Life’s Tragedy

Paul Laurence Dunbar

‘Life’s Tragedy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar considers the elements of life that create tragedy and suffering. The speaker asserts that missing out on perfect love and the perfect song leads to an “accursed” life.


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.

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Throughout this poem, Dunbar engages with several exciting and widely relatable themes (described below). He also utilizes simple and easy-to-read language, a common feature in his verse. This allows readers from all backgrounds to enjoy this text and consider whether or not they agree with his assertions in regard to what makes life truly tragic. 

Life’s Tragedy
Paul Laurence Dunbar

It may be misery not to sing at all,And to go silent through the brimming day;It may be misery never to be loved,But deeper griefs than these beset the way.

To sing the perfect song,And by a half-tone lost the key,There the potent sorrow, there the grief,The pale, sad staring of Life's Tragedy.

To have come near to the perfect love,Not the hot passion of untempered youth,But that which lies aside its vanity,And gives, for thy trusting worship, truth.

This, this indeed is to be accursed,For if we mortals love, or if we sing,We count our joys not by what we have,But by what kept us from that perfect thing.


‘Life’s Tragedyby Paul Laurence Dunbar considers what is truly tragic and causes the most suffering in life.

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker notes that it’s miserable not to be able to sing and never to be loved. But, they add, there are deep griefs than these that people contend with throughout their lives. The speaker asserts that to find some love but miss out on perfect love is far worse than never being loved at all. They also suggest that singing but missing out by a half-tone on the perfect song is worse than never singing.


Throughout this poem, Dunbar engages with the following themes: 

  • Suffering. Suffering is one of the primary themes at work in ‘Life’s Tragedy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar. It can be seen through the poet’s description of what is truly tragic in a person’s life. He acknowledges things that cause suffering and misery, but it is at the end of the poem which they describe what makes one “accursed.” That is, coming close to something perfect but just missing out.
  • Love. Love is also an important theme that readers can find throughout Dunbar’s poem. It, along with singing (likely a metaphor for general joy and happiness), are the things that direct whether or not one lives a happy life or a miserable one. The poet spends a few lines describing the perfect love, one that is free of youthful passion and it’s completely devoted to worship and truth.

Structure and Form 

‘Life’s Tragedy’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a four-stanza poem divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB and change end sounds from stanza to stanza. The poet chose not to use a single metrical pattern to unify the lines of this poem. But, there are examples of meter throughout. For instance, “To sing the perfect song” is an example of iambic trimeter, and “For if we mortals love, or if we sing” is an example of iambic pentameter

Literary Devices 

Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “perfect” and “passion” in stanza three.
  • Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “It may be” begins lines one and three of the first stanza, and “To” starts line one of stanza two and line one of stanza three. 
  • Personification: occurs when the writer imbues a non-human element of their work with human characteristics. For example, when a poet describes life’s tragedy as “pale, sad starring.” 
  • Repetition: the use of a literary device, word, phrase, image, etc., more than once within a poem. For example, the use of “this” twice at the beginning of stanza four. 
  • Juxtaposition: the contrast between images or elements in a text. For example, the depiction of someone “silent” in the “brimming day.” 

Detailed Analysis 

Stanza One

It may be misery not to sing at all
And to go silent through the brimming day.
It may be sorrow never to be loved,
But deeper griefs than these beset the way.

In the first stanza of ‘Life’s Tragedy,’ the speaker begins by acknowledging two different life experiences that may be miserable for the person experiencing them. The speaker mentions “not to sing at all” and to remain “silent throughout the brimming day” as well as “never to be loved.”

The first example suggests that someone is going about their day-to-day life without experiencing joy in the small, beautiful things that can be appreciated. The speaker accepts that a life without joy, seen through the metaphor of singing, is certainly miserable. They also accept that it’s sorrowful “never to be loved.” Many fear this life experience, and the unlucky few truly experience it. 

The fourth line of the first stanza says that these previous examples are sorrowful and miserable, but, it adds, there are “deeper griefs than these” that one might experience throughout their life. The following stanzas explain what these “deeper griefs” are and how they are worse than what the speaker has already mentioned. 

Stanza Two

To have come near to sing the perfect song
And only by a half–tone lost the key,
There is the potent sorrow, there the grief,
The pale, sad staring of life’s tragedy.

Worse than having never been loved at all or never singing throughout one’s life is to sing and “come near to sing the perfect song” but be a “half-tone” away. This is another example of a metaphor that can be interpreted in various ways. The speaker is discussing singing but likely also alluding to any experience that might bring joy in one’s life. If a person comes close to their life’s goal but ends up failing, very close to the end, this is, in the speaker’s mind, the deepest grief that one can suffer. This is truly “life’s tragedy” the fourth line adds. 

The poet uses personification in the stanza to depict “life’s tragedy” as “pale, sad staring.” It is described using language usually only applied to human beings, creating an evocative example of imagery and helping craft the poem’s tone. 

Stanza Three 

To have just missed the perfect love,
Not the hot passion of untempered youth,
But that which lays aside its vanity
And gives thee, for thy trusting worship, truth—

The third stanza alludes to the third line of the first stanza. Here, the speaker describes what is worse than never being loved. That is, having “just missed the perfect love.” In order to ensure that readers are aware of what “perfect love” means, the speaker adds that perfect love is not “the hot passion of untempered youth.” It is something far deeper, not controlled by young people’s hormones and fickle emotions. It is that “which lays aside its vanity” and accepts “thy trust and worship, truth—.”

It is clear that the speaker highly values this kind of love. It is something that he, and likely many readers exploring these stanzas, have sought out throughout their lives. It is something that only a few very lucky people encounter in their lifetime of love and heartbreaks. Therefore, it makes sense that the speaker sees the near acquisition of this kind of love as the deepest kind of sorrow that one can experience in their lifetime. 

Stanza Four 

This, this it is to be accursed indeed;
For if we mortals love, or if we sing,
We count our joys not by the things we have,
But by what kept us from the perfect thing.

The repetition of the word “this” at the beginning of stanza four emphasizes the speaker’s passionate beliefs about what it means to be “accursed indeed.” This relates to their description of what it means to experience true suffering. If one misses out on perfect love or the perfect song, they are “accursed.” The poem concludes with a description of how, as human beings, if we love or sing, we count our joy by how close we came to perfect happiness. 

Here, readers might consider how much they agree with the speaker’s assertions about what it means to truly suffer. Is it worse to have experienced some love and missed out on perfect love than never to be loved at all? Is it worse to sing but miss out on the perfect song by half a tone or be incapable of singing at all? It’s clear that the poet was also considering these questions. 


Who wrote ‘Life’s Tragedy?’

The poem ‘Life’s Tragedy’ was written by Paul Laurence Dunbar. But, he is far from the only poet or writer to consider the subject matter included in this short poem. Many writers throughout time have considered what life’s worst and deepest tragedy may be.

What is Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem?

Paul Laurence Dunbar is well-known for poems like ‘Sympathy,’ ‘By the Stream,’ ‘One Life,’ and ‘To a Captious Critic.’ His poetry often spoke about the lives, struggles, and culture of the African-American community during his contemporary lifetime. He also wrote about the writing process itself, history, and the purpose of life.

What happened to Paul Laurence Dunbar?

Paul Laurence Dunbar died on February 9th, 1906, of tuberculosis. He was only thirty-three years old. He was interred in the Woodland Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio. 

What did Paul Laurence Dunbar write about? 

Dunbar is known for his collections of poems that depict and engage with contemporary life. Often, he delves into the elements of African American experience and culture within the United States.

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Paul Laurence Dunbar poems. For example: 

  • Beyond the Years’ – a three-section poem in which the speaker describes what one will and will not experience after death.
  • One Life’ – speaks on the more depressing parts of a speaker’s life. 
  • We Wear the Mask’ – describes the way that “We” put on and accept the presence of masks.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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