Poem #22: Paul Laurence Dunbar by James David Corrothers

Estimated Reading Time:  3.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitlePaul Laurence Dunbar

James David Corrothers

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


He came, a 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.
Dunbar, no poet wears your laurels now;
  None rises, singing, from your race like you.
  Dark melodist, immortal, though the dew
  Fell early on the bays upon your brow,
And tinged with pathos every halcyon vow
  And brave endeavor. Silence o’er you threw
  Flowerets of love. Or, if an envious few
  Of your own people brought no garlands, how
Could Malice smite him whom the gods had crowned?
  If, like the meadow-lark, your flight was low
  Your flooded lyrics half the hilltops drowned;
A wide world heard you, and it loved you so
  It stilled its heart to list the strains you sang,
  And o’er your happy songs its plaudits rang.


I found this dedication to Paul Laurence Dunbar (someone whose poems we'll cover in this series) rather charming. Invoking the Greek mythological references and intertwining them with Dunbar is doubly compelling. The first is because white culture so typically claims Greek mythology as its own culture--so to invoke Black people as intertwined and equally able to call upon this literary and cultural history reinforces the work of Dunbar and others who also made it their claim that they too are part of the American culture.  But it is also interesting to consider that much of Greek culture was influenced culturally and genetically by Africa societies (e.g. Egypt) and therefore, it is historically appropriate for Corrothers to make these connections with Dunbar.  

Beyond that, I love how Corrothers crafts Dunbar in the garb of a demi-god but not one who is known for violence but inspiration.  I'm also curious about the differences in the stanzas where the first one focuses largely on Dunbar as this demi-god (wielding "great Appolo's fire") where the second one frames him in the language of birds (halcyon, meadow-lark).  While I easily recalled that Apollo was the God of the sun, I forgot that he also operated in the realm of the arts, music, healing, prophecy, civilization, poetry, truth, intelligence, and several others. So associating Dunbar with Apollo's fire seems to be invoking some of these attributes (of which he was certainly worthy of).  Taken together, the poem works as a dedication to a person whose voice was inspiration and moved people, all through the work of words rather than violence. 

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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