Poem #31: The Haunted Oak by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Estimated Reading Time:  5.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleThe Haunted Oak

Paul Laurence Dunbar

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


Pray why are you so bare, so bare,
   Oh, bough of the old oak-tree;
And why, when I go through the shade you throw,
   Runs a shudder over me?

My leaves were green as the best, I trow,
   And sap ran free in my veins,
But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird
   A guiltless victim's pains.

I bent me down to hear his sigh;
   I shook with his gurgling moan,
And I trembled sore when they rode away,
   And left him here alone.

They'd charged him with the old, old crime,
   And set him fast in jail:
Oh, why does the dog howl all night long,
   And why does the night wind wail?

He prayed his prayer and he swore his oath,
   And he raised his hand to the sky;
But the beat of hoofs smote on his ear,
   And the steady tread drew nigh.

Who is it rides by night, by night,
   Over the moonlit road?
And what is the spur that keeps the pace,
   What is the galling goad?

And now they beat at the prison door,
   "Ho, keeper, do not stay!
We are friends of him whom you hold within,
   And we fain would take him away

"From those who ride fast on our heels
   With mind to do him wrong;
They have no care for his innocence,
   And the rope they bear is long."

They have fooled the jailer with lying words,
   They have fooled the man with lies;
The bolts unbar, the locks are drawn,
   And the great door open flies.

Now they have taken him from the jail,
   And hard and fast they ride,
And the leader laughs low down in his throat,
   As they halt my trunk beside.

Oh, the judge, he wore a mask of black,
   And the doctor one of white,
And the minister, with his oldest son,
   Was curiously bedight.

Oh, foolish man, why weep you now?
   'Tis but a little space,
And the time will come when these shall dread
   The mem'ry of your face.

I feel the rope against my bark,
   And the weight of him in my grain,
I feel in the throe of his final woe
   The touch of my own last pain.

And never more shall leaves come forth
   On the bough that bears the ban;
I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,
   From the curse of a guiltless man.

And ever the judge rides by, rides by,
   And goes to hunt the deer,
And ever another rides his soul
   In the guise of a mortal fear.

And ever the man he rides me hard,
   And never a night stays he;
For I feel his curse as a haunted bough,
   On the trunk of a haunted tree.


Each time I read this poem, I'm left with the idea that we are all haunted oaks by the process of reading this poem.  Like his contemporaries, Dunbar (Frances Watkins Harper comes to mind), Dunbar used poetry to draw attention to and make readers feel the weight of lynching in their bones.  One interesting element of this poem is the point of view and how it works as an impartial observer who is also inevitably harmed by the lynching. Dunbar points to the fact that even those who watch are, willingly or otherwise, are hurt by this process.  The branch and the tree itself are left "haunted" by witnessing this heinous crime. In this way, I believe Dunbar is reaching out to readers to help them to understand that there are no bystanders here; none who witness the violence can be free from it. 

And he seems to go a bit further to say that harm will also befall the perpetrators (And the time will come when these shall dread/The mem'ry of your face). I read this line in three ways.  The first is that they will go to hell and be haunted by their memories for eternity.  The second is that the lynched man is a shade or ghost who will haunt them.  The third, and this is the most interesting to consider, is that these men are haunted by their own acts and memories.  This idea is fascinating for what it might imply that the perpetrators themselves will also be haunted by their actions--they though they think they know what they are doing, they are in fact inducing trauma unto themselves that they will only understand later.  

The line that sticks with me is "I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead,/From the curse of a guiltless man." The alliteration of the last d in dread, dried, and dead, coupled with the nature of those words and being "burned with" them just hits the reader with the full weight of the poem's intention.

One other thing that sticks out to me in this poem that took me a few times to understand--the points of view. The point of view shifts from a speaker in the first stanza to the tree in the second.  It made sense once I realized it but there were no other cues.  It seems simple and obvious in hindsight but this is also what I mean about poetry being challenging and part of why I have chosen to do this as I can easily get lost in poems.  This call and response is pretty common and I've seen it in a few poems already but it is usually more clearly invoked but just slips in here.

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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