18 pages 36 minutes read

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dawn

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1912

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

First published in 1895 in a collection that immediately found an admiring market, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Dawn”—a lyrical celebration of the quiet beauty of day’s first light—seems to epitomize late-century high Victorian poetics in both form and theme. In an exquisitely compact four lines, the poem is carefully metered, carefully rhymed, and conforms to expectations about how a poem should look and sound dating back to antiquity. Thematically, the poem offers a reassuring insight into the beauty of nature drawing from the Romantics’ tradition dating back nearly a century and during which sensitive poets found unsuspected inspiration in the play of nature—an appreciation of the profligate richness nature displays.

The poem, however, is not extraordinary due to its form or theme, but its author. Dunbar was a 20-something African American, high school educated young man, working as an elevator operator in a bank building in downtown Dayton, Ohio. His second collection of poems, Majors and Minors—in which “Dawn” first appeared—offered Dunbar his first national recognition as a poet of genuine promise by a predominately white critical establishment that grappled with the implications of a Black man producing such white poetry. To quote William Dean Howells—the editor of Harper’s—Dunbar’s poetry embodied such “white thinking and white feeling in a black man.”

Poet Biography

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in Dayton, Ohio—the son of two freed slaves who migrated north from Kentucky after the war. Early, Dunbar heard stories of life on the plantation from his mother (his parents separated the year Dunbar was born). Gifted with an ear for language, he absorbed his mother’s Black southern dialect.

Dunbar knew he wanted to be a writer before he was 10. He published his first poem in a Dayton weekly newspaper at the age of 14. By the time he completed high school, Dunbar served as both the editor of his school’s Black newspaper and the president of its literary society. He dreamed of being a lawyer, but college was prohibitively expensive. Dunbar took a job running an elevator in Dayton’s 10-story Callahan Bank Building. He never stopped writing poems, short stories, and essays (often about the plight of Black Americans). When he was 20, Dunbar was contacted by a former high school teacher to give a reading at the annual meeting of the Western Association of Writers in Dayton. Since its inception in 1885, the Association helped aspiring writers throughout the Midwest to network with publishers. There, Dunbar recited several of his poems and earned enthusiastic praise. Although Dunbar lavished extensive effort on finely crafted and elegantly lyrical poems in the tradition of British Romanticism, what the audience (and in turn the publishers) responded to were Dunbar’s poems set in the plantation era and that made use of the vernacular of barely educated slaves. The work proved highly popular and was a reflection of Antebellum nostalgia which rose with the influx of the sciences and the explosion of cities.

In 1893, Dunbar self-published his first volume of poems, Oak and Ivy. He sold the book on street corners in Dayton. The critical response was encouraging—particularly the interest in Dunbar’s plantation poetry. Dunbar moved to Chicago to be closer to that city’s burgeoning poetry community including Carl Sandburg, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, and Edgar Lee Masters. Dunbar was the sole Black poet. With the support of the city’s African American community—most notably Frederick Douglass—Dunbar published poetry in newspapers and magazines. His breakthrough collection was 1895’s Majors and Minors, which included “Dawn.” The “Minors” section includes Dunbar’s dialect-driven Plantation Poetry, while his more traditional poems, written in standard English, comprise the Majors section. With critical plaudits from prominent writers like William Dean Howell’s generous review in The Atlantic, and with its promising sales, Dunbar was regarded as an up-and-coming poet.

Over the next 10 years, Dunbar, now married, living in Washington, and working at the Library of Congress, emerged as one of the most prolific writers of his generation, publishing not only five volumes of poetry but several novels, theater pieces, collections of cultural essays, and several children’s books. By the turn of the century, Dunbar was second only to Mark Twain in name-recognition amongst American writers. He enjoyed financial security and was regarded as not only the first important Black poet in America, but one of the most important American poets of his day. He was in constant demand for public readings, both in America and in England, on the Lyceum circuit. Dunbar was a consummate performer, capturing the lyrical lilt of his lines—a reflection of his love of music and his intuitive sense of the sonic appeal of vowels playing against consonants.

By 1902, Dunbar began to experience failing health from near-constant bouts with pneumonia. His recovery was significantly hampered by his increasing depression over his own identity as a Black poet and his abuse of alcohol, initially prescribed to help remediate Dunbar’s coughing. In the winter of 1905, he retreated to his mother’s home in Dayton where he died on 9 February 1906 at the early age of 33. The New York Times’s obituary called Dunbar “the poet of his people,” an assertion that frames the contradiction of Dunbar’s complex life: Exactly whose “people” was he?

Poem Text

An angel, robed in spotless white, 

Bent down and kissed the sleeping Night   

Night work to blush; the sprite was gone  

Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.

Laurence Dunbar, Paul. “Dawn.” 1895. Wright State University Libraries.

Summary

"Dawn” begins not with the position of the sun, the mathematical precision of charting the horizon, or the irresistible pull of gravity, but rather with an angel “robed” in “spotless white” (Line 1). Angels conjure those celestial subjects of Judeo-Christian theological speculation, created by a loving, omnipotent god to serve as messengers and intermediaries between god and humankind. Angels are not agents of individual will; they are not conjured from their own initiative—they follow orders. Thus, the opening line infuses the sunrise—an extraordinarily ordinary and literally daily event—with the presence of a god.

The angel, whose mission is to stir the day into life, bends down and kisses the sleeping “Night” (Line 2). By capitalizing Night—by personifying it into a character rather than a natural phenomenon—Dunbar breathes drama into a mere sunrise. Like ancient myths and folk tales, the earth is defined not by applications of energy but by beings larger than human existence. The angel kisses the sleeping Night. The action is soft: The world, despite moving from opposite states—from darkness to light, from night to day—eases through the transition like a lover being softly, gently kissed to awareness.

Night, for its part, stirs awake not anxious by the intrusion, but rather happily. “Night woke to blush” (Line 3) suggests an innocence. Dunbar applies science. Blushing is caused by an increase in body temperature. Heart beats spike and adrenaline starts to rush through the capillaries that transport blood through the skin. That rush opens the pores and, flooded by blood, creates the typical reddish tones. Blushing indicates not panic nor worry, but eagerness and excitement. With Night stirred awake and feeling the sweet rush of blushing, the “sprite” (Line 3), slips away, mission completed.

The poem closes by introducing the figure of humanity with the word “Men” (Line 4). Dunbar’s man is all too content to do what parochial humanity since the age of Enlightenment has been content to do: give a thing a name and consider it understood. Unable to embrace the enchanting idea of Night stirred awake by an angel, humanity labels the event “Dawn” (Line 4) and is satisfied that such a label is sufficient.

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