The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Questions on Paul Laurence Dunbar


  1. What was Paul Laurence Dunbar's background? For what kind of poetry was he best known in his day? Where did he grow up and what was his occupation? At what age did he die and from what causes?
  2. What are the poem's rhyme scheme and metrics? What metaphors are used and how do they develop from stanza to stanza?
  3. What is the effect of the refrain? Why is the poem called "Sympathy"? What by implication may cause the poet to identify with a caged bird?
  4. How does the poem develop, and what is the mood of the last stanza?
  5. What would have been some of the associations of the use of the figure of the bird? What effect is created by the indirect presentation of the subject?

"The Haunted Oak"

  1. What is the subject of this poem? Why the emphasis on the haunting of the oak tree?
  2. What is the poem's stanza form? How is this appropriate to its subject?
  3. What is the effect of the use of initial questions? What is the effect of choosing the tree as the poem's narrator?
  4. What are some dramatic features of the setting? What event is central to the poem? Who is responsible for the murder?
  5. What finally happens to the tale's participants, including the tree? What seems the continuing aftermath of this event?
  6. Do you think this poem presents its topic well?

"An Ante-Bellum Sermon"

  1. Read the poem aloud and decide on its stanza form, meter, and rhyme scheme. Are these appropriate for its subject?
  2. What is the significance of the fact that the sermon is "ante-bellum"? What are features of the sepaker's language and rhetoric? What are the major points of his evocation of the story of Moses?
  3. Are there elements of mild humor? Does the speaker state all his intentions directly? What do you think is the poem's intended effect?
  4. How does the reader's knowledge of more recent history affect the interpretation of the speaker's veiled prophecies?

"Not They Who Soar"

  1. What are the poem's metrics and stanza form? How do these reinforce its meaning?
  2. How are the stanzas different? How does the poem use metaphors to make its point?
  3. Is the poem's message especially relevant to the lives of African-Americans during this period?

"We Wear the Mask"

  1. What does it mean to "wear the mask"? What are the consequences and effects of a masked life?
  2. How are the form and sequence of the stanzas used to reinforce the poem's meaning?
  3. What is the form of the ending?
  4. If one didn't know the race of the author or the setting in which this poem was written, how might one interpret this poem?

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