Analysis of "Douglass" by Paul Laurence Dunbar

A photo of Paul Laurence Dunbar
A photo of Paul Laurence Dunbar

During his short life, Paul Laurence Dunbar forged a close relationship with the legendary Frederick Douglass. Both men thought very highly of each other. In fact, Douglass once declared that Dunbar was, “the most promising young colored man in America.” After Douglass’ death, Dunbar laments the passing and the evils and treachery that surround African Americans by the poem "Douglass."

Emotional Appeal

It’s interesting that Dunbar would say, “we have fall'n on evil days/Such days as thou, not even thou didst know.” (l. 1-2). Douglass was no stranger to trials and mistreatment – he was a slave! For Paul Laurence Dunbar to consider the prejudice of the late 19th century more evil than the slavery of Douglass’ day is remarkable.

Dunbar also knew how hard life could be. He was the only African-American in his high school class and often had a difficult time finding employment. In 1892, he wrote his first book, “Oak and Ivy”, and although the book was very successful and he received a lot of fame, he was forced to pay the bills by working as an elevator operator. He was subject to the Jim Crow laws and untold amounts of injustice.

Dunbar’s emotion is evident in the passionate plea at the end of the poem. He is longing for the leadership and voice of reason that Douglass possessed. At a time when a black American was abused on every front, the African-American community was in desperate need of a “strong arm to guide the shivering bark” (l. 12) and a “voice high-sounding o'er the storm” (l. 11). Douglass was well known for his rhetorical prowess and his ability to sway even his most stubborn adversaries with the might of his oratory.

A Reading of "Douglass"

A photo of Frederick Douglass
A photo of Frederick Douglass

Use of Imagery

This poem is loaded with beautiful imagery – “cross of devious ways” (l. 4), “tempest of dispraise” (l. 8), and “awful tide” (l. 7). My favorite symbolism in this poem is “And Honor, the strong pilot, lieth stark” (l.10). I’m not sure why Dunbar capitalizes “Honor.” It gives extra significance to the word and how much it means. This line has almost a sardonic/remorseful tone to it. Honor should be the “strong pilot,” but it is definitely not doing its duty. Instead, it’s lying stark, as if it has been abused and trodden down.


An analysis of "Douglass" by Paul Laurence Dunbar shows that it’s tragic that racism did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. The poem says that even though some great strides were mad, and even though Frederick Douglass fought his heart out and amazed America with his eloquence, and even though there was a war, and even though there was a Constitutional amendment, racism was “Not ended then, the passionate ebb and flow,/The awful tide that battled to and fro;” (l. 7-8).

This short poem expresses invaluable insights into the African-American community at the time. It exposes the true nature of the relationship between Dunbar and Douglass. Paul Laurence Dunbar truly is a master with words. The theme of the poem Douglass by Paul Laurence Dunbar is profound.

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RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

I think the reason Dunbar may thought the America of the end of the 19th century put African Americans in a worse place than slavery was the loss of hope. After the Civil War, hope was high among the freedmen, but the Southern states steadily pulled away all the underpinnings of equality. That process was reaching its peak at the time Dunbar wrote, and it must have seemed that the prospects for equal citizenship were growing dimmer rather than brighter. Good analysis.

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