The Haunted Oak
By Paul Laurence Dunbar
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.
About the poem
In the first stanza of the poem “The Haunted Oak” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, an unnamed narrator asks the oak why it has a bare and frightening appearance. The rest of the poem is the answer, told from the viewpoint of the oak tree. It explains that it was once alive, full of sap, and covered with green leaves. However, the event that brought on its curse was a lynching. An innocent man was hung from one of its boughs. A group of men, including a judge, a doctor, and a minister, came to the jail where the man was being kept. Pretending to be his friends, they persuaded the jailer to give him into their care for supposed protection. Instead of helping him, though, they brought him to the oak tree and hanged him from it. The oak tree is traumatized; it experienced the agony of the “guiltless man” as he died, and now it is forever changed.
About the author
Paul Laurence Dunbar was born on 27 June 1872. His parents were freed slaves from Kentucky. Dunbar became one of the first influential black poets in American literature, and was lauded for his work in collections such as Majors and Minors (1895) and Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). In addition to dialectic poems, Dunbar produced novels, short stories, essays, and poems in standard English. Dunbar’s literature is considered a representation of life for black people in turn-of-the-century America. As James Weldon Johnson eloquently stated in the preface to his Book of American Poetry: “Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form.”
Dunbar grew up in Dayton, Ohio, where he lived with his widowed mother. The only African American in his high school class, he became class president and class poet. By 1889, two years before he graduated, he had already published poems in the Dayton Herald and worked as editor of the Dayton Tattler, a newspaper for black readers.
Throughout his adult life, Dunbar struggled with health problems. His health continually declined and by the winter of 1905 he was fatally ill. He died on 9 February 1906, at age 33. In the years immediately following his death, Dunbar’s standing as America’s foremost black poet seemed assured, and his dialect poems were prized as supreme achievements in African-American literature. His reputation was impugned at times by scholars questioning the validity of his characterizations, and his unwillingness to sustain an anti-racist stance. He is once again regarded as America’s first great black poet.