by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
A hush is over all the teeming lists,
And there is pause, a breath-space in the strife;
A spirit brave has passed beyond the mists
And vapors that obscure the sun of life.
And Ethiopia, with bosom torn,
Laments the passing of her noblest born.
She weeps for him a mother's burning tears--
She loved him with a mother's deepest love.
He was her champion thro' direful years,
And held her weal all other ends above.
When Bondage held her bleeding in the dust,
He raised her up and whispered, "Hope and Trust."
For her his voice, a fearless clarion, rung
That broke in warning on the ears of men;
For her the strong bow of his power he strung,
And sent his arrows to the very den
Where grim Oppression held his bloody place
And gloated o'er the mis'ries of a race.
And he was no soft-tongued apologist;
He spoke straightforward, fearlessly uncowed;
The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,
And set in bold relief each dark-hued cloud;
To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
And hurled at evil what was evil's due.
Through good and ill report he cleaved his way.
Right onward, with his face set toward the heights,
Nor feared to face the foeman's dread array,--
The lash of scorn, the sting of petty spites.
He dared the lightning in the lightning's track,
And answered thunder with his thunder back.
When men maligned him, and their torrent wrath
In furious imprecations o'er him broke,
He kept his counsel as he kept his path;
'Twas for his race, not for himself he spoke.
He knew the import of his Master's call,
And felt himself too mighty to be small.
No miser in the good he held was he,--
His kindness followed his horizon's rim.
His heart, his talents, and his hands were free
To all who truly needed aught of him.
Where poverty and ignorance were rife,
He gave his bounty as he gave his life.
The place and cause that first aroused his might
Still proved its power until his latest day.
In Freedom's lists and for the aid of Right
Still in the foremost rank he waged the fray;
Wrong lived; his occupation was not gone.
He died in action with his armor on!
We weep for him, but we have touched his hand,
And felt the magic of his presence nigh,
The current that he sent throughout the land,
The kindling spirit of his battle-cry.
O'er all that holds us we shall triumph yet,
And place our banner where his hopes were set!
Oh, Douglass, thou hast passed beyond the shore,
But still thy voice is ringing o'er the gale!
Thou'st taught thy race how high her hopes may soar,
And bade her seek the heights, nor faint, nor fail.
She will not fail, she heeds thy stirring cry,
She knows thy guardian spirit will be nigh,
And, rising from beneath the chast'ning rod,
She stretches out her bleeding hands to God!* * * * *
A. Van Jordan Comments:
In 1893, during the Chicago World’s Fair, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who was invited to recite a poem, met abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The World’s Fair being an international display case for racial essentialism, their meeting is a bit ironic at this venue. That two of the greatest minds writing about racial politics meet at an event to highlight racial differences on an international stage, merely cemented their need to publish their voices.
In this elegy for Douglass written by Dunbar, the use of sentence variety draped over lines of alternating rhyme continue to keep the precision of the rhyme fresh, without relying on a slant rhyme. Indeed, this poem’s iambic pentameter could be set to a metronome. Yes, there are moments when he will substitute a spondee for an iamb, but this happens in key moments within the poem—as when the speaker mentions Douglass, by name—and seldom. What Dunbar employs consistently is a variation in syntax that one never anticipates. The tension consistently builds between the syntax and the strict rhyme and meter. In this way, he’s able to infuse a flexibility within the form: a rhetoric and syntax that continues to unfold and change against a rhyme scheme and meter that rarely wavers, unless content/rhetoric calls for it. Indeed, this is not form for form’s sake; for Dunbar, form brings opportunity for flexibility within the confines of form’s exoskeleton.
Written in Dunbar-sestet stanzas, the poem opens with two sentences draped over six lines. Like the Petrarchan sonnet, Dunbar keeps his rhyme flexible in the shifting rhyme, but not in the pattern of the rhyme. For instance, the first two stanzas: S1: a, b, a, b, c, c. S2: d, e, d, e, f, f. Unlike the Petrarchan sonnet, he allows for the final couplet to end in a double rhyme. Once we get to the end of the poem, however, he uses a double couplet—another variation of pattern. The Dunbar sestet alternates the pattern and closes with a couplet. Nonetheless, in the beginning and throughout, the sentences are the true changeling. Here’s what these sentences look like without lineation: “A hush is over all the teeming lists, and there is a pause, a breath-space in the strife; a spirit brave has passed beyond the mists and vapors that obscure the sun of life. And Ethiopia, with bosom torn, Laments the passing of her noblest born.”
The second sentence is shorter and less complex with only a small non-restrictive clause— “with bosom torn”— in the middle of the independent clause. The first sentence is quite an anaconda. A complex sentence with modifiers that distend the image over two independent clauses: “A hush is over all the teeming lists, and there is a pause, a breath-space in the strife.” Each comma opens to a new image or a sharpening of the image that precedes it. The rhyme and meter, as they should, recede to the background. The pattern that develops is one of variation so intense over the course of the stanzas, that the breath of the meter is refreshing as it is also overwhelming in its crescendo in the last stanza, which is another variation with its octave.
Dunbar is moving within the tradition of the sestet while working beyond its constraints. Writing on the cusp of free verse’s inchoate years, Dunbar anticipates the voice of American poetry to come. Often cited for his fusion of American vernacular and the standard-English of classic English verse, he mastered both worlds, creating a new united world in his poems.
About A. Van Jordan:
A. Van Jordan is the author of Rise and MACNOLIA. Among other awards, Jordan has received the Whiting Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and the Pushcart Prize. Jordan teaches at the University of Texas at Austin and serves on the faculty at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
A. Van Jordan on Paul Laurence Dunbar
A. Van Jordan's Poetry Month Pick, April 15, 2008, from Poetry Daily.