In the Irish Times of Thursday, October 20th, 1904 an advertisement appeared for an entertainment at the Theatre Royal in Hawkins Street (which stood, until the 1960s, where the monstrous Hawkins House now stands). It read:
MONDAY NEXT, OCT. 24,
SIX NIGHTS and MATINEE SAT. AT 2.30,
The Greatest Novelty of the Age
The Enormously Successful Negro Musical Comedy
Direct from the Shaftesbury Theatre, London
COMPLETE CAST OF COLOURED ARTISTS,
numbering 60. Entire production as at the Shaftesbury Theatre
USUAL PRICES – BOX PLAN NOW OPEN
In Dahomey, which tells the story of a group of black Americans who find a pot of gold and move to the African state of Dahomey (now Benin), where they become its rulers, was the first full-scale musical written and performed by African Americans to be produced on Broadway. Its lyricist, Paul Laurence Dunbar, was the son of freed slaves from Kentucky, who had been writing poetry since his childhood in Dayton, Ohio. He also edited a shortlived black newspaper, the Dayton Tattler, which was printed and published by his friend Orville Wright (yes, that Orville Wright).
Unable to afford a college education, Dunbar worked as an elevator operator, selling his poetry to some of his “customers”. Later, he was found a job as a clerk by the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who called him “the most promising young coloured man in America”.
In 1895, he published his second collection of poems, Majors and Minors , the poems written in standard English being “majors” and those in dialect “minors”. In 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England and, back in America, received a clerkship at the Library of Congress in Washington. He next published a short story collection, Folks from Dixie and a novel entitled The Uncalled, together with two more volumes of poetry, while contributing lyrics to a number of musical reviews. Towards the end of the decade his health began to deteriorate sharply and in 1906 he died, aged thirty-three.
An admirable life of struggle and achievement and a significant literary talent, it would seem, but I must admit I had never heard of Paul Laurence Dunbar until I saw a poem of his anthologised in a newly published anthology, Poetry By Heart. The poem is called “Invitation to Love”, and while it is conventional in form and feeling it is certainly not without charm:
Invitation to Love
Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O Love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.
You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.
Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the reddening cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.