Paul Laurence Dunbar

American poet, novelist, and short story writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries

Paul Laurence Dunbar (June 27, 1872February 9, 1906) was an American poet and writer. Dunbar gained national recognition for his book of poems, Lyrics of a Lowly Life (1896).

Paul Laurence Dunbar. Source: Wood, Norman B. White Side of a Black Subject. Chicago: American Publishing, 1897.


  • An angel, robed in spotless white,
    Bent down and kissed the sleeping Night.
    Night woke to blush; the sprite was gone.
    Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.
    • "Dawn" (1895)
  • It is a little dark still, but there are warnings of the day and somewhere out of the darkness a bird is singing to the Dawn.
  • Because you love me I have much achieved,
    Had you despised me then I must have failed,
    But since I knew you trusted and believed,
    I could not disappoint you and so prevailed.
    • Encouraged, in The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1913).
  • You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
    You are soft as the nesting dove.
    Come to my heart and bring it rest
    As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.
    • Invitation to Love, in the 1913 collection of his work, The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar.
1975 US Postage Stamp.
  • I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
         When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
    When the wind blows soft through the springing grass,
    And the river floats like a stream of glass;
         When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
    And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
    I know what the caged bird feels!

    I know why the caged bird beats his wing
         Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
    For he must fly back to his perch and cling
    When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
         And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
    And they pulse again with a keener sting—
    I know why he beats his wing!

    I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
         When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
    When he beats his bars and he would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
         But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
    But a plea that upward to Heaven he flings—
    I know why the caged bird sings!
    • Sympathy, in the 1913 collection of his work, The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar; the poem inspired the title of Maya Angelou's book, Why the Caged Bird Sings.
  • We wear the mask that grins and lies,
    It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
    This debt we pay to human guile;
    With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
    And mouth with myriad subtleties.

    Why should the world be over-wise,
    In counting all our tears and sighs?
    Nay, let them only see us, while
         We wear the mask.

    We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
    To thee from tortured souls arise.
    We sing, but oh the clay is vile
    Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
    But let the world dream otherwise,
         We wear the mask!
    • We Wear The Mask, in the 1913 collection of his work, The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Quotes about Paul Laurence Dunbar

  • I started writing when I was mute. I always thought I could write because I loved to read so much. I loved the melody of Poe and I loved Paul Laurence Dunbar. I had memorized so much of Dunbar, Poe, Shakespeare, James Weldon Johnson, Longfellow. When my son was able to be quiet enough to listen, I taught him those poets. A few years ago he gave a reading of his poetry and he started the reading by saying 'First, let me recite to you some of the poets my mother raised me on . . .'
    • From a 1988 interview in Conversations with Maya Angelou (1989)
  • I was always interested in fair play, probably from reading the works of Paul Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Charles Dickens as a child. I was always concerned about justice and injustice. To the extent that I could understand the issues, I was always on the side of the underdog. I'm on the same side today.
    • From a 1977 interview in Conversations with Maya Angelou (1989)
  • the title I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is from [Paul Lawrence] Dunbar's "Sympathy."
    • From a 1983 interview in Conversations with Maya Angelou (1989)