A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
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!
Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906) was an American poet, novelist, and playwright. Born in Dayton, Ohio, to parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the American Civil War, Dunbar began to write stories and verse when still a child; he was president of his high school’s literary society, and he published his first poems at the age of 16 in a Dayton newspaper.
Dunbar’s work was praised by William Dean Howells, a leading editor associated with Harper’s Weekly, and Dunbar was one of the first African-American writers to establish an international reputation. He wrote the lyrics for the musical comedy In Dahomey (1903), the first all-African-American musical produced on Broadway. The musical later toured in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Dunbar’s work fell out of fashion for most of the 20th century in part because much of his work was written in the “Negro dialect” associated with the antebellum South, though he also used the Midwestern regional dialect, as in his poem “Sympathy” above. He also wrote novels in conventional English. However, since the late 20th century, scholars have become more interested in his work. Today, he is widely regarded as America’s first great Black poet. Contemporary champions include Addison Gayle, Jr., whose Oak and Ivy: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar, is considered a key contribution to Dunbar studies, and Nikki Giovanni, whose prose contribution to A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, edited by Jay Martin, hails Dunbar as “a natural resource of our people.”
Suffering from tuberculosis, which then had no cure, Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio at the age of 33.