Thursday, June 27, 2019

But Only Sit and Dream and Drowse

A Drowsy Day
by Paul Laurence Dunbar

The air is dark, the sky is gray,
The misty shadows come and go,
And here within my dusky room
Each chair looks ghostly in the gloom.
Outside the rain falls cold and slow—
Half-stinging drops, half-blinding spray.

Each slightest sound is magnified.
For drowsy quiet holds her reign;
The burnt stick in the fireplace breaks,
The nodding cat with start awakes,
And then to sleep drops off again,
Unheeding Towser at her side.

I look far out across the lawn,
Where huddled stand the silly sheep;
My work lies idle at my hands,
My thoughts fly out like scattered strands
Of thread, and on the verge of sleep—
Still half awake—I dream and yawn.

What spirits rise before my eyes!
How various of kind and form!
Sweet memories of days long past,
The dreams of youth that could not last,
Each smiling calm, each raging storm,
That swept across my early skies.

Half seen, the bare, gaunt-fingered boughs
Before my window sweep and sway,
And chafe in tortures of unrest.
My chin sinks down upon my breast;
I cannot work on such a day,
But only sit and dream and drowse.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on this day in 1872 in Dayton, Ohio. His parents had been born into slavery. He showed an early aptitude for language, and his mother had worked very hard to make sure his reading skills were excellent, although she had to teach herself to read in order to do it. He was the only black student in his high school; because of his natural charm, he was quite popular. Out of school he found his options considerably limited due to both his race and his relative poverty; he worked at a number of odd jobs. He paid to have his first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, published in 1893, which turned out to be a very good investment, in part because he actively set out to sell it himself rather than waiting for anyone else to do it, using his job as an elevator operator, in which he had to interact and converse with a wide variety of people, to find new customers. He made back all his money in two weeks, and turned a little bit of a profit. In the meantime, enough people read his book, out of curiosity if nothing else, and a few of those here and there found book readings for him. His second book, Majors and Minors (from which the above is taken), was published in 1896, and when it was reviewed favorably in Harper's Weekly, Dunbar became a national name. He branched out into short stories (which were well liked) and novels (which were not), and wrote the lyrics for the musical In Dahomey: A Negro Musical Comedy. Despite publishing often, he was often struggling; he probably could have been wealthy, since he had considerable talent and personableness, which together led to some significant connections, but he seems to have had no sense of money. He died of tuberculosis in 1906, at the age of 33. I think he is easily a candidate for the top tier of American poets, probably a better candidate than a few names who are more widely known.

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