Nevertheless, in his relatively short life span, he still managed to produce thirteen volumes of poetry (containing over 420 poems), three short story collections, and four full-length novels.
He is best remembered today for the colorful language, conversational tone, and brilliant rhetorical structure contained in his wide body of work.
By way of a sample, his poem titled “Dreams” contains the following profound lines:
What dreams we have and how they fly
Like rosy clouds across the sky;
Of wealth, of fame, of sure success,
Of love that comes to cheer and bless;
And how they wither, how they fade,
The waning wealth, the jilting jade -
The fame that for a moment gleams,
Then flies forever, - dreams, ah - dreams!
Impressed? So am I! But you and I are by no means the first to be struck by the talents of this gifted author. His home in Dayton, Ohio has been turned into a museum and is open to the public.
Years ago, having visited Dunbar’s home, Henry Simon, of Belleville, Illinois, shared the following story about what happened after the famed poet died.
According to Simon…
Dunbar’s mother left his room exactly as it was on the day of his death. At the desk of this brilliant man was his final poem, handwritten on a pad. After his mother died, her friends discovered that Paul Laurence Dunbar's last poem had been lost forever. Because his mother had made his room into a shrine and not moved anything, the sun had bleached the ink in which the poem was written until it was invisible. The poem was gone. If we stay in mourning, we lose so much of life.
As of late, I have reflected much upon the admonition Simon applies to this story. And I have decided that he is right: “If we stay in mourning, we lose so much of life.” To this end, my sisters and I have now met and begun the process of sorting through my mother’s estate.
To be sure, her house is full of sentimental bric-a-brac. And after thirty years of memories there, the temptation is to preserve it as a sort of shrine to one who meant so much to us.
But this is not what life is about. Life is meant to be lived, not only in the past, but also in the present, and above all, in the future. This is what mother would have wanted. And we honor her memory best, not by enshrining the material things she left behind, but by taking the values she instilled within us and transplanting them into own children and grandchildren.
I do not know what the world was deprived of in the gradual fading and eventual loss of Dunbar’s last poem. But my suspicion is that it may have contained some of his most thought-provoking and challenging words.
And this thought has motivated me to find the best my mother had to offer - be it her words of wisdom or her Godly example or her spiritual provision - and then to make it available to all who would embrace it. And my mom had much to offer.
You see, God blessed my mother with a creative spirit. She could draw, paint, write, and sew - to name but a few of her talents. I see now, more clearly than ever, what a blessing it was to have all that talent being expended in the home where I grew up.
And for this reason, I have been so excited to discover and assemble all the myriad things she created, from sketches to oil paintings to poems to volumes of stories about her life and experiences penned by hand expressly for my sisters and me.
I hope that the Lord will allow me the time and opportunity to complete the task of assembling, editing, and making available for a much wider audience this tremendous treasure trove of material.
Doing so is the best way I know of to honor my mother’s memory and insure that her life continues to matter. More importantly, doing so will allow me to glorify the God who created her and endowed her with the talent she so abundantly displayed.
HENRY SIMON ILLUSTRATION: Available widely online. See, for instance: http://higherpraise.com/illustrations/grief.htm.
PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR MUSEUM SITE: