The First Important Black Poet

Paul Laurance Dunbar 

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African-American poet to garner national critical acclaim. Born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, Dunbar penned a large body of dialect poems, standard English poems, essays, novels and short stories before he died at the age of 33. His work often addressed the difficulties encountered by members of his race and the efforts of African-Americans to achieve equality in America. He was praised both by the prominent literary critics of his time and his literary contemporaries.

I mention him because he wrote this, a favorite of mine (not that I know that many poems, but still, it is) and appropriate for Halloween, I think. I found it years ago when I used to go to libraries on a regular basis and it must have been around Hallowe’en time then too.

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 say in the moonlight dim and weird
A guiltless victim’s pains.
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.

There is a website dedicated to Mr. Dunbar called dunbarsite. org funnily enough. http://www.dunbarsite.org/biopld.asp with all things Dunbar. There are even recordings of someone reading his works! A lot of them! When I have a chance I’ll check them out, I only know The Haunted Oak.

I found the poem at a website called poetryfoundation. org, also funnily enough,
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=173459 where they have many spooky poems featured.

“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.” – Plato

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