Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1906

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A master of lyric verse, Paul Laurence Dunbar drew on many poetic traditions, writing mainly formal poetry. His famous rondeau, “We Wear the Mask,” below, was my model for learning the rondeau, a powerful form when used well, as Dunbar certainly did. The poet Nikki Giovanni was instrumental in helping bring his work to light as a poetic genius and one of the first African-American great poets to be recognized, even in his own, racially oppressive and segregated time. I also include below his poem, “Sympathy,” which inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Sympathy

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

We Wear the Mask

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

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 the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

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Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Human Rights, Poetry, Poetry in forms, Poets, Remembering Poets

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