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What Debt Did You Owe? Dunbar’s “The Debt”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)When I read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Debt,” not one of his most anthologized works, I hear an echo of a poem I learned from my father from a far less noted writer, Jessie Rittenhouse. That brief lyric, “My Wage,” goes like this:

I bargained with Life for a penny,
And Life would pay no more,
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store;

For Life is a just employer,
He gives you what you ask,
But once you have set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.

I worked for a menial’s hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of Life,
Life would have paid.

Take a look now at “The Debt.”
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.

Pay it I will to the end —
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release —
Gives me the clasp of peace.

Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best —
God! but the interest!
Both works involve some melancholy at the end. Both of them involve a voice looking back onto life with apparent regret. The regret in Rittenhouse’s work is obvious. One could argue that the regret in Dunbar is more ambivalent, that this character had been cheated and forced into debt by the same people who would force him to wear “The Mask” or who cage the bird in “Sympathy.” Such a turn strikes me as forced. Not every poem by a writer of color has to be a poem about race.
In both of these poems, twelve lines introduce us to someone who gives scant specificity about the origin of their problem. Does Rittenhouse mean a literal wage? Did she not request a high enough salary? That seems unlikely, since I have yet to receive a paycheck from life. Does Dunbar refer to an actual, financial debt, or is this, as I think the case in “My Wage,” a metaphor for something else?
What debt does Dunbar reference? It was incurred in the space of a single day, a “riotous” day. How much of a debt can a person rack up in a single day? Even the diamond necklace, which turns out not to be a diamond necklace, in du Maupassant’s “The Necklace” required only ten years to repay, yet this speaker suggests that the debt will be repaid only at death. Since he does not know when death will come, we can only assume that he is not privy to some amortization schedule. This debt will stand unfinished upon his death, but he will be released from it.
This debt was incurred in a day and cannot be repaid, we can assume. And for what bauble did the speaker lay down his 1900 equivalent of a Visa card? The thing was small. That’s all we learn. The loan was small but the interest profound.
Is Dunbar here decrying Robber Baron bankers charging usurious interest? I don’t think so. The idea of sin as a debt, an unpayable debt, is hardly unknown in Christianity. In Colossians 2, we read this:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. 15 And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
A Christian reading of Dunbar’s poem, then, emerges more easily than one from Rittenhouse’s poem, even though my father first encountered the latter in a church bulletin. To reference both Matthew 6 and the Rollings Stones, God does not give whatever we want, but He does give what we need.

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