April 9 - A Jingle in a Broken Tongue

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On April 9, 1899, a review of Paul Laurence Dunbar's book of poetry Lyrics of the Hearthside was published in a Detroit newspaper.  The reviewer implied that Paul's Black dialect verses were better than his poems in standard English.

A poet whose muse is wholesome and healthy is Paul Laurence Dunbar, who divides his writing between prose and verse.  To his first volume of poems, "Lyrics of Lowly Life," he now adds a second, "Lyrics of the Hearthside," into which he puts a pleasant and joyous life, only occasionally saddened by notes in the minor key.  We confess to preferring Mr. Dunbar's poems in dialect above his other verses.  They are the real songs of the hearthside;  they have rhythmic form and flow, clear thought, a touch of pathos, and a dialect that most happily reproduces the soft speech of the Negro.  The poet is at his best when he deals with the home life and feeling of his people.

"Lyrics of the Hearthside."  Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan).  April 9, 1899.

Lyrics of the Hearthside begins with 73 poems in standard English, followed by a section called "Humor and Dialect" that contains an additional 37 poems.  Some of those verses are also in standard English, but most are in either Midwestern or Black dialect.  When reviewing the book, many critics praised Paul's dialect poetry while dismissing his work in standard English.

Mr. Dunbar has divided his book into English and dialect poems, and his best work is to be found among the dialect verses.  This will probably be the universal opinion.  Mr. Dunbar's choice of words is happier when he is writing in the musical speech of the Negro.  He manages to throw into his dialect the haunting pathos, so indescribably charming of the voice of that race.  His English verse is good, to be sure, but it is such as others write, while in dialect poetry the field is all his own.

Baltimore Herald (Baltimore, Maryland).  March 5, 1899.

With all respect for his serious poems, written in choice English, we think most readers will turn gladly to the verses at the end of the volume, in which Mr. Dunbar sounds once more the varied notes of his race.

"Books and Reading."  The Evening Post (New York, New York).  March 27, 1899.

It is rather a pity that the author did not profit by the almost unanimous opinion of his former reviewers, who very properly told him that his serious efforts, although they are exceedingly good, are in no respect unique or memorable;  and it would have been well had he in the present volume confined himself to the dialect of his race, in which he produces many quaint and comical effects.

New York Journal and Advertiser (New York, New York).  April 1, 1899.

A little more than half of the new book is given up to verse in faultless English, about which a great deal can be said in praise, yet which is not so remarkable as to awaken any surprise apart from the fact that it is written by a Negro.  The second part of the book is more pleasing.  It is devoted to humor and dialect.  There is no reason why a Negro poet should not write good English, but after all, it is to Mr. Dunbar's dialect verse that the reader will turn with the expectation of finding the work which has the most individuality to it, and which could not well be imitated by others.  These dialect poems are really the most pleasing in their mellow humor, of any in the volume.

"With the Poets."  Buffalo Express (Buffalo, New York).  April 2, 1899.

As in his former volumes, Mr. Dunbar is at his best in his dialect verse, because in this verse he is dealing with the thing he knows firsthand.  In dialect Mr. Dunbar is often extremely felicitous, both in his humor and his art.  He continually impresses one as having transfixed in his verse the real thing, and in perfect sincerity.  His other work, although often very good, is sometimes conventional and secondary.

The Outlook (New York, New York).  April 8, 1899.

He is gifted with tender pathos and joyous humor, but his dialect verses are certain to please readers more than the serious pieces in which he can claim nothing more than the praise due to an imitator and indulges in nothing better than the sentiment and homely philosophy of scores of white writers who have done the same sort of thing as well or better than he.

The Philadelphia Press (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).  September 17, 1899.

In conversations with the Black author James Weldon Johnson, Paul confided that he felt limited by the constraints of dialect poetry.

We talked again and again about poetry.  I told him my doubts about the further possibilities of stereotyped dialect.  He was hardly less dubious than I.  He said, "You know, of course, that I didn't start as a dialect poet.  I simply came to the conclusion that I could write it as well, if not better, than anybody else I knew of, and that by doing so I should gain a hearing.  I gained the hearing, and now they don't want me to write anything but dialect."  There was a tone of self-reproach in what he said;  and five years later, in his fatal illness, he sounded that same tone more deeply when he said to me, "I've kept on doing the same things, and doing them no better.  I have never gotten to the things I really wanted to do."  Paul never told me definitely what the things were that he really wanted to do.  I surmised that it was not that he desired merely to write more poems in literary English, such as he had already done, but that it was his ambition to write one or two long, perhaps epical, poems in straight English that would relate to the Negro.  The thing that I was sure of and kept repeating to him was that he had carried traditional dialect poetry as far as and as high as it could go;  that he had brought it to the fullest measure of charm, tenderness, and beauty it could hold.  We agreed that the public still demanded dialect poetry, but that as a medium, especially for the Negro poet, it was narrow and limited.

Along This Way, by James Weldon Johnson.  The Viking Press (New York, New York).  1933.  Pages 160 - 161.

In one of Paul's poems, he expressed frustration because the public preferred his dialect verse over his work in standard English.

He sang of life, serenely sweet,
With, now and then, a deeper note.
From some high peak, nigh yet remote,
He voiced the world's absorbing beat.


He sang of love when earth was young,
And Love, itself, was in his lays.
But ah, the world, it turned to praise
A jingle in a broken tongue.

"The Poet," by Paul Laurence Dunbar.  Published in Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903).

Years after Paul's death, his wife Alice recalled how his standard English poems were neglected because the public was more interested in his dialect work.

Although Dunbar is remembered largely for his dialect verse, it was never his intention to concentrate on dialect.  His poems in pure English constitute the greater bulk of his verse, and that to which he was most passionately devoted.  The tragedy of his life was that the world "turned to praise the jingle in a broken tongue."

"Paul Laurence Dunbar," by Alice Dunbar Nelson.  Published in Caroling Dusk, edited by Countee Cullen.  Harper & Brothers (New York, New York).  1927.  Page 1.