Poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar


He Had His Dream

He had his dream, and all through life,
Worked up to it through toil and strife.
Afloat fore’er before his eyes,
It colored for him all his skies:
The storm-cloud dark
Above his bark,
The calm and listless vault of blue
Took on its hopeful hue,
It tinctured every passing beam –
He had his dream.

He labored hard and failed at last,
His sails too weak to bear the blast,
The raging tempests tore away
And sent his beating bark astray.
But what cared he
For wind or sea!
He said, ‘The tempest will be short,
My bark will come to port.’
He saw through every cloud a gleam –
He had his dream.


Paul’s mother had a dream too. An ex-slave, she taught herself to read just so she could teach young Paul. Paul was a stellar student and popular at his all-white high school in Ohio where he was elected president of the high school literary society. Mother’s dream was to send Paul to law school but lack of funds prevented it.   (My son really wanted to live on campus at NYU and assumed he’d go to Columbia Law School–we all have our dreams, don’t we?). Finances are a pain.

Paul ended up an elevator operator and though a good poet, he wasn’t very good with money and always ended up in debt. People liked his work, but poetry can’t always pay the bills.

Paul met a nice girl and married, but sadly three years later was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The doctor recommended whiskey to alleviate  the symptoms of the disease. We all know how this ends, don’t we? His depression and growing dependence on alcohol caused trouble between him and wifey. She left him and Paul died a destitute alcoholic.



24 responses to “Poet: Paul Laurence Dunbar”

  1. What a lovely homage to a great poet. Maya Angelou was influenced by Dunbar: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings taken from his line in the poem Sympathy. I love the connections between generations and the nod to those who came before in any artist. Dunbar’s poem resonate today with beauty and aspiration.


  2. What a sad end to such an intelligent man who had so much potential. As you said, poetry isn’t a big money maker… As an aside, I just did a bit of research on a print I purchased when we lived in NYC, I’m very attached to it and wanted to see if I could find any info. online. Turns out the painting, which is part of the collection at the Museum of Southern Decorative Arts was painted by America’ first black artist. I was so excited to discover that! ++ Joshua Johnson (or Johnston), the country’s first professional African American artist, painted in Baltimore from the late 1790’s until he left the city in 1824. Johnson was the mulatto son of George Johnson, who purchased his freedom after Joshua finished an apprenticeship as a blacksmith. http://www.mesda.org/collections/paintings_sprite/mesda_benjaminyoe_sprite.html


    • Hi Cecile. I love finding out little nuggets of info like you did about Joshua!

      I remember years ago when my kids were babies I used to watch Suze something on Oprah and she said if you didn’t have an organized pocketbook you were the type who would never make money. I felt a bit bad since I didn’t even carry a pocketbook or wallet at the time 🙂 I used to have my friends carry my money, etc because I didn’t want to have to worry about it. Maybe that’s why I’ve never made a ton of money!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sad story — but pleased to see Dunbar mentioned. And loved the poem. I include a bit of his story and one of his poems in my book, Midwest Maize. The poem I used was a cheerful piece about corn husking time.

    As for the whiskey–alcohol was a common prescription for just about everything back then — even given to children. Because it was useful as an antiseptic, it was assumed it would help every form of infection. It’s amazing anyone survived the level of alcohol consumption that was common at that time.


      • Louisa May Alcott suffered from mercury poisoning after serving as a nurse in the Civil War. They were a bit too liberal with the doses I guess.

        From what I hear you really have to watch vaccines have mercury because not all brands do. I’d hate to be a young mother now sifting through all the pros and cons of vaccinating infants!

        Liked by 1 person

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