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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Paul Laurence Dunbar Part Two

(This chapter has been divided into two parts due to its length - Editor)


Part Two



      What Dunbar's poetry as a whole seems to lack is sustained religious feeling.  At times he had it, and at times not.  Some of his poems were painfully hopeless in tone.  "Behind the Arras" would have brought bitterer tears to the eyes of his friends, if before his death he had not written "A Hymn."



            "As in some dim baronial hall restrained

            A prisoner sits, engirt by secret doors

            And waving tapestries that argue forth

            Strange passages into the outer air:

            So in this dimmer room which we call life

            Thus sits the soul and marks with eye intent

            That Mystic curtain o'er the portal, death:

            Still deeming that behind the arras lies

            The lambent way that leads to lasting light.

            Poor fooled and foolish soul! Know now that death

            Is but a blind, false door that nowhere leads

            And gives no hope of exit, final, free."



                  Lead gently. Lord, and slow,

                        For oh, my steps are weak,

                   And even as I go,

                        Some soothing sentence speak,


                  That I may turn my face,

                        Through doubt's obscurity,

                  Toward thine abiding-place,

                        E'en tho' I cannot see.


                  For lo! the way is dark;

                        Through mist and cloud I grope;

                  Save for that fitful spark,

                        The little flame of hope.


                  Lead gently, Lord, and slow,

                        For fear that I may fall;

                  I know not where to go,

                        Unless I hear thy call.


                  My fainting soul doth yearn

                        For thy green hills afar;

                  So let thy mercy born,

                        My greater, guiding star.


      That the poet had a profound sense of infinity can never be doubted after reading- this stanza:


            Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.

            How questioneth the soul that other soul---

            The inner sense which neither cheats nor lies,

            But self exposes unto self, a scroll

            Full writ with all life's acts unwise or wise,

            In characters indelible and known:

            So trembling with the shock of sad surprise

            Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes."


                                    *           *           *

            "When all is done and my last word is said,

            And ye who loved me murmur 'He is dead,'

            Let no one weep for fear that I should know

            And sorrow too that ye should sorrow so.

            When all is done say not my day is o'er,

            And that thro' night I seek a dimmer shore:

            Say rather that my morn has just begun,---

            I greet the dawn and not a setting sun,

            When all is done."


      The mingled tragedy of Paul Dunbar's life may be read between the lines.  The singing bird in a cage; the worker shut away from the sunlight in a mine; the painter who lays down his brushes as sight fails; not one of these expresses the sorrow of a soul forever denied the fullest acceptance by his fellow mortals, because of the accident of birth.  Joy and bitterness emphasized each other in his history.  If sometimes he was forced to doubt that any door led outward to lasting light, he eventually learned to pray;


            "I do not ask that Thou shalt front the fray,

                  And drive the warring foeman from my sight,

            I only ask, 0 Lord, by night and day,

                  Strength for the fight."


      It is in his militant moments that we must leave him.  Lapses into doubt and discontent afflict us all at times.  A black skin would make cravens of the strongest of us, with or without the poet soul. He lived, loved, suffered, endured, sang, worked, and wanted, and so, is gone.


            "Because I have loved so vainly

                  And sung with such faltering breath,

            The master in infinite mercy

                  Offers the boon of Death."

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