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THERE 's a memory keeps a-runnin'
Through my weary head to-night,
An' I see a picture dancin'
In the fire-flames' ruddy light;
'T is the picture of an orchard
Wrapped in autumn's purple haze,
With the tender light about it
That I loved in other days.
An' a-standin' in a corner
Once again I seem to see
The verdant leaves an' branches
Of an old apple-tree.

You perhaps would call it ugly,
An' I don't know but it 's so,
When you look the tree all over
Unadorned by memory's glow;

For its boughs are gnarled an' crooked,
An' its leaves are gettin' thin,
An' the apples of its bearin'
Would n't fill so large a bin
As they used to. But I tell you,
When it comes to pleasin' me,
It 's the dearest in the orchard,--
Is that old apple-tree.

I would hide within its shelter,
Settlin' in some cosy nook,
Where no calls nor threats could stir me
From the pages o' my book.
Oh, that quiet, sweet seclusion
In its fulness passeth words!
It was deeper than the deepest
That my sanctum now affords.
Why, the jaybirds an' the robins,
They was hand in glove with me,
As they winked at me an' warbled
In that old apple-tree.

It was on its sturdy branches
That in summers long ago
I would tie my swing an' dangle
In contentment to an' fro,
Idly dreamin' childish fancies,
Buildin' castles in the air,
Makin' o' myself a hero
Of romances rich an' rare.
I kin shet my eyes an' see it
Jest as plain as plain kin be,
That same old swing a-danglin'
To the old apple-tree.

There 's a rustic seat beneath it
That I never kin forget.
It 's the place where me an' Hallie--
Little sweetheart--used to set,
When we 'd wander to the orchard
So 's no listenin' ones could hear
As I whispered sugared nonsense
Into her little willin' ear.
Now my gray old wife is Hallie,
An' I 'm grayer still than she,
But I 'll not forget our courtin'
'Neath the old apple-tree.

Life for us ain't all been summer,
But I guess we 've had our share
Of its flittin' joys an' pleasures,
An' a sprinklin' of its care.
Oft the skies have smiled upon us;
Then again we 've seen 'em frown,
Though our load was ne'er so heavy
That we longed to lay it down.
But when death does come a-callin',
This my last request shall be,--
That they 'll bury me an' Hallie
'Neath the old apple-tree.


-from Lyrics of Lowly Life, Paul Laurence Dunbar (1869)

Paul Lawrence Dunbar, was an American poet, but what's even more remarkable is that he was the son of freed slaves in Dayton, Ohio. His best know work was published in a single volume, Lyrics of a Lowly Life (1896). William Dean Howells wrote the introduction and notes that Dunbar was the first black poet to express the lyrical qualities of black life and black dialect. Although not all were written in dialect he still was very distinguished, publishing four novels and several short stories.

Dunbar supported himself as an elevator operator at the beginning of his career and in what was very exceptional for the times managed to eventually support himself and his family from the earnings of his writings. James Whitcomb Riley a popular contempory was well known for nostalgic dialect verse and often referred to as “the poet of the common people.” Some of his influences can be found in The Old Apple Tree yet Dunbar adds some specific nuances that make the voice his own.

The dialect, though characteristically midwestern, is melodious to American ears (though probably not to English ones); the lines "I whispered sugared nonsense/Into her little willin' ear" ring true; the comment about "unadorn'd by memory's glow" may be a poke at the Riley school of sugarcoated sentimentality. No doubt this helped Dunbar's Lyrics of Lowly Life become his best selling work and the volume also contained poems of much higher quality such as We Wear the Mask.

He was also a classmate of two other Dayton men who gained national prominence Orville and Wilbur Wright. Although he lived to be only 33, not only was he a success with the standard English of the classical poet he was very gifted in the stirring dialect of the turn-of-the-century black community in America in the way that Mark Twain was in using prose to convey character.

Sources:

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Dunbar,Paul Lawrence", Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

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