Peter Revell: On "The Haunted Oak"

Perhaps the subtlest poem in its use of literary device, and the nearest to a poem of protest and outrage, is the comparatively late "The Haunted Oak." Dunbar again employs a traditional form borrowed from English literature. The simple stanzas, sparse rhyming, and stark and baleful language of the Border ballad, which frequently involves the description of primitive and cruel acts of murder, are well adapted to the contemporary

theme of lynching. The violent action of the Border ballad is also frequently motivated by the spell or the curse of evil influences. In Dunbar's poem the device of the tree's lamenting its unwilling part in the lynching and of the withering of the bough which had borne the victim is exactly in character with the traditional mode of the ballad.

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.

According to Edward F. Arnold, Dunbar wrote the poem quickly after hearing the story from an old ex-slave who lived in the "Camp" on the grounds of Howard University. There can be no question that the choice of the Border ballad form, with its tone of terror and curse, was a brilliant stratagem on Dunbar's part as a means of rendering the story with the utmost power. Again, Jean Wagner asserts that Dunbar does not protest enough, but the poem works by other means than overt protest. Its invocation of supernatural powers and its tone of lamentation, rather than protest, produce an effect that stays in the mind of the reader far more potently and lastingly than a specific note of protest would be likely to do. Furthermore, Dunbar does identify the guilty parties in the lynching, the local judge, doctor, and pastor:

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.

As Jean Wagner concedes, "At the time, this required a certain courage."

From Paul Laurence Dunbar. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall & Co.

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Criticism Overview
Title Peter Revell: On "The Haunted Oak" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Peter Revell Criticism Target Paul Laurence Dunbar
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 18 Aug 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Paul Laurence Dunbar
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