During his brief life, Dunbar became one of the most celebrated poets of his time, and the first African-American poet to achieve national and international recognition. He wrote poetry equally well in Standard English and Negro dialect, but he was disappointed that his publishers seemed to prefer the dialect over the standard. In addition to his many poems, he also wrote short stories, political commentary, and novels, but they were not as successful as his poetry.
His marriage to writer Alice Ruth Moore in 1898 was plagued with troubles, and they separated after four years -- childless -- but never were divorced. His last few years were very difficult, wracked with the pain of his fatal illness, depressed by his failed marriage, numbed by alcohol, and marred by a nervous breakdown.
Perhaps his most important single poem was named "Sympathy," and ended with the poignant line, "I know why the caged bird sings," which was later adopted by author Maya Angelou as the title of her famous autobiographical novel.
Here is the Dunbar poem . . .
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!
By Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
MP3 reading at http://caribbeancruises.ws/sympathy-iknowwhythecagedbirdsings.mp3
Blessings to you. May God help us all.