Dunbar was often called the Negro Poet Laureate at the beginning of the twentieth century, but by the 1950s he was seen as an embarrassment to many readers because his dialect poems called up plantation stereotypes of African Americans. In his day, white readers embraced his dialect poems (‘‘The Party,’’‘‘When Malindy Sings’’) as the authentic voice of a Negro poet, while his standard English poems, such as ‘‘Sympathy,’’ were seen as imitative. Forced to continue writing and performing the dialect pieces due to public opinion, he feared that he had failed as a writer, as is evident in his poem, ‘‘The Poet.’’ Beginning in the 1970s, there has been an ongoing reassessment of his contribution to the American literary canon. Critics have pointed out his difficult but crucial position between black and white cultures. How could he speak in a true voice using either standard English or a black dialect? Dunbar had to forge a tradition of African American poetry that did not exist; the caged bird metaphor in ‘‘Sympathy’’ can be seen as a symbol for that tradition, and it yields both positive and negative implications.
Dunbar had dual aspirations from his youth to be a voice for his people and to be accepted as an American author without racial consideration. He thought of being a journalist at first. He had been the editor of his high school newspaper, thoroughly accepted for his literary talents in an all-white high school in Dayton, Ohio. Perhaps Dunbar thought of that experience as proving that his integration into the mainstream of American literary life was possible. He continued writing journal articles throughout his life, and many of his strong opinions against racism were printed in leading newspapers and magazines. His interest in writing poetry and literature, however, prevailed as his choice of career. As is quoted in Benjamin Brawley’s Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People (1936), Dunbar told a white sponsor, Dr. H. A. Tobey, that his life ambition was ‘‘To be able to interpret my own people through song and story, and to prove to the many that after all we are more human than African.’’
In Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the ‘‘Racial’’ Self (1987), Henry Louis Gates, Jr., points out that literacy was a matter of life and death for blacks in this country, the only way they could prove they were human and not primitive animals: ‘‘each piece of creative writing became a political statement.’’ Dunbar’s statement of purpose is thus necessarily both ambitious and defensive, for he has something ‘‘to prove to the many.’’ In the same work, Gates describes ‘‘the subtext of the history of black letters as this urge to refute the claim that because blacks had no written traditions they were bearers of an inferior culture.’’ Dunbar began his career then with a huge burden to carry, like the bird with scarred wings. He had to express his racial self and his literary self, but in a manner that would pave the way for other African Americans without offending the dominant culture. His sponsors and audiences were mostly white in an era of high racial tension. He wanted to justify and interpret his people but also to be respected as an artist above all. By being accepted in the same spirit of the great poets he loved (John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow), he would in one stroke accomplish something for his race and himself: ‘‘I consider that a colored poet of sufficient ability to make a name for himself would do more to enlighten and encourage the ambition of the multitude of colored people in America than almost anything else,’’ quotes Felton O. Best in Crossing the Color Line: A Biography of Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872–1906 (1996). Dunbar made it clear, however, that he did not want to be just a curiosity—a Negro poet—he wanted equal respect: ‘‘He felt that he was first of all a man, then an American, and incidentally a Negro,’’ Brawley states.
By being stereotyped early on as that great anomaly, a black poet, who could only properly interpret his race through dialect, Dunbar felt like an animal in a zoo. He was a prolific author in his brief thirty-three years. He was a journalist. He experimented with lyrics in standard English, southern black dialect, and white dialects, such as Irish American and German American. He was a librettist for an operetta and composed lyrics to popular songs in both dialect and standard speech; he was the author of four novels, some with white characters. He wrote short stories and plays, including one play in the form of an eighteenth-century English comedy of manners (‘‘Herrick’’). Many of his manuscripts were unpublished in his lifetime because the publishers only wanted the black dialect poems that sold well, about life on the old plantation. As these poems were often humorous, they reminded white audiences of the minstrel shows with blackface comedians making fun of the black race. Myron Simon, in a contribution to A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1975), quotes Dunbar’s response to this confusion: ‘‘I am sorry to find among intelligent people those who are unable to differentiate dialect as a philological branch from Negro minstrelsy.’’
Yet if he composed in standard English, Dunbar was accused of imitation. William Dean Howells had set the tone from the beginning in his 1896 review by saying that only Dunbar’s dialect poems were original. The cry was picked up by every reviewer after that; the standard English poems were considered weak. After his death, the poet’s wife, Alice, defended the standard English poems, saying that they were the poems that contained his own voice. By 1899, when he published ‘‘Sympathy,’’ Dunbar felt imprisoned in many ways. He was making little progress in his career because of prejudice about the type of poetry he should produce. He was also working a menial job as a clerk in the Library of Congress. The inspiration for the caged bird in ‘‘Sympathy’’ came from looking out the barred windows of the library to the trees outside. In a 2006 contribution to Pacific Coast Philology, Camille Roman remarks on the symbolic irony of Dunbar trying to write African American poetry while imprisoned in the Library of Congress with the white man’s books that were the legacy of his oppressor.
However, in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1988), an important work on African American literary theory, Gates describes a practice of the African oral tradition called ‘‘Signifyin(g)’’ that illuminates Dunbar’s poetry. Signifyin(g) is defined as wordplay using ‘‘repetition and reversal.’’ Even slave songs ‘‘signified’’ on the oppressor by taking phrases and reversing the meaning. Gates finds this principle of irony to be one of intertextuality, where one text comments on a previous text by playing upon a given phrase or idea. This oral tradition from Africa is at work in American jazz, the blues, spirituals, ragtime, hip-hop, and rap, and it occurs as well in written African American texts.
Using this information, a reader can see new meaning in ‘‘Sympathy,’’ which could at first glance seem imitative. For instance, in the first stanza, Dunbar introduces the bird in springtime, a standard image from Romantic poetry to suggest the poet. Both Keats and Shelley used bird song as a metaphor for the spontaneity of the creative act. Shelley’s ode ‘‘To a Sky-Lark’’ and Keats’s ‘‘Ode to a Nightingale’’ are major statements of their poetic philosophies. Shelley compares the song of the skylark/poet to natural processes such as the wind spreading around the perfume of a flower. This image of scent coming out of a flower is also apparent in the first stanza of ‘‘Sympathy,’’ making it seem like a repeat of Shelley’s idea. In Dunbar’s version, however, the image is ironic with the perfume stealing out of the flower. This stealthy poetic act ‘‘signifies’’ on Shelley’s and Keats’s ecstatic and unfettered birds. Dunbar’s bird is crippled in a cage of racism and sings in spite of pain. That the caged bird symbol seemed right for African American literature is affirmed by poet Maya Angelou, who used Dunbar’s line for the title of her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970).
Dunbar’s essay ‘‘Negro Music,’’ written the same year as ‘‘Sympathy,’’ could serve as a commentary on his poem. In the essay, reprinted in In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (2002), Dunbar describes an insight he had when he heard some Africans singing at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893. He thought to himself: ‘‘It is that heritage.’’ Immediately, he connected to something in the African song and saw how it had become the heritage for African American artists. African music had ‘‘rich melody’’ and ‘‘mournful minor cadences’’ that touch the heart. The African ‘‘startles us,’’ but because the tradition had taken on a new depth in America, the ‘‘negro American thrills us.’’ Though white critics had accused him of being an imitator, he turns the tables by asserting the originality of African song: ‘‘With the black man’s heritage of song has come the heritage of sorrow, giving to his song the expression of a sorrowful sweetness which the mere imitator can never attain.’’ One thinks of spirituals and the blues, of all the great singers—Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and James Brown. Dunbar calls the strain in all black music ‘‘running like the theme of a symphony—the strain a supplication to God for deliverance.’’ This statement describes the last stanza of the poem accurately, when the bird’s song is described as a prayer.
The caged bird as a symbol for African American artists thus is positive and negative. Though enslaved, African Americans did not stop singing or creating beauty out of their pain. Dunbar is able to feel a positive continuity with ancestral song for the African American writer. This legacy he passed on to others to work out more fully. In a contribution to PostBellum, Pre-Harlem: African American Literature and Culture 1877–1919 (2006), Caroline Gebhard points out that black literature is not the creation of one artist alone, and that Dunbar was only the first to tackle the problem of dialect versus standard English. Later writers in the Harlem Renaissance learned to blend vernacular speech and standard English seamlessly together to carry on Dunbar’s experiment with voice. In an interview reprinted in In His Own Voice, Dunbar insists he has the right to move between languages as a poet: ‘‘I hope you are not one of those who would hold the negro down to a certain kind of poetry.’’ He further explains in the same interview, ‘‘The races have acted and reacted on each other.’’ Far from seeing literature as a segregated affair, he insists on the healthiness of intertextuality.
Dunbar is one of the first African American artists to create a double voice in his poetry, to appeal to two audiences at once. Blacks understood the irony of ‘‘When Malindy Sings’’ in its praising blacks as better singers than whites; whites understood the music of the dialect, which Dunbar reclaimed as legitimate poetic speech. In the introduction to The Complete Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1992), Joanne M. Braxton observes Dunbar’s growth as a poet by comparing the two poems he called ‘‘Sympathy.’’ The first by that title appeared in Oak and Ivy (1892), his first collection. It is stilted and was not reprinted in later editions. The ‘‘Sympathy’’ written in 1899, Braxton states, ‘‘moves away from the imitation of European models and toward a strong poetic voice of his own.’’ In Crossing the Color Line, Best points out that no matter what critics have said, other black writers have consistently seen Dunbar as ‘‘the pioneer who paved the way for black writers to enter the literary profession.’’
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.
Susan Andersen, Critical essay on ‘‘Sympathy,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010