Black American Poets and Dramatists: Before the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Poets and Dramatists: Before the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Poets and Dramatists: Before the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Poets and Dramatists: Before the Harlem Renaissance

Excerpt

Paul Laurence Dunbar, greatly esteemed as a poet in his own brief lifetime (he died at thirty-three, of tuberculosis and alcoholic complications), seems today the major African-American poet before Sterling Brown and Robert Hayden.A writer rarely has been appreciated by so diverse a body of admirers as Dunbar: his circle of readers included President Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of State John Hay, the novelist William Dean Howells, the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the poets James Whitcomb Riley and James Weldon Johnson, and the most prominent black leaders: Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass. Reading through Dunbar's Complete Poems now, one sees why his early appeal was so universal, despite his limitations. Whether he writes in dialect or not, his concerns are central and traditional while his emphasis and accent are individual, to a surprising degree. I have been haunted for years by his agonistic meditation, "The Mystery," where the honesty of a desperate spirit's quest issues in a strong closure:

I question of th' eternal bending skies
That seem to neighbor with the novice earth;
But they roll on and daily shut their eyes
On me, as I one day shall do on them,
And tell me not the secret that I ask.

Shelley's agnosticism is alluded to earlier, in the poem's deliberate echo of "To a Skylark": "I fain would look before / And after, but can neither do." Dunbar frequently writes variations upon Shelley, whose skepticism seems to me the dominant poetic influence upon the first major African-American poet. The celebrated lyric, "We Wear the Mask," blends an analysis of apparent black good humor with a Shelleyan ontological lament that transcends social injustice without neglecting its pervasiveness.Dunbar's lyric masterpiece in the Shelleyan mode of Promethean complaint in his hypnotic "Ere Sleep Comes Down to Soothe the Weary Eyes," a poem that Shelley (and Poe) would have admired, and yet also might have seen as Dunbar's tragic failure to cast out remorse, a polemic crucial to Shelley's battle against Christian morality. Something permanently poignant in Dunbar's poetry results from the conflict between his acceptance of the Promethean denunciation of remorse, and his cultural sensitivity to suffering and pain. Bitterness, diagnosed . . .

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