The Haunted Oak
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 a 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.
Paul Laurence Dunbar
I have been informed that it is not too early to start running Halloween-type poems.
Here is a poem in traditional ballad form: it tells a story, arranged in quatrains, with the second and fourth lines rhyming, and with a 4-3-4-3 beat to the lines, giving the form a galloping propulsion. Ballads, like other forms with origins in oral culture, use repetition, and so does our author ("so bare, so bare"). There is also some striking alliteration; for instance, in the first quatrain, bough in the second line picks up the b of so bare, so bare; o sounds start old and oak with subtly varied music; the third line has through and throw; and in the last line shudder picks up the preceding line's shade. The language is clear but also formal and slightly archaic: I trow, 'tis, bedight (meaning ornamented or arrayed), stay (in the last stanza, in the sense of suspend or postpone, a sense usually associated with the legal system, which is important for this poem, as we shall see).
The subject here is also in line with the ballad tradition: the unjustified murder of an innocent man, and the supernatural results. An eerie atmosphere is skillfully evoked with a few swift (even classic) details: the moonlight is dim and weird, the dog howls all night, the wind wails as if in pain. The lines in the fourth quatrain about the howling dog and the wailing night wind are particularly effective: we've come to a dramatic turning point – we've found out that the man, who has already been described as a "guiltless victim," has been falsely charged with a crime and jailed – and suddenly the forward rush of the narrative is paused by foreboding lines that emphasize an uncanny atmosphere. The delay increases a sense of ominous dramatic tension (which is necessary to this poem since we've already been told the basic story right away, in the second quatrain; we continue on to see how the details unfold). To add to the slightly surreal, unsettled tone, the entire ballad, apart from the first quatrain, is narrated by the oak tree itself.
But something is going on here besides a stylistic exercise in re-creating an ancient English ballad. This is an American poem – more to the point, an African-American poem. Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in Ohio to former slaves, lived from 1872 to 1906 (when he died of tuberculosis). In other words, he lived during the period when post-Civil War attempts to integrate the former slaves into American society under its foundational assertion that all men are created equal were being steadily suppressed, through terrorism and official collusion, by a white-supremacist system that threw most of the newly freed African-Americans back into poverty and servitude. Given the worsening conditions for black Americans during his lifetime, his poetry is inescapably political; even a poem like this, with its successful appropriation of traditional form and language, becomes an assertion of racial equality: we can do this too, this too is ours.
But even more specifically and pointedly, what we have here is a poem about lynching. This is clear just from the narrative: an innocent man is taken out of jail by a mob and then hanged. But there are other details that reinforce the association with post-Reconstructionist terror against African-Americans. Quatrain six begins, "Who is it rides by night, by night"; the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups were frequently referred to as "night riders" since they of course usually conducted raids at night. They were also disguised, as are the killers in this poem. This lynch mob includes the judge, the doctor, the minister and his oldest son – in other words, those community members with the greatest education and the most legal and moral authority – the very ones who should be protecting the innocent and defending enlightened values, not undermining them themselves. It is the judge, the representative of the law, who is singled out at the ballad's end: he knows he has killed a man he should have protected, thereby undercutting the legal system he represents. Hence his "mortal fear" (mortal in the sense of fatal, terminal, but also with the implication of human: the memory of the victim's face will haunt the men who denied their shared humanity with him): the legal system is haunted by the ghosts of those it should have protected but destroyed instead, and its adherents fear their coming retribution.
I took this from Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by John Hollander for the Everyman's Library Pocket Poetry series.