Although the old man suffers a great deal in ‘Disappointed,’ the main theme of his poem is that through perseverance, one can succeed. The poet suggests that one can’t give up even when a situation feels difficult or even impossible.
Disappointed Paul Laurence DunbarAn old man planted and dug and tended, Toiling in joy from dew to dew;The sun was kind, and the rain befriended; Fine grew his orchard and fair to view.Then he said: 'I will quiet my thrifty fears,For here is fruit for my failing years.'But even then the storm-clouds gathered, Swallowing up the azure sky;The sweeping winds into white foam lathered The placid breast of the bay, hard by;Then the spirits that raged in the darkened airSwept o'er his orchard and left it bare.The old man stood in the rain, uncaring, Viewing the place the storm had swept;And then with a cry from his soul despairing, He bowed him down to the earth and wept.But a voice cried aloud from the driving rain;"Arise, old man, and plant again!"
‘Disappointed’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a poem about hard work, disappointment, and perseverance.
The poet describes an old man working tirelessly to ensure that he has an orchard of food. There’s so much food that the man knows he’ll be well-fed into his last years of life. But, suddenly, everything changes. A storm sweeps in, and the man’s entire orchard is destroyed. While he despairs, a voice (God’s) comes down from the Heavens and tells him to get up and get back to work planting everything again.
Structure and Form
‘Disappointed’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets, for a total of 18 lines. The poem follows a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCC in each stanza. The poet also chose to use iambic pentameter in the odd-numbered lines and tetrameter in the even-numbered lines (with some exceptions).
The meaning of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s ‘Disappointed’ is that no matter how difficult a situation is, one can’t give up. The old man in the poem wanted to give up after his entire orchard was destroyed, but God ensured that he didn’t. While the poet spends the poet discussing a specific situation, the old man’s difficulties are supposed to be a metaphor for life generally.
Dunbar uses a few different literary devices in this poem. They include:
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, “The sun was kind, and the rain befriended.”
Alliteration: the use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “For here is fruit for my failing years.”
- Allusion: the poem includes a reference to religion and religious beliefs (specifically Christianity) in the poet’s final line.
- Juxtaposition: the poet contrasts the resources the man has at the beginning of the poem to the loss of those resources in the second stanza.
An old man planted and dug and tended,
Toiling in joy from dew to dew;
The sun was kind, and the rain befriended;
Fine grew his orchard and fair to view.
Then he said: ‘I will quiet my thrifty fears,
For here is fruit for my failing years.’
In the first stanza of ‘Disappointed,’ the speaker describes an older man (who goes unnamed throughout the poem) planting. He has lived a hard life and is now, in his old age, trying to take care of himself. The man has optimal conditions for his work, with both the sun and rain appearing and disappearing when he needs them to.
Everything went well for a long time for him. He could see his “orchard” growing in front of him, and it made him feel safe and secure. He knew that now he’d be fed during his “failing years.” The man was trying to prepare for the last years of his life when he wouldn’t be strong enough to do the work he’s doing now.
But even then the storm-clouds gathered,
Swallowing up the azure sky;
The sweeping winds into white foam lathered
The placid breast of the bay, hard by;
Then the spirits that raged in the darkened air
Swept o’er his orchard and left it bare.
In the second stanza, everything changes. The man’s hard work is swept away by a storm. It destroys everything the man worked so hard for and “left [the ground] bare.” There was nothing left behind that he could salvage.
The second stanza is primarily focused on the storm and how merciless it was. It was made up of “spirits that raged in the darkened air.” It was like an act of God, and the poet is implying. The old man’s life was suddenly thrown into disarray, and his health (not to mention his survival) was suddenly at risk.
The old man stood in the rain, uncaring,
Viewing the place the storm had swept;
And then with a cry from his soul despairing,
He bowed him down to the earth and wept.
But a voice cried aloud from the driving rain;
“Arise, old man, and plant again!”
The man was stunned by what had happened to his hard work. So much so that he chose to stand outside, uncaring, in the rain and suffer in the wet and cold. He wept while looking around at everything he used to have.
His whole world changed in a moment, and he went from happy and pleased he wouldn’t have to “thrift” anymore to despairing.
The poem ends with the man feeling defeated and hearing a “voice…from the driving rain” calling down to him. This is meant to be God rousing the man and telling him that all he has to do is “Arise…and plant again.”
While the poem is focused on a single person’s experiences, it is meant to convey a specific attitude that will get one through life. The poet suggests that one might suffer, as the old man did, and lose everything one cares about, but with God, anything is possible, and one can start again.
The main theme of ‘Disappointed’ is perseverance. The poet describes an old man’s hard work and then a very serious tragedy. Then, how God called to him in order to rouse him. He has to preserve in order to survive.
The message is that one can’t give up in the face of hardship. It’s important to keep the faith and continue working hard even when a situation seems impossible.
Today, Paul Laurence Dunbar is remembered for inspiring the poets of the Harlem Renaissance in the 20s and 30s as one of the first widely popular Black authors in the United States.
Paul Laurence Dunbar has a few very popular poems, including ‘Sympathy,’ in which he speaks about the lives of Black Americans. Another well-known poem is ‘We Wear the Mask’ in which he describes how people disguise their personalities.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Paul Laurence Dunbar poems. For example:
- ‘One Life’ – a relatively depressing poem about Dunbar’s life.
- ‘The Poet’ – depicts the way the poet understood his work and reputation.
- ‘By the Stream’ – a thoughtful poem in which the poet discusses the changing nature of things.