By the Stream

Paul Laurence Dunbar


Paul Laurence Dunbar

Nationality: American

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in June 1872.

He is considered one of the most important American poets of his time.

By the Stream is a contemplative poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar describing how things are often not what they seem. The poem does not specify the gender of the speaker, but one can assume it is a male persona contemplating over his inability to find a suitable mate, or his inability to express his true self to someone he loved. The themes of the poem are reflection and facing reality. By the Stream follows a simple AA-BB-CC-DD scheme. It is the simplicity of the poem that makes it so beautiful and rhythmic when read. The entire poem holds a nostalgic and even bitter mood in which the reader is forced to contemplate alongside the voice that Dunbar has created. Dunbar’s work is heavy in the use of similes and imagery. The vivid pictures he paints in the mind of the reader helps bring the poetry to life and makes the otherwise short work have a deeper meaning.

By the Stream by Paul Laurence Dunbar


Analysis of By the Stream

Dunbar’s poem begins with a voice in a peaceful setting contemplating the beauty of a stream. He makes it clear that the voice is in a calm, relaxed state. Dunbar first mentions what the voice sees reflected inside the stream; the clouds passing by. Dunbar uses a simile relating the clouds to maidens dressed in white. He uses dashes to emphasize snowey-hued and white-robed which shows he could be emphasizing purity as both terms can be seen as a symbol of purity.
There is a slight break in the poem after the above line, this is relevant as now the poem switches from what the voice is seeing reflected by the stream, to what the voice notices of the stream itself.

The next verse describes the voice noticing features of the stream in and of itself. The voice notices how the water ripples. Once again Dunbar uses a Simile to paint a more vivid image. He likens the ripples to armored knights with silver helmets. The fact that the voice explicitly mentions their helmets shows that these knights are suited up and therefore are going in for a battle. This verse gives us a key to the mood Dunbar has skillfully crafted. The rippling of water can be seen as a beautiful phenomenon of nature or a fragile event, but the voice explicitly relates the rippling of water to knights at war. This shows us that the voice is in a grievous mood, reflecting on something of the past. With the above analysis, it becomes certain that Dunbar is exploiting the double standard in which the stream’s reflection is very pure and docile, while the stream itself is fierce and strong.

Dunbar elaborates on this in the next line as he states that the stream is a symbol of human life. Things that may appear peaceful and calm are usually quite the opposite. The stream itself is in a considerably violent state, but to anyone who was to view it from a distance, they would only see the peaceful reflection of the sky. Dunbar could be referring to the voice over here. To anyone else, it would look like the voice is laying peacefully, but no one knows the emotional turmoil it is enduring. The voice explains that it has often seen similar situations in real life. A person may have a very strong mind with great ideas and goals, but in reality, they may not be able to express their thoughts and ideas properly, therefore appearing shallow or dull to others. This is similar to the stream, which sparkled substantially, but its sparkles could easily be overlooked because of its shallow appearance. On the other hand, it may seem like someone may have a beautiful soul and have an exciting nature, but in reality, they are merely pretending to be who they are by imitating what they see around them. At the beginning of the poem the first thing the voice noticed was the clouds passing by in the reflection of the stream, not the ripples in the water. The fact that the reflection was noticed first is a subtle way in which Dunbar is trying to explain that we often notice the traits in other people that they are borrowing from others first, their borrowed traits are often more attractive than what they really have to offer.

The poem also commenced with the voice stating that it dreams in calm delight. This shows us that the entire poem is a reminiscence of a past event. The voice is clearly contemplating some scenario that it has encountered in the past. The fact that the voice is calm and feeling delighted shows us that this event was something the voice had gotten over. Dunbar could also be stating that one’s life may seem very peaceful on the outside but in reality, like the stream, that person may be at war with themselves. The comparing of the clouds to maidens may be a clue to the thoughts of the voice. Perhaps the voice is a male persona contemplating how he had made the wrong decision with the person he loved, assuming she has certain qualities but after getting to know her realizing that she was, in reality, quite the opposite. Or perhaps, he had been unable to show his true self to someone he loved so she had thought of him as dull and uninteresting. She may have left him for someone else who she thought was better, which would explain the last verse. Some people appear to be wonderful but in reality, they are not doing more than borrowing the traits that they find desirable in others.

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem By the Stream is a reflective poem that forces the reader to consider the authenticity of those around us. Dunbar explains through the voice of a male persona that our first judgment of others could easily, and often is, completely mistaken. Through the use of imagery, similes, and a beautiful rhyme scheme, Dunbar has created a short but strong piece of writing which reminds us not to take everyone at face value.


Poetic Devices

Dunbar’s poem flows beautifully because of his elegant use of assonance. ‘Stream,-Dream, show-glow, hued-robed, Deem-stream and find-mind.’ The repetition of similar sounding words is consistent throughout the poem and aids in creating a pleasant overall rhythm. The poem is very descriptive and heavy with imagery. Dunbar uses dashes in his second line to both add stress to the words and better improve the flow.Dunbar expertly executes the use of similes to create a physical picture for his abstract idea.


About Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1908) is an American writer who has authored many novels, short stories, and poems. Among these are The Uncalled, Folks from Dixie, The Love of Landry, Majors and Minors, the Oak in Ivy, Lyrics of Lowly Life, The Fanatics, the Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Little Brown baby, Poems of Cabin and Field, and The Heart of the Happy Hallow. It is in his book Lyrics of Lowly Life, that by the stream can be found. Paul Laurence Dunbar is one of the most renowned African American poets to this date. He was one of the first African-American poets to have his poetry acknowledged worldwide. His literary talent was exposed early as he became the class president despite being the only African American in his class and managed to have several poems published before he even graduated. Though he had an early and rather unfortunate death for a man of his talent, his work is considered one of the best African American poetry collections until this day.

Maha Rehman Poetry Expert
Maha has a BSc Honors from the University of Toronto and is an Author and Writer by profession. She loves writing and genuinely idealizes the idea of science and literary art combining together into a liberating force of intellectual enlightenment. You can check out her YA novel 'Sole Silence'.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share to...