One Life

Paul Laurence Dunbar


Paul Laurence Dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was born in June 1872.

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

‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is also known as the ‘Lyrics of Lowly Life’. Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet who talks about his life in this poem. It’s not a happy text, rather a sad note on one’s hopeless life. There is nothing that can cheer the poet up and make him feel it’s just the seventh time. One more attempt is still left in his store. However, the grief-stricken soliloquy of one’s neither goes in vain. It always finds someone who is going through a similar grievous cycle manifested by life.

One Life by Paul Laurence Dunbar


Summary of One Life

‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar talks about how sad and pathetic the poet’s life is.

‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a sad lyric about life. It’s a personal poem that describes how the poet strives to come out of the sufferings. He is sick and weary. Even time mocks at him by showing him an illusion of a bright future. The stream of hope turns away from the poet. Even the lark that flutters its wings near the poet fades away in the darkness of night. Then the owl’s mournful song makes his life “doubly dark”. At last, the poet says the world that stores “joy and glee” for others gives the poet the burden of grief only.


Structure of One Life

‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar consists of five sestets. In each stanza of the poem, the poet uses a regular rhyme scheme. The first four lines rhyme alternately and the last two lines form a rhyming couplet. Hence, the rhyme scheme of the poem is ABABCC and it goes on like this. The metrical scheme of the poem is interesting enough. There is a regularity in the syllable count of each stanza and it is 8-10-8-6-8-8. So, there is a mix of iambic tetrameter, iambic pentameter, and iambic trimeter in the poem. However, there are a few variations in the poem.


Literary Devices in One Life

‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar contains several literary devices that make the poet’s grief-stricken soliloquy more emotive to the readers. Likewise, there is a metaphor in “shafts of Fate”. Here, the poet also uses a personification. In “striving heart” the poet uses synecdoche. There is an interesting repetition in the last line of every stanza. It is an example of a palilogy. Moreover, the poet uses hyperbole throughout the poem. As an example, “endless pain” contains a hyperbole. In the second and third stanzas, the poet personifies time and the stream consecutively. Along with that, there is an alliteration in “fair full-blossomed”. There is an instance of onomatopoeia in the fourth stanza as well. However, the last stanza concludes the poetic musing on an epigrammatic note.


Analysis of One Life

Stanza One

Oh, I am hurt to death, my Love;

The shafts of Fate have pierced my striving heart,

And I am sick and weary of

The endless pain and smart.

My soul is weary of the strife,

And chafes at life, and chafes at life.

‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar begins with a description of the poet’s mental state. Here, the poet addresses his beloved for the first and the last time in the whole poem. Hence, his beloved is present throughout the poem but the poet doesn’t mention her in the latter sections. However, the speaker is mortally hurt to death. He isn’t hurt by any ordinary mortal wound. Rather, fate has pierced his “striving heart”. Moreover, the poet is sick and weary of the pains he received in his life. Not only his body, but his soul is also wary of the strife of life. Hence, the poet is annoyed in living any longer. The repetition in the last line emphasizes the poet’s annoyance towards life.


Stanza Two

Time mocks me with fair promises;

A blooming future grows a barren past,

Like rain my fair full–blossomed trees

Unburden in the blast.

The harvest fails on grain and tree,

Nor comes to me, nor comes to me.

The second stanza of ‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar talks about how time mocks at the poetic persona. Time, as if it’s a human being, promises the poet of a “blooming future”. In reality, the poet doesn’t receive such a flowery gift in the future. It makes his past seem more barren and hopeless. Thereafter, the poet uses a simile and compares the withering of his life’s tree to raining. Moreover, the poet uses “harvest” in a symbolic sense. Here, the poet says he hasn’t got any positive outcome out of his life. Sadly, the joy and happiness associated with the idea “harvest”, never comes to the poet.


Stanza Three

The stream that bears my hopes abreast

Turns ever from my way its pregnant tide.

My laden boat, torn from its rest,

Drifts to the other side.

So all my hopes are set astray,

And drift away, and drift away.

In the third stanza of ‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the speaker refers to the stream that bears his hopes away. Here, the “stream” is a metaphor for life. This stream of life always turns from his way and deprives the poet of its “pregnant tide”. It means the poet lacks positive resources to sustain in life. Moreover, the poet refers to himself as a “laden boat” that drifts in the opposite direction of hope. He is destined to be in that gloomy state of life. Hence, all his hopes drift away from his heart. What is left, is utter pessimism and grief.


Stanza Four

The lark sings to me at the morn,

And near me wings her skyward–soaring flight;

But pleasure dies as soon as born,

The owl takes up the night,

And night seems long and doubly dark;

I miss the lark, I miss the lark.

Here, in ‘One Life’, Paul Laurence Dunbar refers to the lark that sings in the morning. The lark, a symbol of life and hope, flies away from the poet and soars high in the sky. The sight gives the poet a temporary pleasure. Soon the happiness fades away at night. Then, he can hear nothing other than the owl’s mournful song. It makes the ambiance seem more “long” and “doubly dark”. In this situation, the poet longs for the positivity of the lark.


Stanza Five

Let others labor as they may,

I’ll sing and sigh alone, and write my line.

Their fate is theirs, or grave or gay,

And mine shall still be mine.

I know the world holds joy and glee,

But not for me,—’t is not for me.

The last stanza of ‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar sounds comparably wise yet the coldness of grief is there. Here, the poet says let others labor as they want. The poet will sing and he will sigh alone. Nobody can influence him to change his style as he shows what he, in reality, goes through. Moreover, the poet says their fate is theirs. It can be grave or gay. But, their fate can’t change the poet’s situation. However, the poet knows this world holds joy and glee to those who know how to turn on the light. But such ideas are not for the poet. Those who are born with an ill-luck have to bear it alone.


Historical Context

‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar seems to be written just before the poet’s death. At that time, Paul Laurence Dunbar was suffering from tuberculosis which then had no treatment. He died of this disease at the age of 33. Whatsoever, after reading the poem it becomes clear that there is a direct reference to the poet’s life in the text. Hence, one can understand how a disease kills a person. Mostly those which haven’t any cure. It first acts on the mind and makes one weaker gradually. At last, when the last spark of hope burns out, death lays his icy hands on the person. Apart from that, the poem was posthumously published in “The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar” in 1913.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘One Life’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar the following poems also capture the morose uttering of a grief-stricken heart.

You can read about 10 Heartfelt Poems about Depression here.

Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.

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