A great short poem from one of America’s first modern black poets
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) was the son of African parents who had been slaves prior to the American Civil War. Dunbar also wrote novels and plays, as well as penning the lyrics for the 1903 musical comedy, In Dahomey – the first all-African-American musical that was ever produced on Broadway.
But it was as a poet – one of the first internationally popular African-American poets – that Dunbar would achieve real fame and success. He died young, of tuberculosis, aged just 33. Here is one of Dunbar’s most widely anthologised poems written in standard English (Dunbar also wrote poems in his local African-American dialect), ‘A Summer’s Night’, along with a brief analysis of it.
The night is dewy as a maiden’s mouth,
The skies are bright as are a maiden’s eyes,
Soft as a maiden’s breath the wind that flies
Up from the perfumed bosom of the South.
Like sentinels, the pines stand in the park;
And hither hastening, like rakes that roam,
With lamps to light their wayward footsteps home,
The fireflies come stagg’ring down the dark.
The poem is highly alliterative: indeed, it might almost be called an example of modern alliterative verse, it is so reminiscent of fourteenth-century alliterative English poetry: ‘maiden’s mouth’, ‘sentinels … stand’, ‘pines … park’, ‘hither hastening’, ‘rakes that roam’, ‘lamps to light’, ‘down the dark’.
This alliteration heightens the sensual nature of the poem, its almost erotic description of the warm evening. Describing the sights and sensations of a summer’s night, Dunbar also imparts an air of sensuality to the scene: ‘a maiden’s mouth’ (moist, too, like fresh dew), ‘a maiden’s breath’ (soft and sensuous), ‘perfumed bosom’ (rising and falling with the intake of that soft breath), ‘rakes that roam’ (in search of these pliant maidens, one suspects), and that Tennysonian touch, ‘fireflies’ (compare Tennyson’s erotic ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’).
‘A Summer’s Night’ is a fine short poem by one of America’s overlooked poets. Dunbar was writing before the celebrated Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and his poetry – whilst most certainly of its time, the 1890s – undoubtedly helped to pave the way for later poets, especially black American poets who would achieve the fame Dunbar enjoyed all too briefly.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Photograph of American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. From The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, published by Dodd, Mead and Company, 1913. No date given; subject died in 1906. Via Wikimedia Commons.
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I have a beautiful copy of Lyrics of Lowly Life, dedicated his mother. Published 1903. Still in pretty good shape. A treasure found hunting used bookstores back in Madison in the late 1980’s.