Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar
A few years ago, when Mr. Thomas Nelson Page's first volume of dialect stories was being reviewed by the press, the critic of a Western newspaper, in undertaking to do his own full share of justice to the subject, took occasion to congratulate the negro race in America upon the fact that at last an author of their own had appeared who would write of it as no white man ever could! Mr. Paul Lawrence Dunbar lives not far from the city in which Mr. Page was thus supposed to be an African; and he may have heard of the mistake and have resolved that in his own case nothing of the sort should happen. At least, in putting out his volume of poems, entitled Majors and Minors, he has supplied a picture of himself, which can leave no one in doubt, that whatever Mr. Page may be, he, Mr. Dunbar, is a male being of the coloured race. Ordinarily, it is a mistake, of course, for a poet or for a prose writer—to present his portrait until he is asked for it; and we know one modest author who upholds that usually a request of this kind can come with perfect grace from posterity alone. In the case of Mr. Dunbar, however, there is some excuse for this pictorial misdemeanour; for had his photograph been lacking, and had no hint of his racial identity been given by means of an author's or publisher's note—or by one of those Maecean-like introductions by which some small writer of the day patronises the work of some other small writer of the day—it is safe to assert that the above-mentioned debonair critic of the West would have supposed him to be a white man. It is safe to assert, also, that accepted as an Anglo-Saxon poet, he would have received little or no consideration in a hurried weighing of the mass of contemporary verse.

But Mr. Dunbar, as his pleasing, manly, and not unrefined face shows, is a poet of the African race; and this novel and suggestive fact at once places his work upon a peculiar footing of interest, of study, and of appreciative welcome. So regarded, it is a most remarkable and hopeful production. If any other member of his race has attained any more flexible or obedient command over metrical form, in fitting the outer grace to the inner grace, any more varied shifting of the measures to suit the varying fancies, any broader sweep across some of the illimitable states of meditation, any deeper yearning for the great heights of the spirit, his work is not known to the writer of these lines, and he would be glad to know where it is to be found. There are three things illustrated in Mr. Dunbar's volume that will be of especial interest to the scientific students of his race: the negro's gift in telling a story, illustrated in the humorous and dialect pieces; the negro's serious revelation of his passion of Love; and perhaps of far greater importance just at present, the negro's sense of rhythm of verbal melody. Of the last, the entire collection of poems is a triumphant, well-nigh unerring demonstration. The verses called "The Poet and his Song" afford a good example of the author's perfect ease, his sincerity, his sensitiveness to the outer world, his limited philosophy of life, and the sweetness and pathos in the temper of his race. We give three verses of the poem.

A song is but a little thing,
And yet what joy it is to sing.
In hours of toil it gives me zest.
And when at eve I long for rest
When cows come home along the bars,
And in the fold I hear the bell,
As Night, the shepherd, herds his stars,
I sing my song, and all is well.

My days are never days of ease.
I till my ground and prune my trees.
When ripened gold is all the plain,
I put my sickle to the grain.
I labour hard and toil and sweat
While others dream within the dell;
But even while my brow is wet
I sing my song, and all is well.

Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot,
My garden makes a desert spot.
Sometimes a blight upon the tree
Takes all my fruit away from me;
And then with throes of bitter pain
Rebellious passions rise and swell;
But—life is more than fruit or grain,
And so I sing, and all is well.

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