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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 died on February 9, 1906, at the age of thirty-three.


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Phyllis

Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872 - 1906
Phyllis, ah, Phyllis, my life is a gray day,
     Few are my years, but my griefs are not few, 
Ever to youth should each day be a May-day,
     Warm wind and rose-breath and diamonded dew— 
Phyllis, ah, Phyllis, my life is a gray day.

Oh for the sunlight that shines on a May-day!
     Only the cloud hangeth over my life. 
Love that should bring me youth's happiest heyday
    Brings me but seasons of sorrow and strife; 
Phyllis, ah, Phyllis, my life is a gray day.

Sunshine or shadow, or gold day or gray day,
     Life must be lived as our destinies rule; 
Leisure or labor or work day or play day—
     Feasts for the famous and fun for the fool; 
Phyllis, ah, Phyllis, my life is a gray day.

This poem is in the public domain.

This poem is in the public domain.

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
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
poem
Air a-gittin' cool an' coolah, 
   Frost a-comin' in de night, 
Hicka' nuts an' wa'nuts fallin', 
   Possum keepin' out o' sight. 
Tu'key struttin' in de ba'nya'd, 
   Nary a step so proud ez his; 
Keep on struttin', Mistah Tu'key, 
   Yo' do' know whut time it is. 


Cidah press commence a-squeakin' 
   Eatin'
poem

Because I had loved so deeply,
Because I had loved so long,
God in His great compassion
Gave me the gift of song.

Because I have loved so vainly,