poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Born on June 27, 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition. His parents Joshua and Matilda Murphy Dunbar were freed slaves from Kentucky. His parents separated shortly after his birth, but Dunbar would draw on their stories of plantation life throughout his writing career. By the age of fourteen, Dunbar had poems published in the Dayton Herald. While in high school he edited the Dayton Tattler, a short-lived black newspaper published by classmate Orville Wright.

Despite being a fine student, Dunbar was financially unable to attend college and took a job as an elevator operator. In 1892, a former teacher invited him to read his poems at a meeting of the Western Association of Writers; his work impressed his audience to such a degree that the popular poet James Whitcomb Riley wrote him a letter of encouragement. In 1893, Dunbar self-published a collection called Oak and Ivy. To help pay the publishing costs, he sold the book for a dollar to people riding in his elevator.

Later that year, Dunbar moved to Chicago, hoping to find work at the first World's Fair. He befriended Frederick Douglass, who found him a job as a clerk, and also arranged for him to read a selection of his poems. Douglass said of Dunbar that he was "the most promising young colored man in America." By 1895, Dunbar's poems began appearing in major national newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times. With the help of friends, he published the second collection, Majors and Minors (1895). The poems written in standard English were called "majors," and those in dialect were termed "minors." Although the "major" poems outnumber those written in dialect, it was the dialect poems that brought Dunbar the most attention. The noted novelist and critic William Dean Howells gave a favorable review to the poems in Harper's Weekly.

This recognition helped Dunbar gain national and international acclaim, and in 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England. He also brought out a new collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). Upon returning to America, Dunbar received a clerkship at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and shortly thereafter he married the writer Alice Ruth Moore. While living in Washington, Dunbar published a short story collection, Folks from Dixie, a novel entitled The Uncalled, and two more collections of poems, Lyrics of the Hearthside and Poems of Cabin and Field (1899). He also contributed lyrics to a number of musical reviews.

In 1898, Dunbar's health deteriorated; he believed the dust in the library contributed to his tuberculosis and left his job to dedicate himself full time to writing and giving readings. Over the next five years, he would produce three more novels and three short story collections. Dunbar separated from his wife in 1902, and shortly thereafter he suffered a nervous breakdown and a bout of pneumonia. Although ill and drinking too much in attempt to soothe his coughing, Dunbar continued to write poems. His collections from this time include Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903), Howdy, Howdy, Howdy (1905), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (1905). These books confirmed his position as America's premier black poet. Dunbar's steadily deteriorating health caused him to return to his mother's home in Dayton, Ohio, where he died on February 9, 1906, at the age of thirty-three.


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

A Negro Love Song

Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872 - 1906
Seen my lady home las' night,
    Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hel' huh han' an' sque'z it tight,
    Jump back, honey, jump back.
Hyeahd huh sigh a little sigh,
Seen a light gleam f'om huh eye,
An' a smile go flittin' by--
    Jump back, honey, jump back.

Hyeahd de win' blow thoo de pine,
    Jump back, honey, jump back,
Mockin'-bird was singin' fine,
    Jump back, honey, jump back.
An' my hea't was beatin' so,
When I reached my lady's do',
Dat I couldn't ba' to go--
    Jump back, honey, jump back.

Put my ahm aroun' huh wais',
    Jump back, honey, jump back.
Raised huh lips an' took a tase,
    Jump back, honey, jump back.
Love me, honey, love me true?
Love me well ez I love you?
An' she answe'd, "'Cose I do"--
    Jump back, honey, jump back.

From Selected Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Herbert Woodward Martin. Reprinted courtesy of Penguin Classics.

From Selected Poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Herbert Woodward Martin. Reprinted courtesy of Penguin Classics.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

One of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition, Paul Laurence Dunbar is the author of many books of poetry.

by this poet

poem

When summer time has come, and all
The world is in the magic thrall
Of perfumed airs that lull each sense
To fits of drowsy indolence;
When skies are deepest blue above,
And flow'rs aflush,—then most I love
To start, while early dews are damp,
And wend my way in woodland tramp

poem

              The oriole sings in the greening grove
                          As if he were half-way waiting,
                          The rosebuds peep from their hoods of green,
                          Timid and hesitating.
The rain comes down in a torrent sweep
poem
Out in the sky the great dark clouds are massing;
   I look far out into the pregnant night,
Where I can hear a solemn booming gun
   And catch the gleaming of a random light,
That tells me that the ship I seek is passing, passing.

My tearful eyes my soul's deep hurt are glassing;
   For I would hail and check