"The Debt"

Discover the haunting depths of regret in Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Debt," and explore enduring emotional consequences with our insightful analysis.

"The Debt"
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Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) emerged as one of the first prominent Black poets in American literature. Despite ambitions for a legal career, financial constraints led him to work as an elevator operator, which afforded him time to write. He soon gained international acclaim for his dialect poetry in collections like "Majors and Minors" and "Lyrics of Lowly Life."
People read and interpret Dunbar's poem, "The Debt" in wildly different ways. Some think it's commentary on unfair economic circumstances. Some take it literally: that Dunbar is accepting responsibility for the lasting consequences of one riotous day. Our favorite interpretation is that Dunbar is reflecting on his choice to become a poet. "Pay it I will to the end" he promises. The final line, "God! but the interest!" suggests the debt is greater than he anticipated when he accepted his calling.
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.
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Slight was the thing I bought, Small was the debt I thought, Poor was the loan at best — God! but the interest!

Story From

Paul Laurence Dunbar Collection