February 12, 2011

Dunbar: I love the dear old ballads best

Late in 1905, a close friend of Paul Laurence Dunbar died suddenly. The Ohio-born poet felt that his own days were numbered and, though his mother warned him not to, he attended the funeral. It was a harsh, cold winter, and Dunbar stood bareheaded as he watched his friend's coffin lowered into the grave.

"Like the fields, I am lying fallow," he wrote that Christmas, "and it will take a long time to make anything worth coming out in blossom." Separated from his wife Alice Ruth Moore and suffering from tuberculosis, Dunbar was depressed and tired. His mother turned her living room into a bedroom for him and let him sleep close to the fireplace. It was in that room and in his mother's arms that Dunbar died in 1906.

His funeral was held February 12, 1906 at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dayton — the same church he attended as a boy. He was buried at Woodland Cemetery. A friend, Brand Whitlock (then mayor of Toledo, Ohio), wrote to Dunbar's mother: "You have lost a son, I have lost a friend, but America has lost more than all else and that is a poet."

His poem "Songs":

I love the dear old ballads best,
          That tell of love and death,
Whose every line sings love's unrest
          Or mourns the parting breath.
I love those songs the heart can feel,
          That make our pulses throb;
When lovers plead or contrites kneel
          With choking sigh and sob.

God sings through songs that touch the heart,
          And none are prized save these.
Though men may ply their gilded art
          For fortune, fame, or fees,
The muse that sets the songster's soul
          Ablaze with lyric fire,
Holds nature up, an open scroll,
          And build's art's funeral pyre.

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