind so weary and sick and wild, Of my heart too sad to sing.

But e’en as I listened the mock–bird’s song, A thought stole into my saddened heart, And I said, “I can cheer some other soul By a carol’s simple art.”

For oft from the darkness of hearts and lives Come songs that brim with joy and light, As out of the gloom of the cypress grove The mocking–bird sings at night.

So I sang a lay for a brother’s ear In a strain to soothe his bleeding heart, And he smiled at the sound of my voice and lyre, Though mine was a feeble art.

But at his smile I smiled in turn, And into my soul there came a ray: In trying to soothe another’s woes Mine own had passed away.


Prometheus stole from Heaven the sacred fire And swept to earth with it o’er land and sea. He lit the vestal flames of poesy, Content, for this, to brave celestial ire.

Wroth were the gods, and with eternal hate Pursued the fearless one who ravished Heaven That earth might hold in fee the perfect leaven To lift men’s souls above their low estate.

But judge you now, when poets wield the pen, Think you not well the wrong has been repaired? ‘Twas all in vain that ill Prometheus fared: The fire has been returned to Heaven again!

We have no singers like the ones whose note Gave challenge to the noblest warbler’s song. We have no voice so mellow, sweet, and strong As that which broke from Shelley’s golden throat.

The measure of our songs is our desires: We tinkle where old poets used to storm. We lack their substance tho’ we keep their form: We strum our banjo–strings and call them lyres.

Listen to a classical recitation of Dunbar's Prometheus by famed baritone William Warfield (Prometheus begins at 3:40minutes).

[1] Charles W. Carey, Jr. "Dunbar, Paul Laurence", American National Biography Online.

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