Before we pass on from this world it would be nice if we had left our mark, given our contribution, made our claim in the history of human civilization. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to achieve such a goal? Wouldn’t it be horrible to have attained that level of recognition and yet be recognized for things you deemed inferior? In the poem “The Poet”, Paul Laurence Dunbar expresses his remorse at having written superior Standard English literature and yet only be known and praised for his Dialect works.
The first way Dunbar achieves this meaning is by his use of language. When Dunbar is talking about standard English poetry he speaks “of life, serenely sweet/ With, now and then, a deeper tone” (Dunbar 1-2). As he’s talking about his standard English poems, he uses sentimental language invoking images of peacefulness and bliss. The second half of the line alludes to the fact that Dunbar feels with standard English he is more free with expression than Dialect which he feels can only represent emotions of happiness or sadness. In the second stanza Dunbar tries to develop feelings of lament in the reader. “He sang of love when earth was young/ And love, itself, was in his lays” (Dunbar 5-6).
He continues to use romantic almost even melodramatic language to bring to mind images of earlier times that were better than the dreary world of his day. In the last lines of the poem the language changes and expresses grief over the fact that the general public only recognizes him for his Dialect works. Dunbar writes “But ah, the world, it turned to praise/ A jingle in a broken tongue” (Dunbar 7-8). Here he is mocking the Dialect tradition, as he doesn’t consider it to be poetry. He refers to it as a “jingle”, which causes the reader to think of advertisements and “selling out”. We know that he was talking about the Dialect tradition by his use of the words “broken tongue”. By calling Dialect tradition a “broken tongue”, Dunbar is referring to his own feelings that the white’s attempt at capturing the African-American’s speech by Dialect tradition is a poor, if not incorrect, representation.
Even though not many blacks in the day thought the Dialect tradition illustrated their true speech, they were confined to use what they had. Because that style of writing was so popular at the time, Dunbar’s Dialect pieces got more notoriety than his standard English; and unfortunately the latter he felt was of higher quality.
Another way Dunbar criticizes his inability to escape the brand of a Dialect poet is in the structure of the poem. About three quarters of the poem is Dunbar speaking about his standard English works. Then the very last two lines of the poem he contrasts the standard English side of his work with the Dialect tradition writing he has done. Here he is trying to tell the reader that even though a majority of his work was done in standard English, he is only recognized for his mastery of the Dialect tradition.
The last part of the first stanza, “He voiced the world’s absorbing beat” (Dunbar 4), refers to Dunbar’s attempt at writing about people and the things he felt were important to people in general. Although the subject, for the most part, was about African-Americans, it could have easily been extrapolated to every person. His frustration with the blindness of American readers is clear by the end of the poem. Dunbar eventually died still angry at the fact that although slavery had been dead for over sixty years, he was still enslaved, by the wants of the American public, to produce Dialect tradition literature when he knew he was one of the world’s best standard English writers of his day.