Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) was Paul Laurence Dunbar’s first commercially published book and probably the best-selling volume of African American poetry before the Harlem Renaissance. Of the 105 poems in the volume, 97 had been previously published in Dunbar’s Oak and Ivy (1893) and Majors and Minors (1895), suggesting that Lyrics of Lowly Life was designed to serve as a showcase anthology of what the poet and his supporters felt was an under-recognized literary achievement. The popular appeal and literary significance of Lyrics of Lowly Life was enhanced by the introduction that William Dean Howells, a well-established white literary critic, wrote for the volume. The major literary influences on the poems in Lyrics of Lowly Life are British Romantic poets such as John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and American regional poetry, particularly the work of the Indiana writer James Whitcomb Riley. What made Dunbar's poetry most notable to readers in his own time, however, were his evocations of the flavor of life and the folkways of 'down home' black America through the speech and dialect of rural African Americans.
The contents of Lyrics of Lowly Life may be conveniently divided between poems written in standard English and the dialect poetry that gained Dunbar international fame. Among the poems in Lyrics of Lowly Life written in so-called Negro dialect are such favorites from previous Dunbar volumes as "When Malindy Sings," "A Negro Love Song," "An Ante-Bellum Sermon," "The Party," and "When de Co'n Pone's Hot." Dunbar’s dialect verse displays his talent in rendering melodies associated with popular songs and ballads, such as "The Old Apple-Tree" and "A Banjo Song." In the introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life, Howells reserved special praise for Dunbar’s dialect poems, judging them a product of the poet's innate ability to "feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically." Dunbar showed his appreciation of Howells's support by dedicating Lyrics of Lowly Life to the white critic as well as to Dunbar's mother, but the poet came to believe that Howells’s praise of the dialect poems deflected attention away from his more serious verse in standard English.
Lyrics of Lowly Life contains a wealth of Dunbar’s most thoughtful and ambitious verse. "Frederick Douglass" commemorates in a dignified style the life and example of the great freedom orator and abolitionist. Two odes, "Ode to Ethiopia" and "Columbian Ode," adapt a traditional Romantic poetic form to commemorate both racial and national patriotism. Many of Dunbar's poems about nature, love, and death betray the poet’s tendency to indulge in idealized and conventional responses to time-worn themes. But in such classic lyrics as "Not They Who Soar," which cautions that "flight is ever free and rare," and "We Wear the Mask," which warns of "the mask that grins and lies," Dunbar spoke eloquently and individually to the complexity of his struggle to articulate an African American poetic voice to a white American audience.
From The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris. New York: Oxford University Press. , 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford University Press.