Saturday, July 22, 2017

Paul Lawrence Dunbar: "The Mystery"


I was not; now I am--a few days hence
I shall not be; I fain would look before
And after, but can neither do; some Power
Or lack of power says "no" to all I would.
I stand upon a wide and sunless plain,
Nor chart nor steel to guide my steps aright.
Whene'er, o'ercoming fear, I dare to move,
I grope without direction and by chance.
Some feign to hear a voice and feel a hand
That draws them ever upward thro' the gloom.
But I--I hear no voice and touch no hand,
Tho' oft thro' silence infinite I list,
And strain my hearing to supernal sounds;
Tho' oft thro' fateful darkness do I reach,
And stretch my hand to find that other hand.
I question of th' eternal bending skies
That seem to neighbor with the novice earth;
but they roll on, and daily shut their eyes
On me, as I one day shall do on them,
And tell me not the secret that I ask. 

-- Paul Lawrence Dunbar --
The Complete Poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Lawrence's mystery has many names:  the perennial question, the human predicament, the human condition. Who am I?  Where am I?  Why am I here?  Where is here?  Where did I come from?  Where am I going?

This is one of the dominant themes of the Rubaiyat, which is probably why this poem has such an impact on me.  But, then again, it is Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and this isn't the first poem of his that I have strongly reacted to and commented on here.


  1. pretty good... how would you compare Dunbar with Wallace Stevens? just curious...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Just out of curiosity, why Wallace Stevens for comparison?

      I would say Stevens is more intellectual, while Dunbar is more on the feeling or emotional level.

      I have posted a number of Dunbar's poems here. It would be interesting to hear how you compare them. I would especially like to hear what you think of his "We Wear the Mask." That's the one that got me interested in Dunbar.

  2. Stevens seems to me to have that "eternity in a grain of sand" approach in much the same way as Dunbar; just better hidden below metaphorical and ancillary ideas: kind of a poetic overgloss that smears his intention somewhat...
    "Mask" speaks of the learned armor that everyone uses to relate to the world, social mainly... often these learned behaviors are completely unconscious; it takes a certain amount of distance to perceive others as they really are... if that makes any sense... i'm remembering the ancient tale of the Spartan youth who allowed the captured fox to chew on his stomach without revealing any agony on his face or body... one of those old tales that applies to everyone, i think...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      I haven't read that much by Stevens, so I never noticed that in him. However, I shall keep that in mind when I next dip into his poetry.

      Doesn't Dunbar's narrator speak about a conscious decision to wear the mask? Therefore, I'm not too clear about it being unconscious or about the "distance" you mention.

      I would agree that a considerable amount of our behavior is such that we aren't aware of it, but I don't think Dunbar's narrator is talking about that in Masks.

      Over time, perhaps, one might notice inconsistencies in the person if the mask "slips" now and then, which might give one a clue as to what is behind the mask.

    2. actually, i got the impression that the poem resulted from Dunbar's realization that he himself wore a mask and that that awareness allowed him to see a similar behavior in others...

    3. Mudpuddle, that could be.

      You say that he realized he wore a mask--that suggests that he didn't deliberately decide to hide himself in the first place. Something out there caused him to begin wearing the mask. Is this what you're suggesting or am I over-reading again?

      I wonder why we or many of us feel the need to wear a mask.

  3. Fred, Dunbar does tap into that essential existential human dilemma: here and now and Power. I wonder why Dunbar capitalizes Power the first time but not the second time.

    Regarding "masks" in the other poem, consider his need as a black man to fit in (survive) among everyone in a society dominated not by black men.

  4. Hi Fred. I'm not very good at poetry and I had to read the poem a couple of times.

    On the one hand he seems to refer to a Power that denies him his desire, but later states that people who believe in a guiding Power are faking it.

    So maybe he believes in the higher Power but an un-involved or indifferent one.

    Yet he may need to consider (I guess he's dead now) that those who claim to be lead are not "feigning" but rather he is deaf and blind to the guidance, since it demands a surrender of the will.

    1. Sharon--fear not. I had to read it several times also.

      As you point out, there are two ways of thinking about his situation. And, the gap between the two is unbridgeable or so it seems to me.

  5. R.T., I checked and it's that way in my copy of it. Perhaps it's a typo. Or, perhaps the first time, Power refers to the deity while the second time it refers to a power that isn't there and therefore is not a deity. A stretch I reaize.

    Yes, it initially refers to his status, but I think it also can be generalized to much of humanity.