If you enter Paul Laurence Dunbar’s house today you may think the poet has just stepped out. Dunbar, one of the first nationally known African-American writers, purchased the two-story brick house at 219 N. Summit St. in Dayton in 1904 for his mother, Matilda. The poet had chronic health problems throughout his life and had been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Paul Laurence Dunbar's most famous poem

One of Dayton's most famous artists, Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet, novelist and playwright.

On the anniversary of his death -- Feb. 9 -- we thought we'd share his most popular poem, "Sympathy."

>>THEN & NOW: The house where famous Dayton poet lived and wrote before his untimely death

You'll likely recognize a line or two -- "I know why the caged bird sings" ended up becoming the title of Maya Angelou's autobiography of the same name.

>>MORE: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s prose a treasured legacy

A cabinet card portrait of author Paul Laurence Dunbar as a young man in 1890. Dunbar was born in Dayton in 1872 to former slaves and was the first African-American poet to receive critical acclaim for his work. He died in Dayton Feb. 9, 1906. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OHIO HISTORY CONNECTION
Photo: Staff Writer

Sympathy

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!     When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;    When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,    And the river flows 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!

>>LOOK: Downtown mural inspired by Dayton poet is a message to the community

Source: Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2004)

[H/t: PoetryFoundation.org]

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