- "On Flow'ry Beds of Ease"Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Cultivation of Dialect Poetry in the Century
In the February 1897 issue of Current Literature, Paul Laurence Dunbar's early poem "The Poet and His Song" appeared as one of several chosen to introduce his poetry to their readership, on a page given the title "Lays of a Negro Minstrel." His first major poetry collection, Lyrics of Lowly Life, had been brought out by Dodd, Mead and Company the year before, bolstered by a strong endorsement from William Dean Howells.1 A poem about the practice of a working poet, "The Poet and His Song" opens with the following stanza:
A song is but a little thing,And yet what joy it is to sing!In hours of toil it gives me zest,And when at eve I long for rest;When cows come home along the bars, And in the fold I hear the bell,As Night, the shepherd, herds his stars, I sing my song, and all is well.2
This imagined idyllic life—balanced between a hearty appreciation for labor and the relief from it provided by the soothing effects of art—gives Dunbar the terms for his georgic poem, one of his most celebrated. It is easy to see why, in its celebration of the pleasures of art, it has been called a "credo-like lyric."3 At the end of the day, the speaker sleeps feeling "joy," but the sentiment of the poem darkens with the last two stanzas. The labor becomes more grueling and realistic, and his art becomes less effective at relieving the suffering that labor brings. One would think that this working poet would become embittered about the difficulties of his life in relation to the ease of the [End Page 46] lives of "others [who] dream within the dell," but, as he says toward the end of the poem, when "with throes of bitter pain / Rebellious passions rise and swell," he simply sings "and all is well." It's hard to know whether we should believe the quick dissolution of this near rebellion at the close of the poem. The outburst is stifled with a "but—" and a too-pat, axiomatic conclusion: "life is more than fruit or grain."
Poetic composition is first viewed in this poem as an escape from drudgery; as he puts it, "In hours of toil it gives me zest." But, even though he whistles while he works, he must admit that his "days are never days of ease [because] I till my ground and prune my trees." The poet's work is to cultivate, in both the pastoral and literary senses: first, in a literal, agricultural sense, but also metaphorically, as his writing is pruned through revision. Metaphorically linking harvested fruit or grain with "harvested" verse is, of course, nothing new.4 In light of the metaphor's pervasiveness, Dunbar's reworking of it appears so overwrought that the product of his physical labor, a plain "ripened gold" as he tends to it, demands to be read also as the product of poetic labor. This blurring of the work and the work song exposes the fantasy of poetic production—the idea that it is joyous—as a fantasy that ultimately cannot be sustained. Yet a third, self-reflexive sense of cultivation adds to the confusion. The mind and manner, in other words, may be cultivated; this is the sense of cultivation most distant from toil. When Dunbar writes to Dr. Henry A. Tobey, one of his early supporters, of his desire to "spend the coming year in college, chiefly to learn how and what to study in order to cultivate my vein," it is this third sort of general cultivation of the self that he seeks, rather than the second sort directed externally toward the improvement of his poetry.5
I argue in this essay that Dunbar's poems shape him as a new brand of cultivated writer, as he was measured against shifting definitions of nineteenth-century authorship through his reception as a writer and performer of dialect verse. The paradox at the center of the concept of literary cultivation—the...