We’ve had Edward Thomas and Henry Vaughn waxing medicinal about autumn and affliction, and now it’s time to head back across the Atlantic to see what metaphor American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar brings to the season.
By coming to prominence in the 19th century, decades before James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 Book of American Negro Poetry signaled the tip-off of what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, Dunbar proved to Afro-American poets of the 20th century that it was possible to get over to the culture at large.
Paul Laurence Dunbar “Let the world dream otherwise…”
Like many cross-over artists, he did this by doing the established forms as well or better than the incumbents. One way he did this was by writing in regional black dialect, in poetry that is frankly hard for me to decode from my 21st century location. On one hand, regional dialect was all the rage in 19th century America across various regions and ethnic heritages, and there’s no reason that Afro-American dialect couldn’t be part of this—Oh, wait, there is a reason: white supremacy.*
Dunbar was born near the end of Reconstruction, right as the reaction to the possibility of full Afro-American humanity and citizenship was snapping much of his country back to a feudal system based on presumed, and if not presumed, enforced, inferiority. One can’t avoid the problematic nature of trying to portray a range of comic to simple-wisdom-dispensing Afro-American characters speaking a non-standard version of English in a context of a society that was fairly sure that was the extent of their intellect.**
Fitzgerald’s Auditorium later became Atlantic City’s “Club Harlem” and hosted jazz and R&B acts.
But that was only part of what Dunbar wrote. He also wrote supple 19th century lyric poetry in standard English, as good or better than the “Fireside School” of East-Coast poets that were the standard for American poetry at the time. And it’s that side of Dunbar’s work that I present today with his poem “October.”
“October” is an extended metaphor nicely developed over 24 lines of rhymed and metrical verse. Dunbar alternates his rhyme scheme of ABAB to AABB to add some delightful variety. The autumn notes of harvest bounty and oncoming winter are struck and sounded cleanly.
It was only after enjoying it as a good poem in this style that I began to notice another context, an undertone. This had happened to me earlier this year when presenting a Dunbar love poem, “Kidnapped.” After performing that one, I moved on to ask: did the child of two formerly enslaved people write a poem about being captured like a butterfly and being taken far away from some home landscape? Yes, he did. Was he consciously encoding that undertone into a popular poetry form that could have been printed on a genteel valentine? I don’t know. It seemed a stretch as a conscious choice, if only because the undertone/metaphor wasn’t developed as fully as it might have been.
This time, with “October,” Dunbar does develop his metaphor, and I know of no document where he comments on his thoughts on this poem. Autumn’s harvest is presented as if it were an economic system, and dare I say it: as a feudal/sharecropper system. October is wealthy and in charge, and harvest makes her wealthier. She is presented as foolish with this collected wealth. The poet observer’s persona is not outraged by this however—indeed he portrays her as happy, carefree, joyous, beautiful. And the poem is also unambiguously beautiful. Is this personified red-headed October, collector of the treasure and bounty, deserving of unstated disgust or even envy? Is this an idealized Daisy Buchanan-like character?
Your eye (like mine) as you first encounter this poem may be on the signified season. We can’t be expected to see the fall of the year as a real person, with an actual role and privilege in a system, can we? Is it only unconscious sub-text?
Ambiguous as this is, this is part of the wealth of poetry. It can be enjoyed as word-music. Its metaphors can be admired for cleverness and their own silent music of thought. But it’s also the way for the moving minds and experience of others to be shared. It is the concise literature of the oversoul.
I performed my solemn version of Dunbar with acoustic guitar, piano and electric bass. If you’d like to check out the text of Dunbar’s poem, or follow along as I perform it, it can be found here. The player for my musical performance is below.
*I expect a percentage of this blog’s treasured audience just clicked off when I typed that phrase. If you, indignant, at least followed to this footnote, thank you, I appreciate it. I know that some of you come to poetry and music to escape the turmoil of politics and social problems.
**It’s hard to do, but some Afro-Americans managed to do it. I can trace the musical line of it anyway, from Charlie Patton to George Clinton to the hip-hop movement.