February 4 - Courtship by Mail

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On February 4, 1898, Paul Laurence Dunbar in Washington, D. C., wrote two letters to his fiancée Alice Ruth Moore in Brooklyn, and she wrote one letter to him.  Because they lived in distant cities, their relationship developed mostly by mail.  Both of Paul's letters were written on stationery of the Library of Congress, where he worked as a clerk.  In the middle of one letter, Paul stopped to write the lines of a new poem.

I just paused here in your letter to write a little poem that popped into my head and I reproduce it for you here.

They like me not -- these solemn songs
That hint of sermons covered up.
'Tis true the world should heed its wrongs,
But in a poem let me sup
Not simples brewed to cure or ease
Humanity’s confessed disease;
But the spirit wine of a singing line,
Or a dew-drop in a honey cup!

I want to hear from you every day in order to keep my spirits up.  My impatience is something awful.  Far faster than the days my swift heart runs, as winter winds speed on to summer suns.  Love that couplet.  I may want it someday to buy a pair of shoes.

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, February 4, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

Paul apparently did not turn the couplet about "winter winds" and "summer suns" into a poem or a pair of shoes.  But the verse he wrote in his letter, with slight alterations, was published as "A Choice" in Paul's 1899 volume of poetry Lyrics of the Hearthside.  In his other letter, Paul recalled the night a year earlier when he met Alice for the first time and they became engaged.  Paul and Alice often referred to each other as husband and wife, even though they were not yet married.

Tomorrow, Saturday, is the anniversary of your trip to New York and our engagement.  One year ago you promised to try to learn to love me -- to be mine.  One year ago I told you that I loved you;  but today I realize what a shadow of a feeling it was to this I experience for you now.  Oh my darling, you have kept your promise, haven't you?  You have learned to love me.  I can look back and downward over this last year and see how your love has led me gradually higher and higher.  Yes, even out of the mud it has lifted me.  I feel weak and inadequate in trying to tell you what your care has been to me.  I feel in even lightly touching the subject like one unpurified laying sacrilegious hands upon what is most sacred.  Dearest, I should like to lay your head on my breast now and kiss you silently.  I am awed.  I am overwhelmed by the revelations of love, by its grandeur, its sublimity.  It is religion.  My good angel.  My wife -- my darling!

Paul Laurence Dunbar to Alice Ruth Moore, February 4, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).

In her letter to Paul, Alice described a school where she had recently started teaching, and how hard it was for her to pronounce the students' names.  Alice also mentioned the White Rose Mission where she volunteered.  Children at the mission were studying Paul's writings, so she asked him to make a personal appearance.

I have so many funny things to tell you that I scarce know where to begin.  I have just been bubbling over all day.  It's all about the new school.  It is in Brownsville, you know, called East New York on the map.  Well, I went up this morning to take charge of the class.  I tackled the roll book and broke my jaw on names as these --

          Levi Thawkowitz
          Anna Millinskisky
          Israel Gololovitch
          Bernie Govelinsky
          Morris Chatcuff
          Barney Pasloosky
          Betsey Tepeletsky

The children's reading class at the Mission, which meets on Sundays is interested in you.  We have them study contemporary big guns among "your people."  Phyllis Wheatley and you.  Well I promised to learn something to read for them Sunday -- but I won't now.  I'll ask you your dear self to go up with me next Sunday, the 13th;  and in payment thereof I'll give you so many kisses as you can take in a three hours tete-a-tete.  I love you so I want to show you off.  I have been teasing the matron at the Mission awfully about you.  She doesn't want me to marry anyone, and every chance I get I tell her about "My Paul."  I took your pictures up to show her, and promised I'd bring you if I could.  It's a year today since I left Boston, and tomorrow is the anniversary of our betrothal.  So I hope you'll get this on the 5th and kiss it for me.

Alice Ruth Moore to Paul Laurence Dunbar, February 4, 1898.  Paul Laurence Dunbar Papers, Ohio History Connection (Microfilm edition, Roll 8).