In this poem, the poet illustrates a lily that grows in a valley in the spring. The softness and tone of this flower symbolize kind nature. Throughout the poem, Dunbar illustrates how it is different from the rest of the flowers and why it is so dear to his heart. Apart from that, people use lilies in funerals for their mellowing effect on sad minds. Unlike the bright flowers, its color has a soothing quality that consoles a person’s eyes in distress. For such unique qualities, Dunbar wrote this beautiful poem about the lily.
Summary of The Lily of the Valley
In this poem, Dunbar talks about the “sweetest of the flowers”, “the Lily of the Valley”. It grows as the “nurse’s emblem” and “blooms in truth and virtue” “in the quiet nooks of earth.” Whenever the heart of mankind bleeds it erects in honor and hides her pain in the “beauty of her deeds.” Moreover, the poet adores the lily for its merciful outlook and kindness-showing petals. Like the blossoms that are born to blush unseen, the lily sheds her perfume and takes her gentle way, unheard and unseen. One of the chief qualities of the lily is its life-force that helps it to bloom even in the “valley shades of death”!
This poem consists of 7 stanzas and each stanza contains four rhyming lines. The poet employs the form of ballad stanza in this poem. It means that the second and fourth lines of each stanza end with rhyming words. So, the rhyme scheme of the poem is ABCB. As an example, in the first stanza, “days” at the end of the second line and “ways” at the fourth line’s end rhyme together. Apart from that, in each stanza, the pattern of syllable count is 8-7-8-7. The overall poem is mostly composed of trochaic tetrameter. However, there are a few variations in the poem.
The poem, ‘The Lily of the Valley’ begins with a hyperbole. Thereafter, in “fragrant vernal days,” the poet uses metonymy. Here, the poet refers to the flowers of Spring by the adjective “fragrant”. The second stanza takes a conversational approach and begins with a personal metaphor in “humble blossom”. Thereafter, the poet uses a metaphor for the lily in “the nurse’s emblem flower.” In the same stanza, there is a simile in the third line. Likewise, the third stanza begins with a simile. There is a personification in the line, “In her honesty and worth.” In the following stanza, there is a synecdoche in the line, “When the heart of mankind bleeds.” The poet also uses alliteration in the phrase, “the Lily of the Valley” and in the line “Still she hides her own deserving.”
Thereafter, in the sixth stanza, the poet uses anaphora. Here, the first two lines and the last two lines contain this literary device. In the last stanza, the “valley shades of death” is a metaphor. Here, the poet compares the shades of the valley to the darkness of death.
Analysis of The Lily of the Valley
Sweetest of the flowers a–blooming
In the fragrant vernal days
Is the Lily of the Valley
With its soft, retiring ways.
The poem begins with a hyperbolic expression. From the phrase, “Sweetest of the flowers”, it becomes clear that the lily is close to the poet’s heart. According to Dunbar, “the Lily of the Valley” is the sweetest of all flowers that bloom in the Spring. Here, the poet uses a metaphor, “vernal days” to refer to the month of Spring. However, the poet feels pleased to look at the flower’s “soft” and “retiring ways.” The petals of the lily lie in a way that it seems the flower is retiring from its service.
Well, you chose this humble blossom
As the nurse’s emblem flower,
Who grows more like her ideal
Every day and every hour.
Thereafter, in ‘The Lily of the Valley’, the poet directly addresses the readers and praises their decision of choosing the lily as the “nurse’s emblem flower.” According to the poet, the lily is a “humble blossom” that justly symbolizes the service provided by the nurses to mankind. Like the nurses selflessly serve ailing people without any selfish motive, the lily also soothes the heart of those who are in distress. For this reason, the poet remarks, the lily “grows like her ideal/ Every day and every hour.” So, in the last two lines, it becomes clear the good side of humanity never dies. It originates in every moment as the lily does.
Like the Lily of the Valley
In her honesty and worth,
Ah, she blooms in truth and virtue
In the quiet nooks of earth.
In this stanza, Dunbar employs some epithets to describe the lily. Here, it seems that the lily is a lady whom the poet adorns in this poem. However, according to the poet, the “Lily of the Valley” is honest and worthy. Moreover, she blooms in truth and virtue in the quiet nooks of earth. Here, the poet compares the flower to an unsung hero of society. The lily symbolizes those selfless hearts who don’t lose their truth and virtue even if nobody is ready to show such qualities. The poet commends those truthful souls whose lays linger unheard in the “quiet nooks of earth.”
Tho’ she stands erect in honor
When the heart of mankind bleeds,
Still she hides her own deserving
In the beauty of her deeds.
Readers are aware of the fact that the lilies are used in funerals. Here, in this stanza, the poet presents an image of a funeral of a person who has died unnaturally, for the cruelty of men. At such hard times, when the “heart of mankind bleeds” the lily stands erect in honor of that person. Readers can imagine a few lilies kept by a grave. It seems that the poet refers to that image. Whatsoever, the poet says even if her heart is burdened with the loss, she doesn’t show it. She hides her pains in the beauty of her deeds like a person who has devoted her life for the sake of humanity.
In the silence of the darkness
Where no eye may see and know,
There her footsteps shod with mercy,
And fleet kindness come and go.
Thereafter, in the fifth stanza of ‘The Lily of the Valley’, Dunbar refers to the “silence of the darkness.” It is a metaphor for the cruelty of men. At times, people become silent for the darkness of humanity. Then no eye can comprehend the light of hope. They don’t even believe that there is hope left on this earth. During those trying times, the lily blooms. She blooms as a symbol of mercy and kindness like Jesus Christ. In the silence and darkness, a lily raises her head and comes into being for spreading the message of kindness and compassion. In the last line, the poet refers to the transience of a lily’s life.
Not amid the sounds of plaudits,
Nor before the garish day,
Does she shed her soul’s sweet perfume,
Does she take her gentle way.
The sixth stanza contains an echo of the last line of the previous stanza. Here, the poet compares the lily to the unsung heroes again. According to him, the lily doesn’t leave this earth amid the “sounds of plaudits”. Here, “plaudits” means praise. Moreover, the flower doesn’t even die on a “garish day”. The phrase, “garish day” can be a reference to the showy side of society. It means that the funeral of those people like the lilies doesn’t grandly leave their mortal burden. Those who deserve it the most, get the less. Whatsoever, the lily sheds her soul’s sweet perfume unknowingly. She takes her gentle way not seen by anyone. She leaves as she comes. And she doesn’t wish for more.
But alike her ideal flower,
With its honey–laden breath,
Still her heart blooms forth its beauty
In the valley shades of death.
In the last stanza of ‘The Lily of the Valley’, the poet talks about the “honey-laden breath” of the lily. The sweetness in its fragrance is so soothing that the poet seems to be in love with it. Hence, he refers to it again in the last stanza. However, the poet says that it doesn’t matter how worse the situation is. The lily’s heart blooms forth its beauty and sweetness even in the “valley shades of death.” Here, the poet uses the shade of the valley as a symbol of death. The absence of light is a depiction of death. And, in the shadow, there always rises a flower called lily!
‘The Lily of the Valley’ was published in 1913 in the book titled “The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar“. Through this poem, Dunbar provides the reasons for liking the lily the most. However, after reading the poem, it becomes clear that the poet not only talks about lily singularly. He emphasizes the significance of moral virtues such as purity, honor, selflessness, courage, and charity. Hence, the poet uses the lily as a symbol. Apart from that, there is a reason behind writing this poem in a manner that not only welcomes romantic elements but also welcomes historical and cultural themes. The poem was published a year before the first world war. Apart from that, through this poem, the poet tried to spread the message of peace. Moreover, he also tried to keep the spirit of humanity alive.
Here is a list of poems that are similar to the themes present in this lyric by Dunbar, one of the best African-American poets.
- The Lily by William Blake – This poem presents a contrast between the rose and the lily. It’s one of the best poems of Blake.
- When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d by Walt Whitman – It’s one of the best poems by Whitman. This poem highlights mortality through the symbol of the lilies.
- O Were My Love Yon Lilac Fair by Robert Burns – Here, the poet compares his love to a Lilac flower and a red rose consecutively.
- The Rose That Blushes Rosy Red by Christina Rossetti – Here, in one of the best Christina Rossetti poems, the poet presents a comparison between a rose and a lily.
You can read about 9 of the Most Beautiful Poems About Flowers and 12 Beautiful Spring Poems here.