African American Poetry (1870-1926): A Digital Anthology

Robert Kerlin, Chapter on Paul Laurence Dunbar (1923)

6. Paul Laurence Dunbar

    He came, a dark youth, singing in the dawn
    Of a new freedom, glowing o’er his lyre,
    Refining, as with great Apollo’s fire,
    His people’s gift of song. And, thereupon,
    This Negro singer, come to Helicon,
    Constrained the masters, listening, to admire,
    And roused a race to wonder and aspire,
    Gazing which way their honest voice was gone,
    With ebon face uplit of glory’s crest.
    Men marveled at the singer, strong and sweet,
    Who brought the cabin’s mirth, the tuneful night,
    But faced the morning, beautiful with light,
    To die while shadows yet fell toward the west,
    And leave his laurels at his people’s feet.
            --_James David Corrothers._

Less than a generation ago William Dean Howells hailed Paul Laurence Dunbar as “the first instance of an American Negro who had evinced innate distinction in literature,” “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel Negro life ├Žsthetically and express it lyrically.” It is not my purpose to give Dunbar space and consideration in this book commensurate with his importance. Its scope does not, strictly speaking, include him and his predecessors. They are introduced here, but to provide an historical background. The object of this book is to exhibit the achievement of the Negro in verse since Dunbar. Even though it were true, which I think it is not, that no American Negro previous to Dunbar had evinced innate distinction in literature, this anthology, I believe, will reveal that many American Negroes in this new day are evincing, if not innate distinction, yet cultured talent, in literature.

The sonnet to Dunbar which stands at the head of this section was
composed by a Negro who was by three years Dunbar’s senior. His
opportunities in early life were far inferior to Dunbar’s. At nineteen
years of age, with almost inconsiderable schooling, he was a boot-black in a Chicago barber shop. I give his sonnet here--other poems of his I give in another chapter--in evidence of that distinction in literature, innate or otherwise, which is rather widespread among American Negroes of the present time. Dunbar himself might have been proud to put his name to this sonnet.

When this marvel, a Negro poet, so vouched for, appeared in the West, like a new star in the heavens, a few white people, a very few, knew, vaguely, that back in Colonial times there was a slave woman in Boston who had written verses, who was therefore a prodigy. The space between Phillis Wheatley and this new singer was desert. But Nature, as people think, produces freaks, or sports; therefore a Negro poet was not absolutely beyond belief, since poets are rather freakish, abnormal creatures anyway. Incredulity therefore yielded to an attitude scarcely worthier, namely, that dishonoring, irreverent interpretation of a supreme human phenomenon which consists in denominating it a freak of nature. But Dunbar is a fact, as Burns, as Whittier, as Riley, are facts--a fact of great moment to a people and for a people. For one thing, he revealed to the Negro youth of America the latent literary powers and the unexploited literary materials of their race. He was the fecundating genius of their talents. Upon all his people he was a tremendously quickening power, not less so than his great contemporary at Tuskegee. Doubtless it will be recognized, in a broad view, that the
Negro people of America needed, equally, both men, the counterparts of each other.

It needs to be remarked for white people, that there were two Dunbars, and that they know but one. There is the Dunbar of “the jingle in a broken tongue,” whom Howells with gracious but imperfect sympathy and understanding brought to the knowledge of the world, and whom the public readers, white and black alike, have found it delightful to present, to the entire eclipse of the other Dunbar. That other Dunbar was the poet of the flaming “Ode to Ethiopia,” the pathetic lyric, “We Wear the Mask,” the apparently offhand jingle but real masterpiece entitled “Life,” the incomparable ode “Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,” and a score of other pieces in which, using their speech, he matches himself with the poets who shine as stars in the firmament of our admiration. This Dunbar Howells failed to appreciate, and ignorance of him has been fostered, as I have intimated, by professional readers and writers. The first Dunbar, the generally accepted one, was, as Howells pointed out, the artistic interpreter of the old-fashioned, vanishing generation of black folk--the generation that was maimed and scarred by slavery, that presented so many ludicrous and pathetic,
abject and lovable aspects in strange mixture. The second Dunbar was the prophet robed in a mantle of austerity, shod with fire, bowed with sorrow, as every true prophet has been, in whatever time, among whatever people. He was the prophet, I say, of a new generation, a coming generation, as he was the poet of a vanishing generation. The generation of which he was the prophet-herald has arrived. Its most authentic representatives are the poets that I put forward in this volume as worthy of attention.

Dunbar’s real significance to his race has been admirably expressed not only by Corrothers but in the following lines by his biographer, Lida Keck Wiggins:

    Life’s lowly were laureled with verses
      And sceptered were honor and worth,
    While cabins became, through the poet,
      Fair homes of the lords of the earth.

So it was. But “honor and worth” yet remain, to be “sceptered.” Such
poems as these few here given from the choragus of the present
generation of Negro singers will suggest the kind of honor and the
degree of worth to which our tribute is due.[2]

ERE SLEEP COMES DOWN TO SOOTHE THE WEARY EYES

    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
      Which all the day with ceaseless care have sought
    The magic gold which from the seeker flies;
      Ere dreams put on the gown and cap of thought,
    And make the waking world a world of lies,--
      Of lies most palpable, uncouth, forlorn,
    That say life’s full of aches and tears and sighs,--
      Oh, how with more than dreams the soul is torn,
    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.

    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
      How all the griefs and heartaches we have known
    Come up like pois’nous vapors that arise
      From some base witch’s caldron, when the crone,
    To work some potent spell, her magic plies.
      The past which held its share of bitter pain,
    Whose ghost we prayed that Time might exorcise,
      Comes up, is lived and suffered o’er again,
    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.

    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
      What phantoms fill the dimly lighted room;
    What ghostly shades in awe-creating guise
      Are bodied forth within the teeming gloom.
    What echoes faint of sad and soul-sick cries,
      And pangs of vague inexplicable pain
    That pay the spirit’s ceaseless enterprise,
      Come thronging through the chambers of the brain,
    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.

    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
      Where ranges forth the spirit far and free?
    Through what strange realms and unfamiliar skies
      Tends her far course to lands of mystery?
    To lands unspeakable--beyond surmise,
      Where shapes unknowable to being spring,
    Till, faint of wing, the Fancy fails and dies
      Much wearied with the spirit’s journeying,
    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.

    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
      How questioneth the soul that other soul,--
    The inner sense which neither cheats nor lies,
      But self exposes unto self, a scroll
    Full writ with all life’s acts unwise or wise,
      In characters indelible and known;
    So, trembling with the shock of sad surprise,
      The soul doth view its awful self alone,
    Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.

    Ere sleep comes down to seal the weary eyes,
      The last dear sleep whose soft embrace is balm,
    And whom sad sorrow teaches us to prize
      For kissing all our passions into calm,
    Ah, then, no more we heed the sad world’s cries,
      Or seek to probe th’ eternal mystery,
    Or fret our souls at long-withheld replies,
      At glooms through which our visions cannot see,
    Ere sleep comes down to seal the weary eyes.

LIFE

    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 the 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!

_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 labor.

    They tread the fields where honor 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 labor’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.

WITH THE LARK

    Night is for sorrow and dawn is for joy,
    Chasing the troubles that fret and annoy;
    Darkness for sighing and daylight for song,--
    Cheery and chaste the strain, heartfelt and strong,
    All the night through, though I moan in the dark,
    I wake in the morning to sing with the lark.

    Deep in the midnight the rain whips the leaves,
    Softly and sadly the wood-spirit grieves.
    But when the first hue of dawn tints the sky,
    I shall shake out my wings like the birds and be dry;
    And though, like the rain-drops, I grieved through the dark,
    I shall wake in the morning to sing with the lark.

    On the high hills of heaven, some morning to be,
    Where the rain shall not grieve thro’ the leaves of the tree,
    There my heart will be glad for the pain I have known,
    For my hand will be clasped in the hand of mine own;
    And though life has been hard and death’s pathway been dark,
    I shall wake in the morning to sing with the lark.

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!
 

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