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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 (Hadley & Hadley, 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 (Dodd, Mead and Co., 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 (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1898), a novel entitled The Uncalled (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1898), and two more collections of poems, Lyrics of the Hearthside (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1899) and Poems of Cabin and Field (Dodd, Mead and Co., 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 (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903), Howdy, Howdy, Howdy (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1905), and Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903). 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.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow(Dodd, Mead and Co., 1905)
Howdy, Howdy, Howdy (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1905)
Lyrics of Love and Laughter (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1903)
Lyrics of the Hearthside (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1899)
Poems of Cabin and Field (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1899)
Lyrics of Lowly Life (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1896)
Majors and Minors (Hadley & Hadley, 1895)

Prose
Folks from Dixie (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1898)
The Uncalled (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1898)

Speakin’ O’ Christmas

Breezes blowin’ middlin’ brisk,
Snow-flakes thro’ the air a-whisk,
Fallin’ kind o’ soft an’ light,
Not enough to make things white,
But jest sorter siftin’ down
So ’s to cover up the brown
Of the dark world’s rugged ways
’N’ make things look like holidays.
Not smoothed over, but jest specked,
Sorter strainin’ fur effect,
An’ not quite a-gittin’ through
What it started in to do.
Mercy sakes! it does seem queer
Christmas day is ’most nigh here.
Somehow it don’t seem to me
Christmas like it used to be,—
Christmas with its ice an’ snow,
Christmas of the long ago.
You could feel its stir an’ hum
Weeks an’ weeks before it come;
Somethin’ in the atmosphere
Told you when the day was near,
Did n’t need no almanacs;
That was one o’ Nature’s fac’s.
Every cottage decked out gay—
Cedar wreaths an’ holly spray—
An’ the stores, how they were drest,
Tinsel tell you could n’t rest;
Every winder fixed up pat,
Candy canes, an’ things like that;
Noah’s arks, an’ guns, an’ dolls,
An’ all kinds o’ fol-de-rols.
Then with frosty bells a-chime,
Slidin’ down the hills o’ time,
Right amidst the fun an’ din
Christmas come a-bustlin’ in,
Raised his cheery voice to call
Out a welcome to us all;
Hale and hearty, strong an’ bluff,
That was Christmas, sure enough.
Snow knee-deep an’ coastin’ fine,
Frozen mill-ponds all ashine,
Seemin’ jest to lay in wait,
Beggin’ you to come an’ skate.
An’ you’d git your gal an’ go
Stumpin’ cheerily thro’ the snow,
Feelin’ pleased an’ skeert an’ warm
’Cause she had a-holt yore arm.
Why, when Christmas come in, we
Spent the whole glad day in glee,
Havin’ fun an’ feastin’ high
An’ some courtin’ on the sly.
Burstin’ in some neighbor’s door
An’ then suddenly, before
He could give his voice a lift,
Yellin’ at him, “Christmas gift.”
Now sich things are never heard,
“Merry Christmas” is the word.
But it’s only change o’ name,
An’ means givin’ jest the same.
There’s too many new-styled ways
Now about the holidays.
I’d jest like once more to see
Christmas like it used to be!

This poem appeared in The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922). It is in the public domain.

This poem appeared in The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (Dodd, Mead and Company, 1922). It is in the public domain.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in 1872 and the author of numerous collections of poetry and prose, was one of the first African American poets to gain national recognition.

by this poet

poem
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
poem

I was not; now I am—a few days hence
I shall not be; I fain would look before
And after, but can neither do; some Power
Or lack of power says “no” to all I would.
I stand upon a wide and sunless plain,
Nor chart nor steel to guide my steps aright.
Whene’er, o’ercoming fear, I dare to

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
             And the nights smell warm and