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Dunbar, Douglass, Milton: authorial agon and the integrated canon.

Through Harold Bloom's long and prolific career, The Anxiety of Influence (1973) and A Map of Misreading (1975) have emerged as his most significant and enduring contribution to literary study. These paired works have already passed their first test of time, both having been re-issued in slightly enlarged second editions (Anxiety in 1997, Map in 2003) for a new generation of readers. Even back in the seventies they were quirky books, surprisingly slender (more strikingly so now in comparison to Bloom's later tomes), interspersed with mystical prose poems, and often baffling in their melange of Freud, kabbalah, and gnosticism. Noteless, they disdained to participate in the customary discourse of professional scholarship, preferring to focus exclusively on the primal dialogue between poets and poems transcending their place and time. A generation of scholarship later, since the ascendancy of race, gender, and historicism in the academy, all anathema to Bloom, his books read still more strangely--and yet still true. His thesis, that genius undertakes an agon in which the belated poet strives to assert his priority and greatness over his predecessors, has yielded original, persuasive, and often astonishing readings of familiar texts. While Bloom pursues his thesis primarily through the pantheon of dead white males and their canonical poems, with Milton at the epicenter, his thesis is not inimical to an awareness of race and history In fact, Bloom's ideas of influence richly illuminate a specific agon within African-American literature, chiefly in how the poems on Frederick Douglass by Paul Laurence Dunbar respond to the provocative precedence of Milton. In turn, this practical exercise in Bloomian influence suggests ways that the theory might be refined away from its emphasis on isolating ambition and toward a greater sense of poetic community and communion.

Bloom centers his theory of poetic agon in Milton who exemplifies the strong yet belated poet. In the Nativity Ode, young Milton, just 21, urges himself to run ahead of the Magi to lay his "humble ode" (the adjective both covering and confessing the audacity of the enterprise) at the Son's "blessed feet" to "Have ... the honor first, thy Lord to greet" (11.24-26). And remarkably, in his first major poem, Milton does just that, sprinting ahead of the Magi and in the process leaping over generations of poets--even challenging the gospel writers themselves?--to join a higher chorus of angels. One poem, however, does not complete a poet's agon, and Milton still suffered the anxiety of his belatedness. Just a few months later he would abandon his Passion Ode, the would-be companion to the Nativity Ode, and in effect acknowledge his inadequacy before the monumental tradition. In "On Shakespeare" Milton, not yet 24, confesses how "wonder and astonishment" over a great precursor can reduce one to artistic paralysis, the fixed "Marble" of admiration (11. 7, 14). More than thirty years later, Milton was still reconciling his ambition to his predicament. In Paradise Lost he projects an "advent'rous song" that "soar[s]" as it "pursues/ Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme" (1.13-16). Milton seems to wink in self-awareness as the expression for his claim to originality is itself a legacy, a borrowed trope from the opening of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, but Milton transforms the seeming evidence of his belatedness into an assertion of his priority, justified, as Merritt Hughes notes, by the Miltonic correction of the epic ambition to its proper subject, the universal tragedy of man (and angels) redeemed by the still larger comedy of God (Milton 1957, 379).

In virtually every poem he undertook, "Milton's aim is to make his own belatedness into an earliness, and his tradition's priority over him into a lateness" (Bloom 2003, 131). Bloom masterfully demonstrates how a few lines from Paradise Lost--"Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans't / Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks / In Vallombrosa" (1.301-3)--recall powerful passages from Homer, Isaiah, Virgil, and Dante, only to run ahead of them all, as Milton once did to the Magi, by exercising his "true priority of interpretation," his correction and completion of the topos (Bloom 2003, 131-32). Milton establishes his version of the fallen leaves with such authority that his own successors, Shelley and Stevens among others, can follow but not supersede. "Lycidas," which Bloom re-examines in the new preface to the second edition of A Map of Misreading, similarly positions itself as "the central elegy in the language, and sets the pattern" for those who come after. Milton's poem subsumes Orphic myth, Theocritus, Virgil, Sanazarro, and Spenser, and amidst this complex convergence, it makes the crucial clarification that all elegy is essentially elegy "for the self," a fundamental insight into the genre that Shelley, Arnold, Swinburne, Whitman, Eliot, and Crane cannot escape but only rework (Bloom 2003, xv). It is here, in the imposing shadow of "Lycidas," that Dunbar, prompted by the death of Fredrick Douglass in 1895, engages Milton and so the entire Western poetic tradition, and it is here that Dunbar would assert his claim for African-American literature and, of course, for himself as well.

In "Frederick Douglass" Dunbar modulates his own "Ode to Ethiopia" in form and content to Milton's "Lycidas." Dunbar largely keeps the six-line stanza of his earlier ode but extends the four-and three-beat lines to a uniform and statelier pentameter. He reshuffles the rhyme couee (AABCCB) to a heroic sestet (ABABCC), moving closer to ottava rima, the same stanza form that resonantly concludes "Lycidas." And in fact, after nine stanzas of heroic sestets, Dunbar closes his elegy with an eight-line variation (ABABC-CDD) of ottava rima. In "Lycidas," after ten sprawling canzones of varied length with rhyme variously abrupt ("crude"/"rude," a mere half-line apart), postponed to the threshold of memory, withheld altogether as the aural emblem of absence, or interwoven through the entire length of the poem (the haunting "more"), the greater formality of the final stanza confers closure. In Dunbar's poem the expansion of the final stanza to eight lines is not nearly as dramatic as in "Lycidas," but it seems to heed Milton's example.

In content "Fredrick Douglass" reprises the literary "Ethiopianism" of Dunbar's earlier ode, now as elegy. The central trope derives from Psalm 68:31 (AV): "Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands unto God." In Dunbar's application, Douglass is figured as the prime of these princes, while Ethiopia largely corresponds to the black community in America, though a reductive identification squanders the richness of the metaphor. The name of Ethiopia evokes the biblical land renowned for wealth and wisdom, the enduring post-biblical dynasties, and a highly civilized Christian culture subservient to neither religious hierarchy of West or East. By 1829, in Ethiopian Manifesto, Issued in Defence of Blackman's Rights in the Scale of Universal Freedom, a work Dunbar likely knew, Robert A.Young had already contextualized the psalmist's prophecy to the emancipation of black America (Martin 1975, 470). By the latter half of the nineteenth century, Ethiopianism was flourishing in America and Africa as not only a "literary-religious tradition" (Moses 1978, 156) but also as a real political force. When Menilek II ascended to the Ethiopian crown in 1889, he renewed this ancient legacy by choosing his regal name after the legendary son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. As Menilek resisted and eventually defeated the colonial ambitions of Italy in the 1890s, the broader name of Ethiopia was for Dunbar both a symbol and a reality of a black cultural heritage successfully fighting for its present political freedom under divine guidance.

Dunbar's elegy develops this central trope of Ethiopianism through a tripartite structure. The first two stanzas adapt the trope to the elegiac occasion, a mother mourning for her son slain in battle:
  And Ethiopia, with bosom torn,
  laments the passing of her noblest born. (Dunbar 1993, 11.5-6)


The third stanza shifts from her present grief to his past accomplishments through slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the still hostile racial climate of the final decade of the nineteenth century, and for the next six stanzas the poem eulogizes Douglass for his "princely" life. The final two stanzas parallel the first two as they return to Ethiopia mourning in the present tense. The poem is neatly balanced, but this last section also introduces significant variations. The first eight stanzas develop strictly in the third person--the "he" of Douglass, the "she" of Ethiopia--but these last stanzas ascend in pathos to the immediacy of the first-and second-persons. In the penultimate stanza, even as Douglass remains a "he," Ethiopia reemerges as "we," with the poet, or to be precise, still the persona of the poet, identifying with the mystical nation. In the final stanza the emotion erupts into vocative, "O Douglass," and in contrast to the physical and spiritual absence of the opening, Douglass, as if made present at last through the process of elegy, is now spiritually near as an abiding "thou."

In its transformation and climactic re-presentation of the absent one, the concluding movement of "Frederick Douglass" is utterly Miltonic, and Dunbar acknowledges the influence in the same rhyme resonating across the centuries. Milton's elegy famously turns,
  Now Lycidas, the Shepherds weep no more;
  Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore,
  In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
  To all that wander in that perilous flood. (Dunbar 1993,11. 182-85)
  Dunbar echoes,
  Oh, Douglass, thou hast passed beyond the shore,
  But still thy voice is ringing o'er the gale!
  Thou'st taught thy race how high her hopes may soar,
  And bade her seek the heights, nor faint, nor fail.
  She will not fail, she heeds thy stirring cry,
  She knows thy guardian spirit will be nigh. (Dunbar 1993, 11. 55-60)


Douglass, like Lycidas, "sunk low, but mounted high," and each has been reified as the "guardian spirit," the presiding "Genius," of their respective shores.

But "Lycidas" does not end here; rather, the final stanza of ottava rima steps back to open a more distant perspective of the "uncouth swain" twitching "his Mantle blue," a retreat which paradoxically allows the poem to move forward in time, place, and person, "Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new." The focus shifts away from Lycidas, who stands for the deceased Edward King, and onto the poet figure within the poem, suggesting just one more remove to arrive at the poet himself, Milton, as he self-consciously ponders his career, what he has done and what he has yet to do. Intriguingly, "Frederick Douglass" also concludes in a shifting point of view. The hard-won "we" of the penultimate stanza, nation and speaker joined as one, reverts to the simple "she" of the first eight stanzas, a distancing movement similar to the conclusion of "Lycidas." The third-person shift enables the poem to reconverge with its seminal biblical verse: "Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God," Isaiah prophesies; Dunbar concludes,
  And, rising from beneath the chast' ning rod,
  She stretches out her bleeding hands to God. (Dunbar 1993,11. 61-62)


The Ethiopianism of Dunbar's elegy, Marcellus Blount observes, "calls on its readers to imagine a black pan-African nation, yet at the same time Dunbar's fluency in seemingly 'white' literary convention calls on his calm access to literary authority that transcends race" (2007, 243).

"Frederick Douglass" makes two claims, one for its subject, another for its author. In the late nineteenth century at the height of the "great man" approach to history popularized by Carlyle, Dunbar stakes a claim for Douglass as just that, black and ex-slave though he may be, comparable, if not in America's collective mind, then in mystical Ethiopia's, to an Abraham Lincoln. Posterity has long since recognized Dunbar's claim, and Douglass does indeed stand with Lincoln among the most significant figures of nineteenth-century America. Behind the claim for Douglass lurks the more subtle claim for Dunbar as a great poet, or at least for "Frederick Douglass" as a great poem. Modern scholarship has largely abandoned the question of greatness as critically incorrect, but Bloom's theory of literary agon recognizes the poem's implicit claim immediately. Ever disdainful of critical fashion, Bloom has, in Stephen Spenders phrase, thought "continually of those who were truly great" (1955, 32), and his theory provides a means to reexamine the question of Dunbar's achievement which William Dean Howells had raised so provocatively just at the surge of Dunbar's popularity.

In 1896, bound by neither critical nor political correctness, Howells wrote two brief but enormously influential essays seeking to take some measure of Dunbar's peculiar achievement as black poet. In Howells's review of Majors and Minors for Harper's Weekly, the issue of race overwhelms that of the poetry. The dean of American letters dwells on Dunbar's physical appearance:
  the face of a young Negro, with the race traits strangely accented:
  the black skin, the woolly hair, the thick, outrolling lips, and the
  mild soft eyes of the pure African type. One cannot be very sure,
  ever, about the age of those people, but 1 should have thought that
  this poet was about twenty years old; and I suppose that a generation
  ago he would have been worth, apart from his literary gift, twelve or
  fifteen hundred dollars, under the hammer. (Howells 1896b, 630)


It may seem that Howells gives voice to the old racism with too much relish, but by the essay's end it becomes clear that he set forth the stereotype that he may correct it, however awkwardly. As for the poetry, Howells praises Dunbar's poems in dialect most highly, but for the strange case of the black poet, he marvels at the formal poems in "literary English" and the implications of their competence. Howells concludes,
  I have sometimes fancied that perhaps the negroes thought black, and
  felt black; that they were racially so utterly alien and distinct
  from ourselves that there never could be common intellectual and
  emotional ground between us, and that whatever eternity might do to
  reconcile, the end of time would find us as far asunder as ever. But
  this little book has given me pause in my speculation. Here, in the
  artistic effect at least, is white thinking and white feeling in a
  black man, and perhaps the human unity, and not the race unity, is
  the precious thing, the divine thing after all. God hath made one
  blood of all nations of men: perhaps the proof of this saying is to
  appear in the arts, and our hostilities and prejudices are to vanish
  in them. (Howells 1896b, 630)


As a whole the Harper's review was considered a great boon to Dunbar's career, and Howells was asked to provide the introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life, a volume of new and selected poems published by Dodd, Mead & Company in December 1896. Here Howells refines his remarks on race, deleting the physical description with which he began the review and even claiming that he would consider the poetry "irrespective" of the race and circumstances of the poet. But the claim proves mere paralepsis, as Howells repeatedly returns to the fact of Dunbar's race, particularly the purity of his African blood undiluted by any white admixture, and so by implication, his artistry unattributable to any infusions of white intelligence. As in his earlier review, Howells remains puzzled by Dunbar's race and poetry, but he oddly rearranges the balance in which he thought to comprehend them. The review began with "the woolly hair ... of the pure African type" but ended with "human unity" demonstrated through the arts. The introduction, however, reverses this movement and so leaves a very different final impression. Howells recalls his own "imaginative prophecy that the hostilities and the prejudices which had so long constrained his race were destined to vanish in the arts; that these were to be the final proof that God had made of one blood all nations of men." But he concludes with a surer sense that indeed "there is a precious difference of temperament between the races." In the few remarks upon the poetry itself, the introduction reaffirms Howells's judgment that the poems in dialect are Dunbar's distinctive achievement, while the more "literary" poems are sometimes "very good" but more often simply competent, so that together this disparate body of work constitutes further evidence of "the range of the race" and "the negro's limitations" (1896a, xiii-xx).

Remarkably, Howells's introduction was considered another boost to Dunbar's career, but the poet himself felt frustrated by this mixed praise. Dunbar confided to a friend, "I see now very clearly that Mr. Howells has done me irrevocable harm in the dictum he laid down regarding my dialect verse" (Dunbar 1920, 73) and, by implication, regarding his literary verse as well. Howells anticipated Dunbar's reaction and tried to soften the pain, or at least to absolve his own responsibility for it, feigning to "not know how much or little [Dunbar] may have preferred the poems in literary English" (Howells 1896a, xix), but by calling the most serious and substantial of them "Majors," it seems clears what Dunbar saw himself as his major accomplishment. But Dunbar had little power to contest with Howells's pronouncements, and the latter's introduction long outlived the poet. Beset with tuberculosis for the last five years of his life, compounded by depression and a drinking problem, Dunbar died in 1906, not yet 34 years of age, while Howells's introduction was affixed to The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar first published by Dodd, Mead & Company in 1913 and reprinted in 1968, Howells's words intact, still the only prefatory material to the poems themselves.

The inclusion of Howells's introduction with the Complete Poems in 1913 testifies to the enormous influence Howells held over American literature until his death in 1920. The reprinting in 1968 is more curious. Dunbar no longer needed Howells's help, nor did the critic's name still carry such authority. What chiefly remains are the ideas, both what are right and what is wrong. In the hundred years since Dunbar's death, it seems the poet, too close to his work to judge rightly, and the critic, a product of his antebellum upbringing, were both somewhat mistaken in their appraisals. Neither the poet nor the critic could foresee that Dunbar's most distinctive contribution to American poetry would be not the "Majors," as Dunbar had hoped, nor the dialect pieces, as Howells deemed, but the "Minors," those in more of a middle voice such as "Sympathy" and "We Wear the Mask." (1)

But Howells's ambivalent assessment of Dunbar's "Majors" has been repeatedly confirmed by a century of subsequent criticism. Employing a variation of Matthew Arnold's concept of "touchstones," Benjamin Brawley could bestow only muted praise upon Dunbar's most formal poems. However competently they may be written, they lack the vivid striking expression of such masters as Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats (1936, 115-22). As style effects content, Victor Lawson observed, Dunbar's "poems as race spokesman"--"Ode to Ethiopia" and "Frederick Douglass" foremost among these--"were in traditional phraseology, gave stereotyped praise, and expressed sorrow in cliches. They were marked by shallow optimism popular among poets in the tradition but unwarranted by the complexion of the times" (Lawson 1941, 48). In 1972 at the Centennial Conference honoring Dunbar's birth, Darwin Turner largely concurred, "Howells evaluated Darwin's talents perceptively. Dunbar's standard verse is talented but not exceptional ... copy-book imitation of sights and sounds familiar to the English lyricists who were his models, but foreign to the Ohio-born Dunbar" (Turner 1975, 72). While Blount credits "Frederick Douglass" as no less than initiating a whole "tradition of African American elegy," the critic also concedes, "when Dunbar published 'Frederick Douglass' in 1895, he had yet to arrive, as it were, as a poet" (2007, 239, 243). Now in the new millennium at the centennial of Dunbar's death, his formal poems--with significant exception--sound more stilted than ever.

A closer look at "Frederick Douglass" confirms the soundness of these general assessments. Consider the line in which Dunbar recounts how Douglass did not fear to face "the lash of scorn, the sting of petty spites." Stiffly balanced, the metaphors of preposition (to which Pound would soon voice his modernist objection) recall Hamlets most famous soliloquy and its extended question of "who would bear the whips and scorns of time," a self-perplexing meditation which flows and ebbs through a series of such metaphors and abstractions that ultimately "puzzle the will" and lose "the name of action" (3.1.55-87) Intriguingly, Douglass himself had viewed the slaves dilemma through the same soliloquy: the flight from slavery was fraught with dangers; "we were overtaken by our pursuers, and, in our resistance, we were shot dead upon the spot! I say, this picture sometimes appalled us, and made us 'rather bear those ills we had, / Than fly to others, that we knew not of" (1994, 74). Within a few pages, however, Douglass rejects that grim resignation. What is so apt to the dramatic moment in Hamlet and so complexly evoked in Douglass' Narrative hardly fits the elegiac occasion and heroic tone of Dunbar's poem. Douglass knows what he is doing; young Dunbar drifts into the phrasing. Indeed, in Douglass' own prose the lash and whip are rendered far more powerfully--and literally---in no need of metaphor. But if Dunbar truly wants to use the lash as symbolic synecdoche, not merely itself, it is still relatively enervated, lacking, say, the frightening moral logic Lincoln expressed near the end of the Civil War through the same image: "Every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword" (1989, 687). In the sort of cross-genre comparison Pound would encourage, it can be seen how Dunbar's poem falls short of great prose as well as great poetry.
  The same fifth stanza concludes with a striking couplet:
  He [Douglass] dared the lightning in the lightning's track,
  And answered thunder with his thunder back. (Dunbar 1993,11. 29-30)


The attitude is Miltonic, specifically Satanic, and draws upon the Romantic reading of Satan in his defiance as the true defender of liberty. And like Milton's Satan, Douglass "felt himself too mighty to be small." Dunbar, however, also takes care to distinguish his agonist:
  The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,
  And set in bold relief each dark--hued cloud;
  To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
  And hurled at evil what was evil due. (Dunbar 1993,11. 21-24)


Whereas Satan resolves in Paradise Lost, "Evil be thou my Good" (4.110), Dunbar has already precluded that moral complication. Dunbar has engaged one of the most vivid and provocative characters in English literature, found much he could use and swerved as he needed. But even as he precociously asserts his poetic powers, Dunbar lapses into odd and unfortunate phrases far more debilitating than yet another heavy-handed metaphor of preposition. Why include careless cliches of the "dark-hued cloud" and the "proper hue" of "sin and crime" when both Douglass and Dunbar were very dark hued? This is where Shakespeare might have helped in the way he plays off stereotypes of blackness in the Dark Lady sonnets (which likely have little to do with race but do question the presumed valence of blackness), or has the Duke of Venice praise the virtue of prelapsarian Othello:
  If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
  Your son-in-law is far more fair than black. (1.3.289-9(1)


But Dunbar only muddles the imagery, and the poem cannot quite integrate its literary influences to the demands of the occasion. What might have been a stunning cohesive statement on Douglass, race, the political moment, and of course personal and national grief, never rises to the highest possibilities of poetry, such as the way "Lycidas" synthesizes classical elegy, Christian mystery, contemporary crises in church and state, the poets deepest fears and aspirations, and a pervasive grief, personal, institutional, universal. Rather, Dunbar's poem strains in lines bending backwards to cinch their rhymes, contorting "No miser in the good he held was he," just to rhyme with "free," or still worse, "And held her weal all other ends above," just to chime with "mother's deepest love." If "Lycidas" is a great poem about a good man (King would be forgotten today apart from Milton), then "Frederick Douglass" is at best a good poem about a great man, and sometimes it is something still less.

Dunbar's "Frederick Douglass" is very much a poem of its age, not one for all time. It suffers the poetic mannerisms of a late, late Romanticism as well as the exigencies of its occasion. It belongs not with Hamlet, "Lycidas," and Paradise Lost, but with, say, "In Memory of the Hon. Frederick Douglass, Sage of Anacostia" (e.g. "The sunshine of his youth by clouds was dim, / Laid in the lowly cradle of a slave, / The land of Liberty denied to him, / Which bounty to her other sons she gave") by Josephine Delphine Henderson Heard, and the many other elegies written in the weeks and months after Douglass' death on February 20, 1895. In its ambition, dignity, sincerity, promptness in composition, and breadth in circulation, Dunbar's poem may be the most enduring of these laments, but it remains very much of its age, of the nation, of the race, of poetry, of the poet. Dunbar, not yet 24, had no choice but "bitter constraint" ("Lycidas" 1.6)--such is the nature of elegy, abrupt and demanding--to take on a topic for which he was not yet fully ready. He clearly had read widely in the literary tradition, but he had not yet found his place within it, or how to use it most fully to his advantage. Bloom's suggestive terms for the revisionary ratio of the belated poet to his precursors, from dinamen to apophrades, "poetic misprision" and "return of the dead" respectively, all seem too grand for what is happening here. There is none quite apposite to Dunbar and "Frederick Douglass," where the relationship may be something as simple as apprenticeship, and the poem a very uneven apprentice piece. Jay Martin and Gossie Hudson, the editors of The Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader, do not rank the elegy highly among Dunbar's own poetry, seeing fit to include but the first two of its ten stanzas, a mere twelve lines in all. And what are anthologies and selected works, still more the thousands of reading lists and syllabi that emerge from them, but the practical expression of the theoretical canon?

Even more than Dunbar's poem, Howells's review and introduction belong to their own awkward age. The remarks on race, so glaringly incorrect in the twenty-first century, were actually considered liberal and progressive at the time. On the basis of his advocacy of Dunbar in particular and African-American literature in general, in 1909 Howells was asked to serve as a founding sponsor for the NAACP, a role he gladly fulfilled. Perhaps the more subtle mischief of Howells's essays, the introduction especially, is that they never knew the whole of Dunbar's career and yet have been privileged as though they did. Never revised by Howells himself, the 1896 introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life was never the last word on Dunbar's poetry (though strangely enough Bookman did print a version as eulogy upon Dunbar's death in 1906), and as such should never have been the first word to his Collected Poems through almost the entire twentieth century, until Braxton's edition of the Collected Poems appeared in 1993.

Howells wrote once more on Dunbar's behalf, again in profound and unwitting ambivalence. In February 1897, as Dunbar set off for what became a six-month tour of England, Howells wrote letters of introduction to London literary life. The letter to David Douglas reads in its entirety: "Allow me to present my friend, Mr. Paul Dunbar, the first of his race to put his race into poetry. I hope he will show you his book, and let it say for his worth the things he is too modest to say for himself" (Howells 1981, 143). Once again Howells writes with generosity and goodwill to open opportunities for Dunbar, both professional and personal. The principal aim of the tour was to broaden Dunbar's audience and to sell more books, but for Dunbar the tour could not help but become a kind of literary pilgrimage, an opportunity to draw closer to the land and its poetry he had admired from afar. Moreover, Dunbar marveled to find himself as a cultured black poet in England far less of an outsider than he had been in America. And yet the very praise of Howells's envoy--"the first of his race to put his race into poetry"--rubs raw the old wound of racial-poetic profiling. Whether upon principle or circumstances, Dunbar never used the letter. Regardless, Howells had provided, though only half-wittingly it seems, means and ample motive to make Dunbar a stronger poet.

Back in July 1896, Dunbar first expressed his thanks for the review in words that well cover his whole relationship with Howells:
  Now from the depths of my heart I want to thank you. You yourself do
  not know what you have done for me. I feel much as a poor,
  insignificant, helpless boy would feel to suddenly find himself
  knighted. I can tell you nothing about myself because there is
  nothing to tell. My whole life has been
  simple, obscure and uneventful. I have written my little pieces and
  sometimes recited them, but it seemed hardly by my volition. The
  kindly praise you have accorded me will be an incentive to more
  careful work. My greatest fear is that you may have been more kind
  to me than just. (Dunbar 1975, 435)


The gratitude is sincere and deserved, for Howells undoubtedly accelerated Dunbar's career, winning him a wider readership, effectively bringing him to New York, confirming the contract with Dodd, Mead & Company, connecting him with Major James Pond, the literary manager, who in turn would send Dunbar off to England. Yet uneasiness haunts the letter, a genuine "fear" lurking within the polite formality, which accords with Dunbar's private dismay at being typecast by Howells. The perfectly ambivalent sentence, "You yourself do not know what you have done for me," depends on its context for its sense of gratitude, but in its resonance casts Dunbar as a persecuted Christ-figure (an association Dunbar repeatedly applies to Douglass); Christ spoke from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34, AV). At this vulnerable stage in his artistic agon, the poet confesses himself as a "poor, insignificant, helpless boy" (a doubly disempowered status for a young African-American man), his life "simple, obscure, and uneventful," the poet almost powerless, his poems "hardly" written by "volition." But it would be facile and false to cast Howells as villain. He is at once both enabling benefactor and the imposing "Dean" that intensifies Dunbar's fears. As such, he truly is Dunbar's "incentive to more careful work."

Over the nine remaining years of his short life, Dunbar wrote prolifically in a variety of genres--drama, novel, short story, essay, poem--and in a wide range of styles--dialect, middle voice, and high formality. It is in the sonnet form that Dunbar found the perfect medium to honor Douglass more fitly and in doing so to answer Howells's implicit challenge. By the end of the nineteenth century the sonnet had evolved into one of the most traditional and demanding forms which automatically evoked a sense of one's precursors from its Petrarchan origins (including Wyatt and Surrey in English), through the great Elizabethans such as Sidney and Shakespeare, to Romantics such as Wordsworth, Keats, and Longfellow. Within this celebrated history of the form, Dunbar turned to the most relevant and most imposing precursor, Milton once more.

Milton wrote fewer than two dozen sonnets (Shakespeare over 150, Wordsworth more than 500!), but no single poet has contributed more to the development of the English sonnet. Milton's early sonnets follow Petrarchan convention, five of them in Italian no less, but he soon outgrew the sentiments although not the form. Unlike Shakespeare, Milton maintained the more demanding Italian rhyme scheme with its octave (ABBAABBA), sestet (CDECDE, or variations upon this), and emphasis upon the volta, though he would go on to liberate the placement of the volta to turn more freely with the thought, sometimes even against the form. Once in English, Milton wrote occasional sonnets, rather than extended sequence, but those individual poems do gather in several clusters. Emulating Tasso's "heroic" sonnets, the largest cluster praises famous contemporaries such as Henry Lawes and Oliver Cromwell as well as the less famous, otherwise obscure, and elusively anonymous. A second cluster of political sonnets (to which the sonnets on public political figures would also belong) variously comment on the reception of his own divorce tracts, ponder the state of truth and art in times of civil war, or call apocalyptic doom upon crimes against humanity. A third cluster voices with poignant and unprecedented clarity the anxieties of the poets agon, worrying his lack of "ripeness" before his "great Task-Master's eye," fearing his "Talent" has been wasted, with only death and deeper darkness to come (Sonnets 7,19). All three of these Miltonic concerns--praise of the virtuous individual, political commentary, artistic anxiety--converge in Dunbar's Italian sonnet "Douglass."

The line from Milton to Dunbar, so long it might seem to sag, passes directly through Wordsworth who pulls the connection taut. It was the example of Milton that first awakened Wordsworth to the possibilities of the sonnet, which led the latter to revitalize the form after more than a hundred years of relative neglect. In "Scorn Not the Sonnet," Wordsworth understands the form as a forum itself for the aspiring poet's agon In the opening imperative, "Scorn not," ambition wrestles with anxiety, boldness against fear. The sonnet then proceeds to survey great poets working in the form, beginning a-chronologically with Shakespeare, going back to Petrarch, Tasso, Camoens, Dante and Spenser, before concluding upon Milton. Aptly, Wordsworth's closest and strongest precursors, Shakespeare and Milton, begin and end the list. Having called forth his illustrious precursors, Wordsworth appends his own name to the list, explicitly in the attribution (making himself either first or last depending on the layout of the much published poem), implicitly as the necessary successor. Even as he praises most highly, Wordsworth intimates a relative failure on Milton's part to realize the full potential of the form:
  and when a damp
  Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
  The thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
  Soul-animating strains--alas, too few! (Wordsworth 1954,11.11-14)


In this sonnet upon the sonnet Wordsworth has come to continue and complete the work Milton had begun but could not finish.

In "London 1802" Wordsworth has composed the quintessential Miltonic sonnet: Italian in rhyme scheme, richly allusive, political, prophetic, and in praise of a heroic individual--Milton himself. The title of place and time establishes the historical context. The octave opens in impassioned vocative and with Milton looking on laments the state of the nation with simultaneous pride and shame:
  Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour:
  England hath need of thee: she is a fen
  Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
  Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
  Have forfeited their ancient English dower
  Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
  Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
  And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
  (Wordsworth 1954, 11. 1-8)


In a wild and wondrous age when it seems all the world (and especially France) has been striving toward new possibilities of political and personal freedom, every agency and every individual in England, which should be a leader among nations, has given in to petty self-centered materialism. There are echoes of Paradise Lost, notably in "bower," "inward happiness," and the imperative "raise," but the subject and tone are most characteristic of Milton's polemical prose such as Areopagitica where the puritan revolutionary typically saw "a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep" (1957, 745). Wordsworth's sestet turns from the nation to the individual, Milton alone, even lonely, a solitary star:
  Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
  Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
  Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
  So didst thou travel on life's common way,
  In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
  The lowliest duties on herself did lay. (Wordsworth 1954, 11. 9-14)


Is England a lost cause? Perhaps, for a time, as Milton himself seemed to concede in the solitary heroism of Abdiel. Even when the vast majority errs, the individual may still be true. The "majestic" voice honors the epic grandeur of Paradise Lost, but the lines soon follow Milton's own kenotic Christ-like descent from the heights of "heaven" to the "common way" and "lowliest duties," that is, Milton's tracts in defense of political, religious, and intellectual freedom.

"London 1802" popularly carries the alternate title of "Milton." Similarly, in contrast to the elegy's full "Frederick Douglass," Dunbar titles his sonnet simply "Douglass," claiming for its subject a singular self-evident stature. The briefer title befits a briefer poem, fourteen intense lines compared to the elegy's expansive sixty-two (in fact, nearly exactly the dimensions Martin and Hudson were looking for in their abbreviation of the elegy).The epic poet and ex-slave may seem at first to have little in common, but through the mediation of Wordsworth's sonnet, Milton and Douglass become comparable as the voice of godly conscience through a time of civil war and its aftermath. Strengthening the link, the octave begins with a prominent Miltonism. In the invocation to Book 7 of Paradise Lost, Milton expresses his precarious position during the Restoration:
  More safe I Sing with mortal voice, unchang'd
  To hoarse or mute, though fall'n on evil days,
  On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues;
  In darkness, and with dangers compast round,
  And solitude; yet not alone, while thou
  Visit'st my slumbers Nightly. ... (7.24-29)


Dunbar's "evil days" (in the Dedication to Don Juan Byron initiates his Miltonic stanzas upon this same phrase) (2) are the reactionary racism and lynchings of the new century. Both Douglass and Milton backed the winning side in their respective civil wars, but decades later it seems as though little had been gained. Whereas Milton calls out to his Muse, Dunbar calls out to Douglass:
  Ah, Douglass, we have fall'n on evil days,
  Such days as thou, not even thou didst know,
  When thee, the eyes of that harsh long ago
  Saw, salient, at the cross of devious ways,
  And all the country heard thee with amaze.
  Not ended then, the passionate ebb and flow,
  The awful tide that battled too and fro;
  We ride amid a tempest of dispraise. (Dunbar 1993, 11. 1-8)


The "thou," somewhat affected in "Fredrick Douglass," is now meaningfully archaic, pointing backwards through Wordsworth to Milton. As realistic memory, "salient" suggests Douglass standing prominently at a podium, but metaphorically, as "the eyes of that harsh long ago," he seems to be hovering far above the sea (an element slantingly transferred from Wordsworth's poem) like Milton's "star." The litotic expression, "not ended then," traces a single continuous tragedy from slavery through the civil war through the failures of reconstruction into the stubborn oppression of the new century, as the final line of the octave returns the poem from the heroic and increasingly legendary past to the vexing present.

In that present the sestet turns from the plight of the nation to a prayer for Douglass' salvific visitation. Dunbar always had a weakness for prepositional metaphors, but perhaps this one can be forgiven for the surging alliteration it enables, "Now, when the waves of swift dissension swarm, / And Honor, the strong pilot lieth stark" (11. 9-10). Dunbar's maturity can be surmised in the prepositional metaphor he does not make, swiftly assuming rather than belaboring that this endangered vessel is the ship of state. Line eleven completes the slow turn as the opening "Ah" of weariness and resignation deepens and rounds into the full-throated "Oh" As Wordsworth invoked Milton, "Oh! raise us up, return to us again," Dunbar calls out,
  Oh, for thy voice high-sounding o'er the storm,
  For thy strong arm to guide the shivering bark,
  The blast-defying power of thy form,
  To give us comfort through the lonely dark.
  (Dunbar 1993, 11. 11-14)


A still deeper context for this invocation is a conflation of two gospel accounts of dark and stormy seas, as Dunbar forges a typically Miltonic integration of distinct yet mutually suggestive biblical places. In Matthew 8:23-27, Jesus awakens within the boat to calm the sea with his commanding voice. In Matthew 14:24-32, Jesus (he "that walked the waves" in the Lycidian recension) comforts the frightened disciples with his unexpected presence. Whereas Wordsworth suggested a Christ-like humility in Milton's "cheerful godliness," Dunbar casts Douglass as a more explicit and audacious Christ-figure. Yet the poem's final phrase balances this virtual apotheosis with a subtle touch of personal sentiment. It is only the days that are "evil" but the dark that is "lonely" without Douglass, who was a mentor and friend as well as a national hero. Much improved over the (not so) "proper hue" of "sin and crime" from the earlier elegy, the closing image of "the lonely dark" is apt, subtle, and poignant.

Douglass is the guardian of Dunbar's shore, but Milton is its genius. The actual epiphany of Douglass remains uncertain. The poem records the speaker's desire but not yet the answer to that prayer. The presence of Milton, however, is manifest throughout the poem. While Dunbar calls for Douglass, the poem successfully re-presents Milton and literally achieves, in Bloomian phrase, apophrades, return of the dead: "strong poets keep returning from the dead, and only through the quasi-mediumship of other strong poets" (Bloom 1997, 140-41). For Bloom this return is always problematic as if every gain entails a loss, and every life, a death, if not of the epigone as in most of Bloom's revisionary relationships, then of the precursor as the strong son lives at the fathers expense. But the presence of Wordsworth here liberates the poem from its one-on-one death match and suggests a more generous vitality where all may thrive at once. Dunbar, Wordsworth, Milton, even the gospel writers, all live in "Douglass," and the life of each further invigorates the others.

The achievement of Dunbar's "Douglass" is well illuminated by Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the seminal essay--and as such the buried and broken seed--underlying Bloom's ideas of the poetic agon. Eliot observes,
  We shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual
  parts of [a poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets, his
  ancestors, assert their own immortality most vigorously. And I do not
  mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full
  maturity. (Eliot 1975, 38)


Eliot accounts here for not only the meaningful succession of Milton, Wordsworth, and Dunbar but also for the limitations of "Frederick Douglass" with all its symptoms of "the impressionable period of adolescence." Eliot grounds this living tradition in the poet's development of "the historical sense which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty fifth year." Dunbar wrote "Frederick Douglass" at age twenty-two or twenty-three; he wrote "Douglass" at twenty-eight or twenty-nine. Intriguingly, Dunbar spent his twenty-fifth birthday touring the nation where Milton and Wordsworth once walked and wrote. Despite the semblance of Eliot's actuarial precision, there is nothing magical about the age. The historical sense that makes all the difference comes only "by great labor," and only then can it
  compel a man to write not merely with his own generation in his
  bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe
  and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a
  simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This
  historical sense ... is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at
  the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his
  place in time, of his own contemporaneity. (Eliot 1975,38)


To mingle Howells's and Eliot's ters, "Frederick Douglass" may be "literary" (and as such rightly esteemed by Howells) yet not fully traditional in the way that "London 1802" and "Douglass" are at once both traditional and powerfully inventive.

In the Introduction to The Collected Poetry Braxton demonstrates Dunbar's growth as a poet through comparison of the two poems titled "Sympathy." The first appears only in Oak and Ivy (1893) and consists of three ballad stanzas aglow with "Sweet sympathy, benignant ray," and, truth be told, a bit sticky with its "balm to bathe the wounded heart" (11. 5, 9). Dunbar chose not to include this poem in Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) or in any subsequent collection. Some years later, however, Dunbar would reuse the title for an entirely different poem which first appears in Lyrics of the Hearthside (1899). This second "Sympathy" concludes, of course, upon one of the most memorable lines in American poetry, "I know why the caged bird sings." Braxton draws two conclusions from this comparison: first, that Dunbar, though both precocious and short-lived, did "continue to grow as a poet"; and second, that in his growth "Dunbar moves away from the imitation of European models and toward a strong poetic voice of his own" (Braxton 1993, xx-xxi). A similar comparison of "Frederick Douglass" and the later "Douglass" supports Braxton's first point but qualifies her second. The later poems of both pairs give evidence of "the great labor" Dunbar expended to become a better poet or, in the preferred term of both Bloom and Braxton, a stronger poet. But unlike "Sympathy," the sonnet "Douglass" actually moves closer to "European models," specifically Miltonic, even as Dunbar achieves "a strong poetic voice of his own." The second "Sympathy," that one unforgettable line even, wedges Dunbar into the larger canon beyond the subcategory of African American poetry, but "Douglass" is an equally strong poem and--so Dunbar himself would likely deem it--may well be the more significant accomplishment,

There is no need to argue that Dunbar is a great formal poet in the ways that Milton and Shakespeare are. He has no monumental work that compares with Paradise Lost or any of the great tragedies. But it is more than plausible that "Douglass" is a great formal poem and Dunbar a necessary and vital poet. Though Dunbar has been misdoubted as much as any American poet, he has earned that mysterious rank as a poet "strong" (a term, notably, first used by "misdoubting" Marvell to describe Milton). (3) "Dunbar Lives!" Elizabeth Alexander affirmed at his centennial conference in 2006, and "Douglass" exemplifies the richness of that life. As older poets and poems live on in "Douglass" and give it strength, evidence of its own vitality can be observed in the literary life it engenders, such as the impeccable sonnets of Claude McKay and Countee Cullen and, still later, certain poems of Robert Hayden. In "Paul Laurence Dunbar," Hayden writes directly on the subject of his "elder brother," but Dunbar hardly seems to live in these melancholy attenuated lines which chiefly mourn the peculiar burden, like stones upon roses, under which the black poet labors. It is in Hayden's own sonnet, "Frederick Douglass," where Dunbar lives most vigorously alongside the title figure.

Hayden's title, "Frederick Douglass," restores the full name to its subject along with more details of his extraordinary character. The poem is at once a Miltonic sonnet, like Wordsworth's "Milton" and Dunbar's "Douglass," and yet very much of the mid-twentieth century. The rhyme and meter are gone, not surprisingly for a poem written during the ascendancy of free verse, but in context of the poem's lineage, their absence suggests more than mere concession to fashion. Three hundred years earlier Milton explained his rejection of rhyme for Paradise Lost as a simultaneous poetical and political act:
  This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect,
  though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to
  be esteem'd an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty
  recover'd to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage
  of Riming. (Milton 1957, 210)


One can sense Hayden reasoning similarly as he extends the argument from epic to lyric and from rhyme to meter (though Milton himself might demur) in his expansive lines seeking a "freedom" and "liberty" inclusive of "all." (4) Of course a true sonnet must be more than a count of fourteen lines, and it is in the volta that Hayden engages the deeper structure of the form. The poem does not split into a strict octave and sestet, but it does divide into two sentences, the second turning belatedly, as if put off for too long, upon the first.

The first sentence over-runs the octave into ten and one-half lines of Miltonic complexity spanning three semi-colons, a medial colon, and no less than twenty commas before pausing midline upon its period:
  When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
  and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
  usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
  when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
  reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
  than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
  this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
  beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
  where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
  this man superb in love and logic, this man
  shall be remembered. (Dunbar 1993, 11. 1-11)


In contrast to the complex grammar, the language is relatively simple, with two exceptions, a contrasting pair of self-rhyming pairs (little shoots sprouting from the leveled stump of rhyme?) privileging the physical fact of pulse, "diastole, systole," over hollow rhetoric, "gaudy mumbo jumbo." Otherwise, the language ranges from a sublime simplicity to the insistently elementary, repeating "when" (five times), "it" (five), and "this" (eight). Grammatically, "when" serves as the adverbial conjunction subordinating the dependent clauses, yet the repetition retains a sense of the interrogative--just when will this freedom ever be ours? "This" participates in two different clusters. First, "this" pairs with "it," the "freedom" and "liberty" of the dependent clauses. In the independent clause after the colon, "this" now applies to Douglass, but the resonance--still within the same sentence--suggests the vital continuity between the idea of liberty and the man himself, "this man, superb in love and logic, this man." Isolated in its half-line, the belated predicate at last brings grammatical closure, but it hardly satisfies the long suspense. "Shall be remembered"? Has he not been remembered and honored for decades upon decades? It remains for the second sentence, the concentrated "sestet," to clarify.

The poem pivots upon its "Oh," and it is here that Hayden s fellow poets live most audibly. Hayden acknowledges in "Paul Laurence Dunbar" "his 'cri du coeur' our own," and so it is. Hayden's midline "Oh"(coming later and later) recalls Dunbar's own eleventh-line cry to Douglass, "Oh, for thy voice," which itself reverberates with Wordsworth's call upon Milton, "Oh! raise us up":
  Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
  not with legends and poems and wreathes of bronze alone,
  but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
  fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.
  (Dunbar 1993, 11. 11-14)


Yet even as these voices richly harmonize in a perpetuated and mounting present tense, Hayden seems to turn against poetry altogether in a startling swerve from the classic agon as exemplified by Milton and theorized by Bloom. Whereas Milton once called upon his own poetic ambition, "O run, prevent them"--ostensibly, the magi; theoretically, his precursors--"with thy humble ode ... Have thou the honor first," Hayden holds a very different aspiration: not to be the first, but to be the last. Bloom asserts that the strongest poets strive to be both first and last, as Milton effectually was in varying degrees in the masque and epic and perhaps even the elegy, but Hayden has something different in mind, poetry superseded by life itself. "Visioning," so crucial in the "octave," serves merely as means to the "fleshing" of the "sestet" an incarnation of dream into reality, not just once in Douglass, but through Douglass' one life into many lives. Toward the realization of this dream, Hayden always placed "Frederick Douglass" as the final poem in the several volumes in which it appeared. (5)

As exemplar and means of this incarnation, Douglass is portrayed once again--by now we have learned to expect it--as a Christ-figure, an association which strengthens the otherwise so very subtle biblical allusion in the poem's final phrase, "the beautiful, needful thing" In Luke 10:38-42 Jesus praises Mary's attentiveness over Martha's busy-ness:
  [Mary] sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word. But Martha was
  cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, "Lord, dost
  thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?" And Jesus
  answered and said unto her, "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and
  troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath
  chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."


Luke never specifies just what this needful thing is, nor does Hayden's poem. Between the two texts, this needful thing might be glossed as a living and loving communion, between the human and divine in Luke, perhaps the divine in the human for Hayden. (Even Howells, we may recall, was seeking "the precious thing, the divine thing after all.")

For centuries of readers, Martha and Mary symbolized the tension between the active and the contemplative lifestyles, whether of saints or poets. Not surprisingly, the passage informs Milton's wrestling with his own poetic ambition. In its "one Talent which is death to hide," his Sonnet 19 ("When I consider how my light is spent") obviously engages the parable of the talents from Matthew 25, but all that only brings the octave to its crisis. It remains for the sestet to reconcile the tension between action and readiness, between urgency and patience, concluding, "They also serve who only stand and wait," or with even greater calm, They also serve who only sit and listen. And indeed, while the Nativity Ode exemplifies Bloomian agon in its famous induction, "O run, prevent them ... Have thou the honor first," that is not how the poem concludes. Less graspingly, more peaceably, the final image suggests the author has quietly entered into the angelic choir assembled around the newborn babe:
  And all about the Courtly stable
  Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable.
  (Dunbar 1993, 11. 243-44)


The angels "sit" like Mary, "serviceable" as Martha. Here is "order," but it is "all about," implicitly circular, a community rather than a competition. In "Frederick Douglass" Hayden has gathered a similar fellowship transcending both time and any color-line.

Dunbar's "Douglass" first appeared in Lyrics of Love and Laughter in 1903, the same year that W.E.B. Du Bois published his collection of essays The Souls of Black Folks. Here Du Bois imagines a time, perhaps even now, when the black writer transcends the segregations of society as well as the internalized doubling, dividing veil of racial self-consciousness: "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not." The author's agon is rewarded at last. The idea of a canon is not abandoned, only integrated. Du Bois continues in his rhapsody, "From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension" (1990, 82). Realized "above the veil," Du Bois' vision is apocalyptic, literally, etymologically, the taking away (apo-) of the veil (-kalupsis). Perhaps this is how Hayden's plea for no more poems is to be understood, not as contempt for poetry but as a moving beyond those poems suffering and perpetuating a racially divided consciousness. Du Bois and Hayden did--or rather, do--believe in a timeless reunion of blessed souls, but until that time, or under that heaven, Hayden has come close to assembling just such a fellowship. Within the fourteen lines of "Frederick Douglass," Dunbar sits with Milton and he winces not. Hayden has summoned Wordsworth and Luke, and they have graciously come with no scorn nor condescension. And just to the side is the most curious sight of all, if one has eyes to see it: the figure of Howells looking on, somewhat embarrassed but eager to join so many forgiving and welcoming faces.

Notes

(1) There is a popular misconception that the term "Minors" refers to Dunbar's poems in dialect. A closer look at Majors and Minors (Toledo, Ohio: Hadltey & Hadley, 1895), however, shows that both the "Majors" and the "Minors" are written in standard English, their difference seeming to be that the former are longer poems on larger more general themes, the latter shorter or more personal poems. The poems in dialect are in a separate section with a different index titled "Humor and Dialect."

(2) Byron, like Milton before, like Dunbar to come, finds himself "fallen in evil days on evil tongues" and considers calling "the blind Old Man ... from the grave" to "be alive again" and so terrorize political complacency and, implicitly, invigorate his own poetry (Don Juan, Dedication 10:1, 11:1-2, 4).

(3) In "On Paradise Lost," first appended to the 1674 edition of Paradise Lost, Marvell recalls his experience reading Milton's epic:
  the Argument
  Held me for a while misdoubting his Intent,
  That he would ruin (for 1 saw him strong)
  The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song. (Milton 1957, 209,11. 5-8)


(4) For Hayden's understanding of "Frederick Douglass" as a liberated sonnet, see Robert Hayden, "The Poet and His Art: A Conversation," in Collected Prose, ed. Frederick Glaysher (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984), 185-87.

(5) "Frederick Douglass" comes last in A Ballad of Remembrance (1962, 1966), Selected Poems (1966), and Angle of Ascent: New and Selected Poems (1975). From its inception Hayden thought of "Frederick Douglass" as a "culminating" and "climactic" poem (Collected Prose, 185). Adhering more strictly to chronology, Glaysher's arrangement in Collected Poems understandably, though regrettably, sacrifices this important gesture.

Works Cited

Alexander, Elizabeth. 2007. "Dunbar Lives!" African American Review 41.2:395-401.

Bloom, Harold. 2003. A Map of Misreading. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

____. 1997 The Anxiety of Influence. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Blount, Marcellus. 2007. "Paul Laurence Dunbar and the African American Elegy." African American Review 41.2: 239-46.

Brawley, Benjamin. 1936. Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Braxton, Joanne. 1993. Introduction to The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Douglass, Frederick. 1994. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. In Autobiographies. New York: Library of America.

Dubois, W. E. B. 1990. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Library of America.

Dunbar, Paul Laurence. 1993. The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ed. Joanne Braxton. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

____. 1975. The Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader. Ed. Jay Martin and Gossie Hudson. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

____. 1920. "Unpublished Letters of Paul Laurence Dunbar to a Friend." The Crisis 20: 73-76.

Eliot, T. S. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." In Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Hayden, Robert. 1985. Collected Poems. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. New York: Liveright.

Heard, Josephine Delphine Henderson. 1901. Morning Glories. 2nd ed. Atlanta: Franklin Printing and Publishing.

Howells, William Dean. 1981. Selected Letters: 1892-1901. Vol. 4. Ed. Thomas Wortham. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

____. 1896a. Introduction to Paul Laurence Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

____. 1896b. "Life and Letters." Harper's Weekly, June 27.

Lawson, Victor. 1941. Dunbar Critically Examined. Washington: Associated Publishers.

Lincoln, Abraham, 1989. "Second Inaugural Address." In Speeches and Writings: 1859-1865, ed. Don Fehrenbacher. New York: Library of America.

Martin, Jay, and Gossie Hudson, eds. 1975. The Paul Laurence Dunbar Reader. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Milton, John. 1957. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Hughes. New York: Odyssey Press.

Moses, Wilson. 1978. The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925. Hamden, CT: Archon.

Shakespeare, William. 1997. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Spender, Stephen. 1955. Collected Poems. New York: Random House.

Turner, Darwin. 1975. "Paul Laurence Dunbar: The Poet and the Myths." In A Singer in the Dawn: Reinterpretations of Paul Laurence Dunbar, ed. jay Martin. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Wordsworth, William. 1954. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth. Vol. 3. 2nd ed. Ed. E. de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

John Savoie teaches great books at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. His essays have appeared in journals ranging from English Literary Renaissance to New England Quarterly, and his own poetry has appeared widely including in Shenandoah and Poetry.
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Title Annotation:Essays; Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar and John Milton
Author:Savoie, John
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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