By Paul Laurence Dunbar
I am the mother of sorrows,
I am the ender of grief;
I am the bud and the blossom,
I am the late-falling leaf.
I am thy priest and thy poet,
I am thy serf and thy king;
I cure the tears of the heartsick,
When I come near they shall sing.
White are my hands as the snowdrop;
Swart are my fingers as clay;
Dark is my frown as the midnight,
Fair is my brow as the day.
Battle and war are my minions,
Doing my will as divine;
I am the calmer of passions,
Peace is a nursling of mine.
Speak to me gently or curse me,
Seek me or fly from my sight;
I am thy fool in the morning,
Thou art my slave in the night.
Down to the grave will I take thee,
Out from the noise of the strife;
Then shalt thou see me and know me—
Death, then, no longer, but life.
Then shalt thou sing at my coming,
Kiss me with passionate breath,
Clasp me and smile to have thought me
Aught save the foeman of Death.
Come to me, brother, when weary,
Come when thy lonely heart swells;
I’ll guide thy footsteps and lead thee
Down where the Dream Woman dwells.
In the midst of reading this poem, I realized that I didn’t really know the meaning of a paradox. By definition, a paradox is a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well-founded or true. In layman’s terms, a paradox is a contradiction; this is when two things go against each other. Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet, wrote this poem with each stanza being a new paradox. His use of the literary device gave distinct and keen characteristics of the speaker in the poem. The general structure of the poem is very simplistic and easy to read. The poem itself is very well-written and is a very powerful read.
On my first read of the poem, I didn’t understand what it meant. This led me to looking up what a paradox is. If you don’t know what it is, I would suggest looking it up and getting an understanding for yourself before you go back to read the poem in that context. Once I read the poem again with new eyes, I realized the message behind the words. From my understanding, the poem is being told by Paul Laurence Dunbar. He is telling of himself.
In the first stanza, he starts with “I am the mother of sorrows,” a line that I took the meaning to be along the lines of being a person who often causes sorrows in life. The contradiction lies in the meaning of mother and the meaning of sorrows. The two go against each other. A mother has the associations of comfort, love, and warmth while sorrows almost always have death, darkness, and grief attached to it. The beauty of the line, for me, is the combination of the two; To consider yourself the mother of sorrows has to be a hard realization to come by.
All throughout the poem, Dunbar has various lines that show a paradox. He uses these to tell about himself; it felt like I was reading an autobiography almost. By the tone and the use of certain words, it feels like he is trying to prove himself. I suppose with more information on the life of the poet, I would have an even deeper understanding of the poem. I don’t know if the popularity of Dunbar when he wrote this poem or even what situation he was in, but the poem sounds like he is trying to prove himself worthy of praise. If not praise, then it could be acknowledgment. In the 6th stanza, Dunbar says, “Then shalt thou see me and know me—” a line I find to be quite sad. The lines before this one in the same stanza tell us that Dunbar will take his name down to the grave and out from the mouths of those who don’t like him or his writing. The line feels like he is saying that only in his death will he be appreciated. That is sad to say.
This poem took me on a journey, and every time I read it, I figure out something new. My interpretation of the poem could be very wrong or it could be very right, but we will never truly find out. I hope you all like this poem, if not, why? I am genuinely interested in seeing how people take in this poem and its meaning. I love this poem and I am sure I will be reading some of his other works, but for now, I’m going to keep enjoying and reading this poem!