VOICES: Paul Laurence Dunbar, prophetic poet, anticipated the life of Dr. King



Paul Laurence Dunbar was an imaginative and even prophetic poet. He saw more than The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence spoken in his neighborhood and it captivated his creative energies. Dunbar ranks with Mark Twain as first among equals for preserving and presenting to the Academy of Literature “Dialect.” William Dean Howells sees Dunbar’s use of dialect as the major distinction which sets him apart from other writers of his generation. Dialect, if one is honest, was spoken before Dunbar was born and is still spoken long after his passing.

It may be stated that Dunbar took note of the way language was used in his neighborhood, the churches and the entertainment centers. No doubt dialect came about because there were laws which stated that it was a crime to teach Black people how to read and write. This may well have been done to prevent Black people and slaves from having questions about The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. Both documents state that “All men have been created free and equal.” But I digress.

Since “He Had His Dream” is a poem based on a metaphorical interpretation, it may well be OK to see Martin Luther King, Jr. as the narrator. The poem uses the third person He to speak about the person being written about. The first five lines are not heroic couplets but seem to function as if they were:

He had his dream. And all through life

Worked up to it through toil and strife.

These five couplets appear devoted to the first half of King’s life.

The second stanza of five couplets are devoted to King’s assassination and his last sermon where he states a number of well-known facts. King seems to anticipate his own demise and Dunbar writes with a similar awareness when he writes the following lines:

He labored hard and failed at last

His sails too weak to bear the blast

The raging tempest tore away

And sent his beating bark astray

King then says it doesn’t matter how long he lives, a long life is to be sought after, but he is satisfied and confident because he has been to the Mountain-top, and he has seen The Promised Land. These statements suggests that he believes he has lived a good life, and he can die a peaceful death. King states:

“The tempest will be short

My bark will come to port.”

And Dunbar concludes his prophetic poem with the line he has repeated twice before: He Had His Dream and with this line he brings to close a magnificent and prophetic standard English poem for which he is not often praised.

Each of these statements are prophetic in the sense that Dunbar had lived and died before Dr. King was born. We do not know if Dr. King ever read Dunbar. He may have since poetry is a staple of ministers and sermons, but at this moment I am not sure.

Dr. Herbert Woodward Martin served as professor of English and poet-in-residence at the University of Dayton.

About the Author