The Debt by Paul Laurence Dunbar is about how small mistakes that we make without thinking much can have great impacts. And this poem is an expression of regret for doing that mistake.
The way Dunbar expresses his feeling in the poem tells us that it is more than just a creation of his poetic mind, but more of sharing something that he has gone through.
Let’s take a look at the poem and then at the simplification and meaning of the poem. We shall also look at the event that inspired Dunbar.
The Debt by Paul Laurence Dunbar
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!
The suffering I take for the mistake of just one day Years of regret and grief no respite and no relief I have to suffer till the end until the day I die Only then I will be released from the sorrow and get the much-needed peace My mistake was slight Small will be the consequences I thought It was just a small thing But the amount of grief is unbearable.
Meaning of the Poem
After reading the simplification of the poem, it is not hard to completely understand what Dunbar is trying to convey with this poem.
“The Debt” by Laurence Dunbar is more of a personal tale than a general philosophy about the consequences of a mistake.
The poem is about the devastating consequences of the seemingly small mistakes that people do and does not expect the effects of it to last so long.
In Dunbar’s case, the debt’s effect shall last his entire life. It is a beautifully written poem with perhaps the perfect metaphor. Let’s dive deeper into the analysis.
Understand the Reference
Before we look at the analysis of the poem, it is important to know about the possible reason why Dunbar wrote this poem. It was written in 1902.
As readers can see, something sad must have happened in his life that made him write these verses and express his anguish. Yes, something did happen that year that changed his life.
In 1902, Dunbar and his wife separated which took a heavy toll on his life and mind. He found comfort in alcohol and soon it took over his life. Perhaps it was the loneliness or the lack of love in his life that destroyed his peace.
But merely four years later, Dunbar died. This is the reason why he wrote the poem“The Debt” and one can feel the pain and regret dripping from the lines.
Now let’s take a look at the analysis of the poem, stanza by stanza for a deeper understanding.
Analysis of the Poem
The first stanza tells us slightly about the event that caused this pain and distress in Dunbar’s life.
This is the debt I pay
Just for one riotous day,
Years of regret and grief,
Sorrow without relief.
He says that it was just one riotous day that led to all the pain, grief, and regret. He did something in one passionate moment without thinking about the consequences.
The cracks of a falling relationship are often turned into a rift with one swift blow. Perhaps one day Dunbar and his wife just couldn’t stop but end their relationship.
Pay it I will to the end —
Until the grave, my friend,
Gives me a true release —
Gives me the clasp of peace.
Now when the consequences start to show up, the realization settles in. The speaker realizes how much debt he will have to pay for that one small mistake; he will pay the debt till the end of his life.
The weight of the grief is so much that only death can take it away. One can only imagine what the speaker must be going through.
Slight was the thing I bought,
Small was the debt I thought,
Poor was the loan at best —
God! but the interest!
The last stanza of the poem is one of the most tragically beautiful lines written. The way Dunbar uses these terms to express something so abstract is wonderful. It perfectly sums up when small things have big and negative consequences.
Even though all the things that happened were not of much importance, they led to something that the speaker cannot bear. The interest was much higher than the loan. In the end, the speaker had to pay for it with his own life.
Dunbar died young. Probably, this poem was not written with the separation from his wife as the subject. But that does not mean he did not suffer.
The Essence of the Poem
While the poem’s roots dig deep into Dunbar’s tragedy, the relatability of the poem does not diminish a bit. The subject of the poem is universal; tragedy from small events.
Many times people have suffered a lot from the consequences of very small and insignificant things. Minor events lead to major suffering.
Anyone can think of a few things that happened in the past and they are still paying the debt for it. The “interest” on that small “loan” was too high.
This relatability of the poem connects it to the readers. You find something so similar in the message and the sense of empathy and sympathy kicks in.
Also, read We Wear the Mask by Paul Lawrence Dunbar: Analysis and Meaning