Paul Laurence Dunbar
Poet Laureate of the Negro Race
Mrs. Paul Laurence Dunbar
Prof. W. S. Scarborough
Reverdy C. Ransom
Reprinted from The A. M. E. Church Review
Reverdy C. Ransom
631 Pine Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
THE POET AND HIS SONG
(by) Alice M. Dunbar
Our notions upon the subject of Biography," says Carlyle, "may perhaps appear extravagant; but if an individual is really of consequence enough to have his life and character for public remembrance, we have always been of opinion that the public ought to be made acquainted with all the inward springs and relations of his character.
How did the world and the man's life, from his particular position, represent themselves to his mind? How did co-existing circumstances modify him from without; how did he modify these from within? With what endeavors and what efficacy rule over them; with what resistance and what suffering sink under them? * * * Few individuals, indeed, can deserve such a study; and many lives will be written, and, for the gratification of innocent curiosity, ought to be written, and read and forgotten, which are not, in this sense, biographies."
Thus Carlyle. It would seem then, that if one must write about a poet, the world would wish to know how and in what manner the great phenomena of Nature impressed him, for Nature is the mother of all poets and there can be no true poetry unless inspired deeply by the external world which men do not touch. If the poet was an urban child, if the wonder of star-filled nights, the mystery of the sea, the beauty of sunrise and sunset, the freshness of dewy morns, and the warm scent of the upturned sod filled him with no rapture, then he was no true poet, howsoever he rhymed. So if one wishes to get a correct idea of any poet whatever, he must delve beneath the mere sordid facts of life and its happenings; of so many volumes published in such and such a time; of the influence upon him of this or that author or school of poetry; of the friends who took up his time, or gave him inspiration, and, above all, one must see what the love of Nature has done for the poet.
Mere looking into the printed words may not always do this. Who knows what heart-full of suggestion may lie in one expression? Who can tell in how much one word may be, as Higginson has expressed it, "palaces to dwell in," "years of crowded passion in a phrase," "half a life concentrated in a sentence?" To the banal mind a phrase may be nothing but a sweet rhythm of language, a well-turned, well-chosen expression. To the one who may have had the chance of communion with the creative mind, ere it expressed its longings in words, the phrase may be all pregnant with suggestion.
Your true poet is a child of Nature and lies close to the great Mother-heart. Even though he were born in the city, where his out-look on trees and fields is an incidental and sporadic occurrence in his life, he senses the divine heart pulsing beneath all things, and when he is finally brought face to face with the wonders of out-of-doors, untouched by the desecrating hand of man, he bursts forth into song, released from the conventionalities of other men's verse.
This was true of Paul Dunbar. He was a child of the city, a small city, true, where Nature was not so ruthlessly crushed away from the lives of men. There were trees and flowers near home, and a never-to-be-forgotten mill-race, which swirled through all his dreams of boyhood and manhood. Like the true poet that he was, he reached out and groped for the bigness of out-of-doors, divining all that he was afterwards to see, and in his earlier verse expressing his intuitions, rather than his observations.
Love of nature was there, but the power to express this love was not. Instead, he harked back to the feeling of the race, and intuitively put their aspirations into song. Tennyson and Lowell meant much to him, because they had expressed his yearnings for the natural world, and his soul yearned toward their verse. The exquisite line, "When cows' come home along the bars—" how much of the English poet went into that line, and how much of the reminiscences of the earlier life of his family? More of the former, he always confessed.
Children love "The Seedling." It is good for them who are being initiated, city-wise, into the mysteries of planting and growth. It is scientific, without being technical—it is Tennyson's "Flower in the crannied wall," Americanized, brought down to the minds of little folks. The poet loved Tennyson, he walked with him in his earlier years, he confessed his indebtedness to him in his later days; he always praised him, and defended him hotly against the accusation of too much mere academic phrasing.
In the poem "Preparation" we see more of this groping toward the light; the urban child trying to throw off the meretriciousness of city life. Say what you will, or what Mr. Howells wills, about the "feeling the Negro life esthetically, and expressing it lyrically," it was in the pure English poems that the poet expressed himself. He may have expressed his race in the dialect poems; they were to him the side issues of his work, the overflowing of a life apart from his dearest dreams. His deepest sorrow he told in "The Poet."
He sang of life serenely sweet,
With now and then a deeper note.
From some high peals, high, yet remote,
He voiced the world's absorbing heat.
He sang of love when earth was young,
And love itself, was in its lays,
But, all, the world, it turned to praise
A jingle in a broken tongues.
This is a digression. "Preparation" is contemporaneous with "Discovered" and "Delinquent" but in the latter poems, he is feeling his way to make the laughter that the world will like; in the former, he is feeling his way to that true upward expression of the best in him. "A little bird sits in the nest and sings" is too much of Lowell to be true, "But the note is a prelude to better things," reflecting as in solution the thought of the "Vision of Sir Launfal." Our poet cast the poem aside as a thing of no worth, nor is it, except as it glimpses a bit of the soul within, like Lowell's clod "reaching up to a soul in grass and flowers."
Then came the experience on the lake. It was a never-to-be-forgotten summer. Opportunity and youth combined with poetry and the unsuspected beauty of the inland sea. Nature burst upon him with a surge. He knew now to the full the beauty of the gray days that he had dimly sung; the wind rising along the lake reeds and shivering premonition into thorn; the moon scudding before the wind clouds like a pale wraith with flung-back hair; the storm, never so swift in its wrath as on the shores of a lake; these things entered into his soul like a revelation. This, then, was what it all meant— these quivering fears and wonders of the early spring. From a little boy, ha confessed, the spring filled him with longings, unexpressed, vague, terrible, like the fears of the night, which persisted long after manhood. What did it mean, this terrible loneliness, this longing for companionship, and disgust with mere human company? He knew now. Nature had called him, and he had not been able to heed her call, until the Lake told him how.
He had sung about "Merry Autumn" in the conventional manner; he had enumerated pictures in the "Song of Summah," and he had written many conventional spring poems, dialect and otherwise, from the point of view of the spectator, but now began that passionate oneness with Nature, that was not to leave him until he deliberately turned his back upon her.
Beginning with that summer, he began to learn how to store up pictures in the mind as Wordsworth did. He began, mind you, only began to learn how to accumulate experiences that would later burst red-hot in one phrase, one line, one stanza that combined a month's experiences, a season's joy, a year's longing in them. It is only the true poet-heart that can do this. Whether or not it may be able to express it in rhythm, or metre, or music, or painting, or express it at all, is a more matter of no moment. If these accumulated experiences he stifled in the sweet darkness of the heart, that is no matter, they have been; it is enough.
This faculty of stored experiences swiftly phrased may be exquisitely traced in many a poem. There was in Washington a bare, red-clay hill, open to the sun, barren of shade on its highest point, steep of ascent, boldly near the sky—truly, almost a "heaven-kissing hill." Daily walks on the hill fulminate in one line in "Love's Apotheosis," the sun-kissed hill." The white arc light of the corner lamp, filtering through the arches of the maples on Spruce street, make for the tender suggestion in "Lover's Lane," where the lovers walk side by side under the "shadder-mekin' " trees. Up in the mountains of the Catskills, where the rain fell often in July days, more often than the lover of out-door sports would relish, there was one little phoebe-bird, who would sing plaintively through all the rain, ending with a mournful chirp when the sun shone out at last. His little song through the disappointing storm was infinitely cheering, and often finds expression in the song of the human bird who listened to him.
An' it's moughty ha'd a-hopin'
W'en de clouds is big an' black,
An' all de t'ings you's waited fu'
Has failed—er gone to wrack—
But des keep on a jogg'in' wid a little bit of song,
De mo'n is allus brightah w'en de night's been long.
"Keep a Song Up on De Way" enshrines both the little bird and the beloved water-fall that boomed all night under the windows. The first and third stanzas were merrily conceived and merrily written, a "compliment to the persistent bird."
Oh, de clouds is mighty heavy—
(The cloud wraiths used to creep down the mountain side and literally camp in the front yard, so that one went stumbling about in the mixture of cloud and mist.),
An' de rain is mighty thick;
Keep a song' up on de way.
And de waters is a rumblin'
On de boulders in de crick,
Keep a song up on de way.
Fu' a bird ercross de road
Is a-singin' lak he knowed
Dat we people didn't daih
Fu' to try de rainy aih
Wid a song up on de way.
The power of keen observation grows in arithmetical ratio as the soul divests itself of the littlenesses of life, the mere man-made ambitions, the ignoble strivings after place. The poet found new joy in the patch-work greenery of the mountains spread out at his feet; in the lights and shades on the fields of rye and corn and wheat and buckwheat, making the mountains seem as if Mother Nature had cunningly embroidered a huge cover for her summer dress. When he discovered, on the first visit, that the ground of the potato fields was violet, he cried aloud for joy. It had been a hard struggle to see that the light turned violet in the shadows under the vines, but when the realization came home, it was an exquisite sensation, worthy to be enshrined in a tender line. Thereafter, the mountains meant more than they had before, and subsequent visits always held out a promise of new things to be keenly detected and shoutingly announced. The waterfall that droned all night, save when, swollen with pride by the rain, it roared; the rain pouring down slantwise through the skies across the fields; the clouds casting great shadows athwart the mountain sides may have been forgotten those summers, yet, trick-like, they return here and there in unexpected places, showing how deeply they had become a part of "that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude," of which Wordsworth sings. "The bird's call and the water's drone," and the "water-fall that sang all night," from "The Lost Dream," were but single instances of the stored-up memories expressed years after the summers in the Catskills were them-selves fragments of forgotten days.
In the little poem "Rain-Songs" he sings:
The rain streams down like harp-strings from the sky,
The wind, that world-old harpist, sitteth by;
And ever, as he sings his low refrain,
He plays upon the harp-strings of the rain.
This came long after the simile of the harp-strings had been discovered, exulted over and laid aside on the tables of his memory.
One more recollection of those days in the mountains is worth recording. The first time the song of the whip-poor-will came to him, he was amused. Plaintive it is to all who hear it for the first time, but to him it suggested tattling, from its nervous haste, its gasping intake of breath, like a little boy trying to clear himself from fault, yet half pleading that his companion in misdeeds be let go unpunished. The poet queried with much anxiety of every one on the place, was the cry "Whip-poor-will" a command, or was it "Whip-poor-will" a pathetic question and hoping of Will's final exoneration? It was a whimsical turn that he gave to the cry of the night-bird, and the shrill insistence of the katy-did in the little poem "Whip-poor-Will and Katy-Did," when he wants to know why one must "Whip-poor-Will," when we know from the song of the insect that it was Katy who did?
This humorous outlook on Nature is a quaint turn of mind that few poets posses. Nature is stern, awful, sweet, sympathetic, lovable, but hardly humorous, so the world thinks. Yet where are there such exquisite manifestations of humor to be found in the man-made world about us? Nature's humor is grim sometimes, tricksy sometimes, dainty ofttimes, and sternly practical many times. To view life with humor is as Nature intended us to do. The gods must laugh, else where did men learn how?
This apropos of West Medford, Massachusetts. Here he visited thrice, and confessed that the place held for him the charm of hallowed association, which all the country near Boston must have for the world born outside Massachusetts, which still rules the minds of the hoi polloi with the potent sway of the nearest approach in this country to anything like reposeful ease and culture. But historic spots and monuments and powder mills of Revolutionary fame and battle-fields meant but little after a while to the poet. Middlesex county abounds in rivers—were they fishable ? Fishing was his one pastime, which he loved ardently, passionately, with the devotion of the true fisherman. Was there a river? Then the next question, "How is the "fishing?" Walton's "Compleat Angler," is all right to read, but better to live. Anyhow it contains too many recipes for cooking. Van Dyke's "Fisherman's Luck" is better, particularly as the book is dedicated to the "Lady in Gray." Fishing and the color gray! His favorite sport and color; an unforgettable combination.
So the streams in the Catskills were deliciously suggestive of mountain trout, and even native indolence and poor health did not prevent him from arising one Fourth of July morning at three o'clock, and taking with him all the valiant souls who would go, to hie them to an over-fished stream, where the most carefully chosen flies only the trout sniff and flirt themselves arrogantly; and where the unsportsmanlike women, having found a cool pool to use as a refrigerator, were stupid enough to try to tempt sophisticated suckers to bite - and that after a fierce cannonading of fire-crackers in honor of their early patriotism.
So West Medford suggested fishing, wonderful possibilities. What though Longfellow had enshrined the Mystic in the Hall of Fame by the lines in Paul Revere's Ride? That was no matter. Anything as brown and dimpled and slow as that river must be fishable. Thus he decided on his first visit and came back to investigate when there was more time, and lo! The result he humorously enshrined in the "Ballade."
By Mystic's bank I held my dream,
(I held my fishing rod as well) ;
The vision was of dace and bream,
A fruitless vision, sooth to tell.
Oh, once loved, sluggish, darkling stream,
For me no more thy waters swell,
Thy music now the engines' scream,
Thy fragrance now the factory's smell.
Thy wooded lanes with shade and gleam
Where bloomed the fragrant asphodel.
Poor Mystic! "Arcadia now has trolley lines," mourns the poet, and so wends his way home to put up his fishing rod, and pack away the reel until the streams of the Rocky Mountains lure the basket and rod out again.
To the soul born inland, the sea is always a revelation, and a wonder-working experience in the life. The man born near the sea, who has been reared near its beauty and wonder, whose soul has learned early in life to enter into its moods, to understand its gentleness and not to fear its grimness, whose life has been attuned to the roar of the breakers and the purl of its littlest white waves, such a man can scarcely understand the rush and uplift that comes to the inland man who sees the ocean in his maturity for the first time. Such was the tidal wave that swept over the poet when the ocean burst upon his view. And like all those born inland, when once the fascination of the sea possesses them, it becomes more exquisitely a part of the whole nature than even it does in the case of the ore born on the shores of the sea. When the sea became a part of the poet's life, it wrapped itself naturally into his verse— but hardly ever disassociated from the human element. Humanity and the ocean melted into one indistinguishable mist, even as Wordsworth's moors were always peopled with one shadowy figure so indistinct that it merged into the grayness of the horizon. There is no hint of the sea, save from the hearsay point, in the first published volume of poems, but before the second came, Narragansett Pier had opened his eyes to the mystic beauty of the ocean, and his soul to its turbulence. The journey to England made him familiar with the gray nothingness of mid-ocean, and life subsequently meant frequent pilgrimages to the seashore. Gray skies and gray sea; these meant most to him; sombreness and gloom seemed part of the real meaning of the ocean. One need not seek in the life of the poet a kinship between love of the serious aspects of nature and a fancied wrong or injury in life. Because Milton always loved the moon veiled in clouds is no reason why we should conclude that early and unfortunate loves left him unable to view skies moonlit and cloudless without sorrow. Because Keats found passionate intensity of emotion in the mere aspect of Grecian beauty, a passion that saddened him, is no reason why we should conclude that Greece had wronged him or that beauty had wrecked his life. A poet is a poet because he understands; because he is born with a divine kinship with all things, and he is a poet in direct ratio to his power of sympathy.
Something of this, emanating from his own experience the poet shows in his poem "Sympathy."
"I know what the caged bird feel, alas!"
The iron grating of the book stacks in the Library of Congress suggested to him the bars of the bird's cage. June and July days are hot. All out of doors called and the trees of the shaded streets of Washington were tantalizingly suggestive of his beloved streams and fields. The torrid sun poured its rays down into the courtyard of the library and heated the iron grilling of the book stacks until they were like prison bars in more senses than one. The dry dust of the dry books (ironic incongruity!—a poet shut up in an iron cage with medical works), rasped sharply in his hot throat, and he understood how the bird felt when it beat its wings against its cage.
When he went down to Arundel-on-the-Bay—picturesque name of a picturesque place—he was thrilled as though stepping on hallowed ground. This was the Eastern Shore that. gave birth to Doug-lass. More than the Boston Common, which memorized Attucks and deified Robert Gould Shaw and inspired his best sonnets, this was near the home of the idol of his youthful dreams, the true friend of his enthusiastic youth. The place was wild after the fashion of the shore of the Chesapeake; it seemed almost home to him—and the fishing was excellent. He enshrined it in his memory, and later came the poem "The Eastern Shore." It was written months after the lure of the bay had been forgotten when the skies swirled snow down on a shivering city, and the mind warmed the body as it harked back to the hot days of July under the burning skies and over the clean-washed sands of the Chesapeake Bay. One more poem the eastern shore inspired, "The Memory of Martha." The story "The Memory of Martha" being finished, the poet found himself rushed onward with a mighty sympathy for the man he had created, whose wife had left him" for the unknown. It was the poet-heart throbbing in sympathy with the woes of the universe. He was the old husband, mourning his loss, even as when he wrote "Two Little Boots"; he was, for the time being, the broken-hearted mother, mourning over the little shoes. He wept as he wrote the poem, both poems in fact, and then laughed at his own tears—no immediate animus for either poem, just the overflowing of an understanding soul over a fancied grief.
Sometimes with him the memory of the words of another author commingled with a landscape, and then there is a rare combination of verse. It was when in the dire grip of pneumonia that the oft-reiterated desire, perhaps delirious, certainly comic, came for "A bear story, just one little bear story," to be read aloud to him. Blessed fortune it was then that Ernest Thompson-Seton was just giving to the world his inimitable "Wild Animals I Have Known," and fever or no fever, the poet must revel into forgetfulness of pain in listening to the woes of Raggy-lug, and the too canny wolves and bears. It made a review of the "Jungle Book" a delightful process, and invited a re-persual of Bliss Carman's poems. When the Catskills burst upon his delighted vision a while later, what more natural than that "To the Road," with its hint of Carman should enshrine the little white road winding up the mountain side?
Cool is the wind, for the summer is waning—
Who's for the road?
Sun-flecked and soft where the dead leaves are raining,
Knapsack and alpenstock press hand and shoulder—
Merriment hare, loud and long, because any old dead branch when carried on a walk became dignified by the name of alpenstock, and the leather chatelaine purse of the companion in tramping became a knapsack.
The "Forest Greeting" enshrined both Kipling and Thompson-Seton. "Good Hunting," from the cry of the wood brothers in the "Jungle Book," but the mourning was for the wounded animals, the funeral wail of the little ones left alone to whose sufferings Thompson-Seton was the first to call attention in an unsentimental way.
All this newly-acquired love of the wee things of Nature and life had taught him to let the smallest suggestions find expression in the quaintest turns of comic verse. The east winds from the Massachusetts Bay howl around the houses of West Medford, and their piercing "Woo-oo-ee!" suggested the "Boogah Man," written for the very tiny maiden of two years, who persisted in hugging his avuncular shoes when he wanted to write sonnets about Harriet Beecher Stowe and Robert Gould Shaw. How can one work? he asked fretfully, and then burst laughingly into "How's a poet to write a sonnet, can you tell?" And so dashed off the poem on scrap paper, and read it aloud to the small maiden, who thereupon suggested that the "Woo-oo" of the wind was a "Boogah Man." So that was written immediately, dramatizing it as he wrote, much to her delight.
The dramatic instinct was strong behind the delicate perception of the power of suggestion. One must dramatize the poems as they were written, white hot. So, when "The Dance" and "The Valse" were penned, the metre must be dramatized in order to get it right; anapestic tetrameter admits of no limping lines; so one must waltz, humming the lines in order that there be no faulty rhythm. It was well that there were good dancers in the household to be sure there would be correct metre. "Whistling Sam" was troublesome. All had to whistle Sam's tunes, and then the music tether must come and play them out on the piano, and transcribe the musical notation to be sure there were no mistakes.
Suggestion - the power of making one idea bring out a poem apparently foreign to the original thought - was never more humorously exemplified than in "Lias" and "Dat Ol' Mare o' Mine," both products of that winter in Colorado. "Dat Ol' Mare" was a weird and eccentric maiden horse of uncertain age and dubious ancestry, whose ideas were diametrically opposed to any preconceived notions one might suppose horses in general and Colorado horses m particular to have. But she would come home "on de ve'y da'kest night," without guidance, even if she did betray doubtful pro-ownership in the day-time when an exasperated and embarrassed woman drove her into Arapahoe street, the end of the ranch road, upon which street she would make frequent, unpsychological and embarrassing stops. But she would come home unguided and sure, hence "Dat Ol' Mare o' Mine."
There never was a "Lias," except generically, but maternal adjurations as to the beauty of the life of the despised early worm, and the "early to rise" maxim generally was greeted with Homeric laughter, and culminated in poor abused "Lias."
Colorado! As much of a revelation of Nature as the sea! But here was a new mother, more stern, less sure, never so capable of intimacy. Magnificent sweep of mountain range visible from the windows of the tiny house on the ranch—one hundred and fifty miles of Rocky Mountains, from Pike's Peak to Long's Peak, with all the unnamed spurs in between! Unsurpassed sunsets, wonderful sunrises that flushed the eastern prairies, and reflected back on the snows of the mountains in the west, so that the universe went suffused in a riotous prismatic color scheme; the meadow lark perched on the eaves of the house, tossing golden liquid sweetness to the high clear heavens; cowboys herding unwilling cattle across the horizon, miles and miles away; clear ozone, thin air which pierced the lungs and made them expand, sharp extremes in January from 60 degrees above to 30 degrees below. Here was Nature, untamed, unconfined, unfamiliar, wild. It went to the head like new wine, and ideas came rushing, fulminating, fructifying. One forgot sometimes, and it became comic when forgetting that the altitude of Denver and the surrounding land of 5200 feet or more was just becoming familiar; one rushed fearlessly into the higher strata of other towns, like Leadville and Colorado Springs, and was brought sharp up against the stubborn fact that rarity of air is not to be tampered with by the tenderfoot.
But the longing for the beloved East persisted, and though two novels and some short stories came forth that winter, the verse halted because the heart was elsewhere. "A Warm Day in Winter" and "Spring Fever" are both suggestive of the East, yet both were descriptive of days in Harmon. In the darkness of the night came the sound of a herd of cattle, padding feet echoing through closed doors, and so the simile of a race struggling slowly through the dark was born, and the poem "Slow Through the Dark" came to life:
Slow moves the pageant of a climbing race;
Their footsteps drag far, far below the height—
The spectacle of a small caravan climbing the heights of the mountains in the far distance, up the steep winding road that crept whitely out of sight across the snow-capped boulders, was pregnant with the same suggestion. So came to his mind "By Rugged Ways":
By rugged ways and through the night
We struggle blindly toward the light.
These two poems were always among his favorites. The darker side of the problems of the race life was being brought home more and more forcibly to him as he grew older, and the stern ruggedness of nature in the Rocky Mountains forced him to a realization of the grim problems of the world's work.
As the herd of cattle climbing the sides of the mountain suggested something more than insensate animals struggling toward food and shelter, so the trifle of a brick side yard, damp and shut in by high brick walls of the two houses on each side, made for a riot of odd little poems. There were many poems born out of the fulness of the heart, out of a suggestion of long ago, from a picture, from a book, from a chance expression. Many were truly lyrical in that they were the record of the "best and happiest moments," as Shelley cuts it. So many were truly poetic in that they were the record of the divine oneness with all mankind and all nature, and so many were like that group of November poems in that they were merely experiments in the power of suggestion.
If a short brick walk between two brick walls of two city houses does not suggest a cloistered walk of a monastery, what, then, does it suggest? And if that walk be damp, as perforce it must be, and if violet beds grow on the side, wild rank things, pushing through the brick crevices and allowed to remain because the inmates of the house are sentimentally fond of violets—even wild ones that grow in city back yards—what more natural than that all kinds of cool, damp, cloistered ideas will emanate from the tiny spot? So in one dies mirabilis were born "To a Violet Found on All Saint's Day," "The Monk's Walk," "The Murdered Lover," "Love's Castle," Weltschmertz," "My Lady of Castle Grand," and "In the Tents at Akbar."
It is a base libel, much advertised and bruited abroad, to label the exquisite "Violet Found on All Saints' Day" as a vulgar premonition. Within the one little flower was all the lesson of "The Seedling," fruition now, less Tennyson, more filled with the understanding of maturity. The poet had been told by those near him, who once had lived in a Roman Catholic community, that on All Saints' Day every one goes to the cemeteries laden with flowers to lay on the graves of the loved lost ones. He had always loved the custom and ha remembered each All Saints' Day with a tender sympathy. So he saw in the violet not a premonition of despair, but a sweet effort on its part to bloom in memory of man's sorrows.
The chill November winds, following an unusually riotously beautiful Indian summer, waved the bird's nest in the Virginia creeper on the house next door, and "Weltschmertz" came forth, his deepest sympathy with all the woe of the world—complete universality of the true poet, nothing personal, merely infinite. The line "Count me a priest" betrays its cloister sisterhood. "The Monk's Walk" was near enough to the original idea of a monastery, but it evolved into the "Murdered Lover." The little walk grew to mean cloisters, castles, priests, knights—even "My Lady of Castle Grand," by the process of suggestion comes to life, for what so medieval as a castle with an inverted Lady of Shalott?
The medieval fancy ran riot then, and though it seems a far cry from Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" to Bayard Taylor's "Bedouin Love Song," yet such a bridge does the poet's fancy make from reality to dreamland, that all strange fancies clustered about that cloistered walk, and his imagination careened out into the desert sands "In the Tents of Akbar," because the "Murdered Lover" of the poem, written in the morning, suggested the murdered dancing girl under the burning skies, and the grief of Akbar rent his heart in the evening. It is the exceptional mind that drags its pitifully methodical way through conventional, well-worn grooves of thought. One who thinks at all thinks by leaps and bounds, ranging all the universe, touching but tangentially the thought suggested by the last thought, and then winging swift flight elsewhere. Else wherefore think? One might as well ruminate. The poet puts wings to his words, as Homer phrases it, "winged words," and lo, a poem is born. And three or four great poems may have the same trivial place of conception, or a great soul-shaking experience may culminate in a line. Else why write poetry?
The power of Mother Nature having once entered into the poet-soul, it could never leave altogether. When the day came that he turned his back upon her deliberately, she did not avenge herself, but persisted in the haunting lire, the pregnant phrase, the tender mood, albeit dimmer in each succeeding poem. For she gathers all her children to her breast and croons them melodies that will last through all eternity, if they will have them last; and even when the petulant children stop their ears, the inward ear listens to the great mother heart and heeds its call.
Return to "Paul Laurence Dunbar - Poet Laureate" Home Page