While ‘The Quilting’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is brief, it is an enjoyable bite-sized poem that touches on the themes of love and everyday life.
Using contrast and metaphor, this poem illustrates the distance that the speaker feels between him and Dolly, the object of his affection. Additionally, this poem is an excellent example of American realism, a school of poetry that included Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. Realist poems used plain language, sometimes slipping into dialect, to cast interesting perspectives on everyday life.
The Quilting Paul Laurence DunbarDOLLY sits a—quilting by her mother, stitch by stich,Gracious, how my pulses throb, how my fingers itch,While I note her dainty waist and her slender hand,As she matches this and that, she stitches strand by strand.And I long to tell her Life’s a quilt and I’m a patch;Love will do the stitching if she’ll only be my match.
Explore The Quilting
‘The Quilting’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is a lyric poem that reveals the speaker’s desire for a woman named Dolly as she sews a quilt.
The unspecified speaker opens the poem with his beloved’s name, Dolly. This girl sits by her mother as she sews together fabric scraps to make a quilt.
As the speaker looks at Dolly, his affections manifest physically. His heart throbs and his “fingers itch” as he longs for her. Just the sight of her waist and hand as she quilts is enough to make the speaker sweat.
Despite the speaker’s feelings, Dolly keeps sewing, matching various scraps up to make her quilt. The speaker internally expresses his wish to tell Dolly that he wants to be her patch, allowing love to stitch him and her together.
However, within this verse, at least, the speaker never speaks up for himself. He is left looking admiringly at Dolly, too afraid to say anything aloud.
Form and Structure
‘The Quilting’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is written in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, with seven feet per line. The rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables in this poem helps to create the verbal imagery of Dolly weaving her needle up and down through her fabric.
This up-and-down pattern also appears in the caesuras that fall in the middle of each line. For example, let’s look at “Gracious, how my pulses throb, how my fingers itch,” where the caesura is at the comma in “throb, how.” This ‘weaving of words’ creates a “match” for each half of each line.
However, with the pause introduced by the caesura, there seems to be a noticeable distance between each phrase. These polarizing yet complimentary devices bring to light that there is something keeping the speaker and Dolly apart.
Still, by using rhyming couplets, the speaker stresses the idea that he and Dolly would make a great couple.
The most dominant themes in ‘The Quilting’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar are unrequited love, desire, companionship, and sewing.
As the speaker longs for the attention of the delicate woman Dolly, he compares his wish for her companionship to the process of quilting. However, in this wish, it becomes apparent that something is keeping the speaker and Dolly apart. This barrier is likely the girl’s mother.
Despite her inattention to the speaker, he wishes that she would see him as her match, just as she creates pairs of fabric scraps as she quilts.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, who lived between 1872 and 1906, was one of the earliest black poets in America to achieve popular acclaim during his lifetime. He is often attributed with opening the door for future generations of black poets, especially since Dunbar’s poems often chronicled the daily lives of black Americans.
‘The Quilting,’ then, is a poem that reveals a reality for black Americans. However, with the themes of love and sewing, this depiction of the poet’s experiences is very mundane.
Thus, by depicting the everyday lives of black Americans as ordinary, Dunbar helped to highlight the things that humanity, regardless of race, has in common.
Because of this emphasis on universal values, emotions, and ideals, Dunbar found a huge audience during his lifetime. People of all classes and races read his work, and he was even celebrated enough to read his poetry at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. He met Queen Victoria and was a guest at Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration. By all means, he was one of the most prominent poets of his time.
DOLLY sits a—quilting by her mother, stitch by stich,
Gracious, how my pulses throb, how my fingers itch
The speaker opens ‘The Quilting’ with a name, Dolly. In doing so, it becomes clear that this poem is all about her.
This Dolly character is “a—quilting.” This semi-slang phrase is very characteristic of Dunbar, who often used dialects in his poetry. This usage of dialect and plain language was a characteristic of the realism movement to which Dunbar belongs.
In line one, the use of the phrase “stitch by stitch” sets up a dichotomy of pairs. Dolly sits by her mother, making a pair. As we will see throughout this poem, everything occurs in twos. This idea fits all of the themes very well, as quilting requires matching pieces of fabric, and the speaker himself longs for a match in Dolly.
The speaker’s affections, rather interestingly, manifest in internal emotions and physical sensations. This use of sensations is a bit reminiscent of older lyric devices often used when describing longing. Most famously, one can find them in Sappho’s ‘He Is More Than a Hero,’ which may have been Dunbar’s inspiration for this poem.
While I note her dainty waist and her slender hand,
As she matches this and that, she stitches strand by strand.
In the second couplet of ‘The Quilting,’ the speaker makes it clear that he is watching Dolly from a distance as she sews. This distance, void of verbal communication or interaction, illustrates that there truly is something coming between Dolly and the speaker.
This speaker notes Dolly’s physical appearance, glancing at her “dainty waist and slender hand.” This depiction of Dolly contrasts with the speaker’s throbbing pulse and itchy fingers. Unlike the speaker, Dolly is elegant, and she also has her hands full with her needle, thread, and fabric.
Dolly seems to have the power in this situation. She “matches” her fabric scraps up, sewing them together “strand by strand.” As such, it seems that Dolly could make a match with the speaker if only she chose him.
And I long to tell her Life’s a quilt and I’m a patch;
Love will do the stitching if she’ll only be my match.
In lines five through six of ‘The Quilting,’ the speaker gives the listener a clear explanation of the main metaphor of the poem. The quilt that Dolly sews is a symbol of life, and each patch is a person.
Though the speaker longs to talk to Dolly about his affection for her, he instead simply pines away and wishes she could understand how he feels. He wants her to understand that he wants to be the patch right next to her on the quilt and allow the thread of love to bind them together.
However, either due to fear or some other limitation, the speaker cannot talk. All he can do is watch her as she decides where each patch will go.
This idea depicts the speaker as a sort of subservient man who must remain inactive and silent. The person who can determine his fate, however, is Dolly, who, just by choosing him, could fulfill all of his wishes.
The tone in ‘The Quilting’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar is desperate, helpless, and longing, as the speaker hopes that the object of his affections, Dolly, will choose him as a partner. Despite the speaker’s anticipation and attraction to her, she is busy with her work and seems to not even notice him.
The quilt in ‘The Quilting’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar symbolizes life, where each patch is a person. The speaker uses this symbol to express how he wants love to sew him right next to the woman he loves, Dolly. However, the speaker seems to be helpless, forcing him to rely on Dolly’s decision.
Paul Laurence Dunbar published ‘The Quilting’ as part of his collection of poetry, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, in 1905, just one year before he died of tuberculosis. Although his life was cut short, Dunbar was a prolific poet in his lifetime and was immensely successful.
‘The Quilting’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar depicts everyday life for black Americans by telling a typical story of a man pining for a woman named Dolly. While it features the practice of quiltmaking, which was common for women’s work during the period, it also touches on the universal experience of love and the power of women to choose their partners.
Paul Laurence Dunbar is a character and poet well worth learning about. As one of the first black poets to reach national acclaim in America, he paved the way for many Black Americans to profess in writing, literature, and scholarship. However, his work is not without critique.
Some critics are skeptical about how Dunbar may have contributed to stereotyping and racism in America. Needless to say, it is best to study Dunbar and form one’s own opinions about his work.
Some other celebrated poems by Dunbar include:
- ‘The Poet’ – a poem that depicts how the poet saw himself and the elements of his work that gained popularity during his lifetime.
- ‘Beyond the Years’ – a poem in which the speaker describes what one will and will not experience after death.
- ‘To a Captious Critic’ – a poem in which Dunbar expresses his dislike for critics.