Paul Laurence Dunbar

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In the poem "The Haunted Oak," the poet uses descriptions that appeal to the senses of sight, hearing, and touch. Give three examples of such descriptions used (one for each of the senses). How do these descriptions make you feel? Support your answer with references from the poem.

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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 felt the agony of the "guiltless man" as he died, and now it is forever barren and haunted.

This poem has numerous examples of the sensory details of sight, hearing, and touch. Most of them are from the perspective of the oak tree. For instance, there is the image of the oak tree itself. In its innocence before the crime is committed, it is "green as the best," and sap runs freely in its veins. However, after the heinous murder committed on its bough, it is "bare, so bare" and "dried and dead."

The oak mentions what it hears several times in its story. It questions why the dog howls throughout the night and "why does the night wind wail?" These sounds seem to be lamentations of mourning. It hears the dying man's sigh and his "gurgling moan."

As far as touch is concerned, the oak remembers the rope sliding against its bark, the weight of the man as he is hanging, and "the throe of his final woe," which refers to the involuntary trembling of the man just as he is dying.

We can see, then, that the poet makes frequent use of vivid sensory details as the oak tells its terrible tale. Knowing the story behind the poem and after rereading the sensory descriptions, give your own impressions of how these details make you feel.

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This poem abounds with appeals to the five senses, all of which contribute to the dark and foreboding mood of the poem.

Lines 3 and 4 of the first stanza read: "And why, when I go through the shade you throw, / Runs a shudder over me?" This appeals to the sense of touch, as a shudder is a very distinct physical sensation connoted with a feeling of chill and disturbance. From the onset, the speaker of the poem uses touch to instill a sense of cold, dark dread in the reader.

In lines 3 and 4 of the fourth stanza, the speaker asks "Oh, why does the dog howl all night long, / And why does the night wind wail?" Both the "howl" of the dog and the "wail" of the wind invoke the reader's sense of hearing. Both terms are loud, mournful, prolonged sounds that contribute to the poem's portrayal of this night as one of immense and timeless suffering. There are also the cruel and intensifying sounds of the "beat of hoofs" in stanza 5 and how "they beat at the prison door" in stanza 7. Calling special attention to these sounds instills the reader with a feeling of mounting panic and dread, much like what the man in the prison cell must have felt.

Finally, throughout the poem there are images of a tree branch that appeal to the reader's sense of sight. The branch from which the poor man hung is described as "so bare, so bare" in line 1 of the first stanza and a "haunted bough" in line 3 of the last stanza. Stanza 14 is dedicated entirely to the image of the branch:

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.
The tree branch stands as a ghostly monument for the rest of time, marking the cruel death of an innocent person. The branch will always be bare, its life stripped away, just as life was taken from the subject of the poem.
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Although it is never mentioned in the poem, this poem is thought to have been about the hanging of a black man.  The story was told to Dunbar by an old Negro who nephew had been falsely accused of rape.  This was in Alabama.  The mob hanged him from a tree, and the tree withered and died. The people in the area, therefore, called it the Haunted Oak.   The poem is written from the point of view of the tree. 

The author appeals to senses. For sight, he says,

"But I saw in the moonlight dim and weird/A guiltless victim's pains." (Stanza two)

The tree could visualize the fact that the man was terrified.  He didn't want to be hung.  The reader can see the man resisting.

For hearing, the poem reads,

"I bent me down to hear his sigh; I shook with his gurgling moan" (Stanza three)

The man knew it was inevitable.  He was going to be hanged.  It is said that when a man is hanged, he gurgles at the end.  This sound gives the reader a feeling of horror, it is something you don't want to hear.

Another sound is

"Oh why does the dog howl all night long,/ And why does the night wind wail?" (Stanza four)

These are natural references about crying.  It gives the reader a feeling of sorrow and of injustice.

Finally, for the sense of touch,

"I feel the rope against my bark/And the weight of him in my grain/ I feel the throe of his final woe/ The touch of my own last pain." (Stanza 13)

It is as if the oak died with him. The tree feels his weight against him, his final kicks, his death and identifies with it to the point that the tree died also.  The reader feels the empathy the tree has for the man.


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